It was a tough year for NASCAR in 1993. First, NASCAR Hall of Famer Alan Kulwicki was killed in a plane crash. Three months later, Davey Allison, another NASCAR driver, was killed in a helicopter crash. While the motorsports world was stunned by the two shocking deaths, it was Kulwicki’s passing that continued a long line of family tragedies.
Alan Kulwicki’s Hall-of-Fame career
Alan Kulwicki began his legendary racing career on local short tracks in his home state of Wisconsin. He worked his way up to the NASCAR circuit. With very little money and no sponsors, Kulwicki managed to win NASCAR Rookie of the Year in 1986.
In 1988, Kulwicki earned his first NASCAR win, claiming the Checker 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. The victory saw the birth of Kulwicki’s famous Polish victory lap. During the celebratory lap, Kulwicki drove his car in the opposite direction on the track in order to make it easier to wave to the fans from the driver’s side.
Kulwicki captured the 1992 Winston Cup Series Championship. He finished his NASCAR Cup Series career with five victories. He ended with a whopping 75 top-10 finishes. His career came to a shocking ending when he was killed in a plane crash on April 1, 1993. He was named one of NASCAR’s top 50 drivers in 1998, according to NASCAR.com. He was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2019.
Kulwicki’s younger days were marred by family tragedy
Alan Kulwicki was very independent during his NASCAR days. He was a guy who felt he needed to be in control and that played a key role in his racing success. In a 1992 interview with the New York Times, a few months before his death, he explained that those traits likely were a result of his childhood.
“It probably goes way back in my childhood somewhere,” Kulwicki said. “My real mother died when I was in second grade.” Kulwicki’s father, Jerry, who built racecar engines, moved the family to live with Alan’s grandmother. When Alan was in seventh grade, she died, too. One year after that, his brother died.
“My dad was gone racing a lot of the time, so I had to learn how to do things for myself,” Kulwicki said. “So I just became that much more determined to do them.” Kulwicki said he wasn’t sure if those three family deaths somehow turned him into the racer he became. “I don’t know if I’ve ever figured out psychologically why everything has happened,” he said, “but maybe that’s how I got into racing. Maybe there were less areas to get it elsewhere in my life because I didn’t have as much family. And I got that credit and recognition from achieving on the race track. That’s not the way you would choose to grow up. But in the end, that probably all made me a little bit tougher.”
Kulwicki dies tragically in a 1993 plane crash
On April 1, 1993, Alan Kulwicki was returning from an appearance at Knoxville Hooters, his sponsor. He was flying in a Hooters corporate plane three days before his next race in Bristol. The plane crashed, killing Kulwicki and three others, as it made its way to the final approach at Tri-Cities Regional Airport.
Three days after Kulwicki’s death, Bristol race winner Rusty Wallace honored Kulwicki. Wallace followed Kulwicki’s footsteps by doing his patented Polish victory lap around the track. Kulwicki was 38 years old.
According to The News & Record, it was ice and poor pilot judgment that caused the plane to crash. Pieces of ice were sucked into the engines and both engines flamed out and shut off. The National Transportation Safety Board said the likely cause of the crash was the pilot’s failure to follow procedures for the use of the anti-icing and de-icing systems for the engines.