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Caraviello: Even with title, Stewart wouldn't match Kulwicki's feat

November 17, 2011, David Caraviello,

Despite little manpower, money, driver/owner won Cup title against all odds in '92

Sometimes, they stayed all night. There was precious little manpower and even less money, so there were always parts to be refurbished or cars to repair. For a team at a disadvantage to its competitors in every quantifiable way possible, there was always more work to be done than there were hours in the day. So they would simply bunk down in the modest workout room of their small shop, and grab a few hours of sleep near the vehicles that would be right there waiting for them when they woke up.

That was the way it was done on Alan Kulwicki's team in 1992, the last time a driver/owner won the championship on NASCAR's premier series. That was the way it had to be done. They had all of 11 employees, counting the receptionist in the office by the front door. They had all of $1.5 million in sponsorship funds, thanks in large part to primary backer Hooters. They had a boss who was relentless in his quest to both win races and save money, a demanding balance that ran some people off. They built their own engines, because at the time there was no other choice. They had guys who would install motors, hang bodies, and work on the pit crew all in the same week. They raced against other teams that had double the cash and personnel, but through tireless work and force of will they claimed the title at season's end.

A happy Alan Kulwicki hoists the championship trophy. (Racing One/Getty)

"There was a lot of people that came through that shop and left. But there was a core group of us that stayed together for a very long time, and the work paid off. I'd never change anything."


"I don't think you'll ever be able to top the '92 championship. Just because, if you look at the scale of money and what we did it on, $1.5 million, there were guys with $5 million sponsorships," said Tony Gibson, who was Kulwicki's car chief, and is now crew chief to Ryan Newman at Stewart-Haas Racing. "To me, no disrespect, but it would be like Tommy Baldwin winning the championship over some of these guys. Dude, we had 11 guys working full-time. Eleven, and that was counting the cats in the motor room. Man, there's just no comparison. I was talking the other day about how fantastic it would be for another owner/driver to win it, and what that would be like, but man -- there's no comparison, because we did so much with less. It's not even the same scale."

Gibson would know. His current boss, Tony Stewart, sits three points behind Carl Edwards heading into Sunday's Sprint Cup finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Stewart could become the first driver/owner to claim NASCAR's biggest championship since Kulwicki did it nearly two decades ago. But the record book is the only place where those two accomplishments would be relatable, given that Stewart's team has over 150 employees, operates out of a 140,000-square-foot shop, and receives engines, chassis and technical assistance from Hendrick Motorsports, which has won 10 titles at the sport's highest level.

Kulwicki did it all on his own, with a much smaller operation, and won the closest championship race in series history -- his margin after the finale at Atlanta was just 10 points -- against rivals like Junior Johnson, Robert Yates and Richard Childress who had him more than covered in terms of resources. A cost-conscious Wisconsin native who held a degree in mechanical engineering, he didn't let anything go to waste. Rather than replace bent wheel rims, he had his crewmen straighten out the old ones. Rather than build road-course cars, he had his team cut the upper control arm plates off short-track cars and take them road racing. When they got back to their small shop behind Charlotte Motor Speedway, they'd chop up the vehicles and turn them back into short-track cars again.

"It's just all we knew," said Paul Andrews, who was Kulwicki's crew chief. "We were very efficient. That was probably our biggest thing. We were very efficient, so we could get things done, do them one time. No mistakes."

Between then and now, there is no comparison. A program like Stewart's has 14 to 16 cars being prepared on the shop floor. Kulwicki had maybe six vehicles for the whole season. Even at the time, it was a statistical mismatch, given that Kulwicki was racing for a championship against Bill Elliott's Johnson-owned team, which had 25 people behind it. Amazingly, Kulwicki's team even built its own engines, because back then procuring them from another organization was an invitation to put garbage under the hood. He originally farmed out the job to an engineering outfit in Illinois -- even that was just a three-man operation -- but eventually he bought them out and moved them in-house. The only thing he outsourced were chassis, because nobody built their own. The only engineer on staff was Kulwicki himself.

"We didn't plot things out on a computer, we plotted things out on the floor or on the walls. That was just what you did then," Andrews said. "It wasn't uncommon. Just a small, small operation. Alan had an office that was right next to the secretary's, which was right next to the front door. I'll bet Tony's office isn't right there."

It was such a small operation that when they left to go to the race track, only one crew member stayed behind in the shop -- a stark difference from today, when premier teams have separate road and shop crews. The sponsor came through with more than just money for the car. "If it hadn't been for Hooters, we'd have been in trouble, because they fed us like hell," Gibson remembered. With so few people, the work was unceasing, and the hours piled up. The winter was especially difficult, Andrews recalled, as the team tried to get built up for the coming season. Sometimes they would work until 1 a.m., realize they had to be back at 7, and rather than go home just crash in the workout room upstairs.

