The King, Kulwicki compelling decades later

It seems strangely incongruous yet also fitting that seven-time Sprint Cup champion Richard Petty and the 1992 champion, Alan Kulwicki, would be honored in the same week. Odd because they represent such different approaches, but fitting because each Thursday, Apr 09 1385
It seems strangely incongruous yet also fitting that seven-time Sprint Cup champion Richard Petty and the 1992 champion, Alan Kulwicki, would be honored in the same week. Odd because they represent such different approaches, but fitting because each continues to symbolize stock car racing.

Petty received a tribute this week from his home state of North Carolina, which christened March 31 as "Richard Petty Day." Wisconsin's Kulwicki was honored by individual journalists on the anniversary of his fatal plane crash as writers continue to find his story compelling 22 years later.

These accolades arrived during the week of Easter, a day when all NASCAR tracks fall silent, a respite that allows time for the long view.

Petty was notable as a champion because he won the title so many times. But his nickname derived from his description as "King Richard the Hemi-Hearted" following his success in NASCAR's crown jewel, the Daytona 500 which he also won seven times. While his seven championships may be equaled or surpassed, it's unlikely any driver will win seven or more Daytona 500s.

Kulwicki is known for a solitary title, one he would be unable to defend. His abruptly curtailed career meant he never won the Daytona 500. His five career victories rank as the fewest of any champion in the modern era. The only thing even close to being a nickname was "Underdog" a play on the fact his Fords were known as "Underbirds."

Petty was born with the equivalent of a silver accelerator under his foot when it came to stock car racing. His father Lee was a three-time champion and the winner of the first Daytona 500. After a nearly fatal crash, Lee turned the team owner to his sons Richard and Maurice, who built Petty Enterprises into a second generation powerhouse along with crew chief and cousin Dale Inman.

Kulwicki's father was a successful race engine builder. But after his mother and brother both died when Alan was still a boy, his father Gerald declined to support the racing aspirations of his sole surviving family member. Kulwicki the younger then decided to earn an engineering degree from a branch of the University Wisconsin while racing on short tracks in his home state, where events were held almost every night of the week. He eventually made his way to what was then known as the Winston Cup on talent, pluck and determination and by relying on his own team.

Kulwicki's first racing shop was so ill-equipped he had to drive down the street to a service station to keep air in his race car's tires. When he arrived at the Cup after his apprenticeship in the American Speed Association, he kept a meager stable of a few race cars and called one of them "Sirloiner" because it was so reliably tough. His lack of resources didn't prevent him from turning down an offer to drive for Junior Johnson, who said Kulwicki's decision was "the biggest mistake of his career."

The King is perhaps best known for winning 200 races. Kulwicki is best known for a race in which he finished second to Johnson's driver Bill Elliott in Atlanta. It was the day Kulwicki clinched his title in the season finale by leading the most laps, enough to beat a chagrinned Johnson and his team by 10 points. That particular Atlanta race -- not incidentally the final race of Petty's career and the first for Jeff Gordon -- still ranks as the greatest NASCAR race of all time in the eyes of many.
Petty always kept a high profile and enjoyed his role as The King, the nickname generated by the "Hemi-Hearted" story of Atlanta writer Bill Robinson. Petty played his role with generosity and grace and carried the sport of stock car racing from a subculture to the major leagues. He did it not only by his success and popularity, but also by demonstrating how the engagement of fans and the media could help the sport grow. He always had time for an interview and signed his distinctive autograph hundreds of thousands of times.

Kulwicki once told this writer, "You don't want to talk to me."

It was his way of finding out how serious a writer was before giving up some of the time he needed to spend on preparing his team for races. Though he kept a lower profile, Kulwicki was generous in his own way, too. He patiently shared a tragically sad personal history with many different writers because it had shaped who he was and every writer wanted to do his own version of the story. His father's refusal to help him go racing out of fear for his safety never prevented Kulwicki from calling him after his Cup races.

Where Petty's repeated success symbolized the power and majesty of a sports dynasty, Kulwicki's lone championship had a similar power for different reasons.

When he came back from one of the biggest points deficits in Cup history to win the title, carrying "U-N-D-E-R-B-I-R-D" stamped on the front bumper of his Ford, he demonstrated a lone driver could still get behind the wheel of a car of his own construction and win it all.

He restored the myth that had driven stock car racing since the dawn of the automobile and the first time engine jockeys vied against one another in fendered street cars. Self-reliance, grit, guts and individual talent could still defeat all comers just like in the days of Lee Petty. In a crucible of sports combat unlike any other,

Kulwicki personified a modern dream of American individualism.

Currently, the men behind the wheel still symbolize that individualism.

The outcome of fiercely contested races each Sunday still rests largely in the hands of each driver. The myth remains as powerful as ever. But behind every winning car there are now at least 200 crew members. And nobody builds or engineers his own car anymore.

Even as Kulwicki lifted the hefty Winston Cup over his head on that cold and gray Atlanta day following a Polish victory lap, perhaps there was already a sense the scene could never be repeated. Hence the joy. It would be asking too much for a lone driver to once again beat the multi-car teams of Junior Johnson, Richard Childress, Robert Yates, Jack Roush and Rick Hendrick with a handful of crew members and volunteers.

As it turned out, Kulwicki did not live long enough to defend his title. But at a time of year when resurrection is the theme, his story continues to be fresh and real.

And despite the ever-fleeting passage of time, isn't it grand to see The King and his team at the races as the tapestry of that deep and bountiful dynasty continues to unfold.