The weather that Friday in Bristol, Tennessee was – sadly – appropriate for the day.
Across the high Appalachians, snow was blowing. In the valley near the Tennessee-Virginia state line, the temperature hovered around freezing, and ominous clouds blanketed the Bristol speedway.
Many of those attempting to start a workday at the track had not slept the night before. Slowly, word of great tragedy had worked its way through the NASCAR landscape. A plane had crashed on a hillside near Bristol, killing defending NASCAR champion Alan Kulwicki and three business associates.
The next day – April 2, 1993, teammates, competitors and fans gathered at the track for a solemn ceremony. Truck driver Peter Gellen drove Kulwicki’s transporter in a memorial lap around the speedway before exiting the track and returning to Kulwicki’s Charlotte-area shop.
There would be no racing for the Cup Series’ championship team that weekend.
Twenty years have passed since that dark weekend, and people in the sport still talk about the loss of Kulwicki and what might have been. He was an unlikely champion the season before, taking a bare-bones operation with 15 employees to the sport’s highest rung.
A skilled driver with an engineering degree and background, he had traveled south from Wisconsin and had succeeded beyond the wildest dreams he might have brought with him.
He drove Ford Thunderbirds and emphasized his underdog status by removing the “Th” from the car name on his racers. They were “underbirds”.
He arrived in prime NASCAR country in 1985 and drove a few races for other teams. Not happy with the results, he pieced together an old car, a little sponsor money and, with the help of two full-time crewmen, won the 1986 Cup Rookie of the Year award.
Along the way, Kulwicki had offers to drive for leading teams, including one of the kingpins of the time, Junior Johnson, but he stubbornly stayed on his own road.
“When I first came here, I just wanted to drive for somebody else,” Kulwicki said as he chased the championship in November 1992. “I did it this way out of necessity. Eventually, I got offers to drive for other people, but by the time I got other offers I had so much invested in this team. I didn’t want to give up on it.”
The big payoff came that season as he came from behind to outrun Bill Elliott and Davey Allison for the championship, accomplishing something many thought an owner-driver with a small team couldn’t reach.
Then, four months later, in the gloom of a stormy Tennessee night, he was gone.
His legacy is of the little guy succeeding against the odds.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.