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|04/08/16||Manning/Earnhardt Jr. combination a crowd pleaser at Bristol|
Kulwicki's plane goes down; a day I'll never forget
By LORI WORLEY
When yesterday, April 1, rolled around, it hit me. It's been nearly 20 years since Alan Kulwicki’s death. It simply doesn’t seem possible that it’s been that long since that tragic night in 1993 when Kulwicki and three others lost their lives in an airplane crash on the way to Bristol for the Food City 500.
That night, a Thursday, was one of the saddest I’ve ever experienced in racing (See ESPN's Tribute Video).
At that time, I was the motorsports writer for the Bristol Herald Courier and on that particular evening I happened to be in the newsroom, listening to the police scanner. Around 9 p.m. it came across the scanner that there had been an airplane crash in Blountville, near the airport and a driver was believed to have been on board.
My heart nearly stopped. Earlier in the day I had spoken with Dale Earnhardt for a story I was working on and knew he was scheduled to land around 9 p.m., and my first thought was that it was him. Soon though, came word that the letters “AK” were part of the plane’s call numbers and I knew, just as everyone else in the newsroom that night did, that it was Kulwicki’s plane.
I headed for the airport to try to find out how bad the incident was and if there were survivors. Turns out due to the lateness of the hour that I was the only media person there, but plenty of other folks were on hand, frantically trying to find out if Kulwicki had survived.
As long as I live I’ll never forget the sight of Paul Andrews, Kulwicki’s crew chief at the time, coming into the waiting area at the airport. He was beside himself with emotion, crying on and off as it became increasingly apparent that Kulwicki hadn’t survived the crash. He and Kulwicki had teamed up to win the 1992 Cup championship and they were very close friends.
My heart just broke for him as he tried to grasp the fact that his friend had perished in the crash. To this day, I can still see him sitting on that couch, his head in his hands, huge tears dropping from his face, a look of utter confusion and hopelessness about him.
I also remember Rusty Wallace coming into the room, demanding to talk to the police officers in charge. Wallace and Kulwicki were very good friends and Wallace, like Andrews, was in disbelief that his buddy could be gone.
For hours we waited. And finally, around 5 in the morning, the police gathered everyone in a tiny conference room and confirmed what we already knew – Kulwicki had not survived the crash. I remember that there was nothing but silence after that announcement. Nobody said a word, no questions were asked, and everybody just stumbled out of the room, heads hanging as they tried to deal with the reality of what had happened.
I didn’t sleep a wink that night. I went home, took a shower and went straight to the track. A press conference was taking place at 8:30 that morning in the old press box in Turn 1. It was a gray, rainy day and not a soul in attendance wanted to be there. I sat and listened to the prepared statement about Kulwicki’s death but couldn’t tell you a word that was said. I, like most people there, was in a daze.
At one point, I looked up and through the press box window I could see Kulwicki’s Hooter’s transporter slowly making a lap around the track in the cold drizzle. I can still see it very vividly – headlights on, crawling at a snail’s pace. It made its way down the backstretch and finally disappeared through the pit gate in Turn 3.
It was one of the most surreal moments I’ve ever experienced; and also one of the most heart wrenching.
NASCAR lost a great champion that Thursday evening, nearly 20 years ago. The hard-working Kulwicki, a two-time Bristol winner, was only 38, and before Tony Stewart won the 2011 championship, was the last driver/owner to capture the title.
I often wonder how the landscape of NASCAR might have looked for the rest of that decade in particular had Kulwicki lived. He was a talented, exceptionally intelligent driver and I can’t help but feel there would have been more victories and likely another championship or two.
“Special K”, as he was often called, was indeed an exceptional driver and individual, and his impact on NASCAR profound. We can only wonder what might have been…