Remembering Alan Kulwicki and the first Polish Victory Lap

The late Alan Kulwicki was nothing if not methodical.

Kulwicki, a college-educated engineer from Wisconsin, began racing in what is now known as the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit in 1985.

Unlike today’s huge NASCAR operations, the frugal Kulwicki had a modest shop near Charlotte Motor Speedway, maybe a dozen full-time employees, and he lived on a shoestring budget in a one-bedroom apartment.

For three long years, Kulwicki dreamed what it would be like to finally win a race in NASCAR’s top division.

And he also dreamed what he’d do when he actually won one.

In fact, Kulwicki sought out the advice of legendary promoter H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, then the president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway. Wheeler challenged Kulwicki to be daring and different and do something out of the ordinary when he finally won a race.

And as fate would have it, Kulwicki did just that.

On Nov. 6, 1988, Kulwicki was running second to Ricky Rudd in the Checker 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, the track that will host this weekend’s NASCAR tripleheader. Rudd led 183 of 312 laps but then the engine in his car failed, handing the lead to Kulwicki, who claimed his first Sprint Cup victory in his 85th career start. Kulwicki won $54,100 and won by 18.5 seconds, an eternity by today’s standards.

And then, in the first NASCAR Premier Series race ever run at PIR, Kulwicki did something that had never been done before.

He drove his No. 7 Ford Thunderbird in the opposite direction that the cars raced, so he could look into the stands and see the cheering fans, who are especially enthusiastic in Phoenix. Kulwicki’s move became known as the "Polish Victory Lap" and it instantly made him a legend with race fans.

"He told me months before that he was going to do this," said Tom Roberts, then Kulwicki’s spotter. "He was scared to death that NASCAR was going to really come down on him, maybe even take the victory away from him."

In reality, NASCAR loved it. Kulwicki’s bold move drew national headlines and helped focus attention on the sport.

"There will never be another first win and you know, everybody sprays champagne or stands up on the car," said Kulwicki after the victory. "I wanted to do something different for the fans."

That he did.

"When you work for something so hard for so long, you wonder if it’s going to be worth all of the anticipation," Kulwicki said after winning in Phoenix. "Believe me, it certainly was."