"We had to work harder, because we didn't have the money," Gibson said. "Everybody worked hard. We just had to work a little bit harder with less. But I think that was part of the drive that Alan instilled in everybody -- we can do this with less, and we're going to do this with less. If you don't want to be here, you need to go. There was a lot of people that came through that shop and left. But there was a core group of us that stayed together for a very long time, and the work paid off. I'd never change anything. There were days I wanted to kill him, don't get me wrong. But we believed in what he was doing and the direction he was going, and we bit into it. It'll never be done again at that level, with that much of a difference between teams."

One time, Gibson remembers, Kulwicki wrecked at Richmond. The team loaded the No. 7 car into the transporter and went straight to the shop, where they stripped the vehicle. It was taken over to Hutcherson-Pagan, a race car repair facility, while crewmen readied new parts to bolt on. The same car was going to Rockingham the next weekend. From Saturday night after the Richmond wreck until they departed for North Carolina Speedway on Thursday, many crewmen never left. They slept in the shop. Sometimes, that was what it took. Somehow, they won five races over a miraculous five-year run that concluded with Kulwicki's championship in 1992.

'No holding back'

Relive the championship battle between Davey Allison, Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki in this clip from SPEED's new documentary.

"We were such a low-budget team compared to what we were running against, it wasn't even funny," Gibson said. "That's one of the things that I'll always respect and cherish out of that deal is, what we did with less. Less people, less money. ... He spent the money on the right things. That's one of the things that I respect the most out of Alan. A lot of people didn't believe he could do it doing it that way. Yet what he accomplished was fricking phenomenal."

It was always about doing more with less. Veteran public relations manager Tom Roberts worked with Kulwicki, and remembers that the driver's Rookie of the Year campaign in 1986 consisted of a single race car, two engines and a $200,000 sponsorship from Quincy's -- and of that, Kulwicki had to pay a $20,000 finder's fee to the man who helped him close the deal. Trying to get as much bang for his publicity buck, Kulwicki's team had "No. 1" foam fingers made up featuring the logo of sponsor Zerex, with the intention of throwing them into the crowd after their next victory. But that next win didn't come as fast as they had hoped, and somebody thought the foam fingers were bad luck, so they were donated to the driver's fan club. Kulwicki tried again with Frisbees, but the team went through another dry period, and over time they stopped bringing them to the track.

They were small-time efforts for a program that would eventually achieve very big things. Roberts remembers spotting for Kulwicki, up on Monument Hill at Phoenix -- the track didn't have a spotter's stand at the time -- where in 1988 the No. 7 car recorded its breakthrough first win and the driver unveiled what would become his trademark backward victory lap. "It was an amazing group," remembered Roberts, who now works with Kurt Busch, a driver who honored Kulwicki with his own backward victory lap after a victory at Phoenix in 2005. "Seeing how he was able to achieve his goals was absolutely incredible."

They were underdogs, and they knew it, and they completely embraced the role. With approval from Ford, Kulwicki changed the Thunderbird logo on his race car to "Underbird." They had so many supporters within the garage area, that Davey Allison's sister even managed the fan club. The team adopted Mighty Mouse as its mascot, and Kulwicki wore patches of the animated character on his firesuits. At the championship banquet after the season, the winning team handed out Mighty Mouse lapel pins, something they had scoured New York to find. "It was a finishing touch," Roberts remembered.

The championship changed everything for Kulwicki, who attracted interest from Johnson's team, not to mention fan and media attention that he was so unused to, he was reticent to leave his hauler at Daytona the next year. But he never had the chance to build on his title -- returning from an appearance prior to the 1993 spring race at Bristol, the Hooters corporate plane carrying Kulwicki and three others iced over and crashed near Tri-Cities Regional Airport. His race team was eventually sold to Geoffrey Bodine, but Kulwicki's legacy remained. For years afterward, whenever owner/driver Ricky Rudd would win a race on NASCAR's top circuit, Roberts would make sure to call him or send him a note. Those who had been with Kulwicki understood what kind of an undertaking it was.

Rudd, though, never won a championship. Now it's Stewart's turn. Although the driver himself was only 19 at the time of Kulwicki's title run, those who were there have helped him understand the significance. "It would be really cool, especially since we have guys on our team that were a part of that championship with Alan," Stewart said. "You realize the significance of it because of their involvement in it, and what it meant to them."

Even so, times have changed. Stewart's operation, with its Hendrick assistance and its wealth of money and manpower, is in no way comparable to what Kulwicki had in 1992. These days owners communicate with one another about pay scales and team rosters, and the numbers rarely vary much from one organization to another. At the sport's elite level, most everyone has sponsorship money. There's no real disparity between programs to the degree there was two decades ago, when Alan Kulwicki somehow won NASCAR's most unlikely championship with less than half of what most of his competitors had. Even now, those who were part of it shake their heads at the memory.

Kulwicki's Career Statistics

Cup Series
YearRacesWinsT5T10RankAvg. St.Avg. Fin
198623 0142122.215.8
198729 0391514.118.2
198829 1791410.119.2
198929 059147.318.9
199029 1513811.914.6
199129 1411136.817.0
1992*29 21117110.610.6
19935 0234115.815.0

"You look back now," Gibson said, "and you think -- how in the hell did we do that?"

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.