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Curator's Corner / Historic Moments

Kulwicki Got It Turned Around In Phoenix

Winning for the first time was huge for Alan Kulwicki, but what happened afterwards made national headlines.

NASCAR returns to the Sonoran Desert this weekend, as both the NASCAR Cup Series and the Xfinity Series will do battle at Phoenix Raceway.

For the Cup Series, this will be the 56th event at the 1.0-mile track. To this day, race fans still talk about NASCAR’s first visit to Phoenix Raceway way back in 1988, when Wisconsin racer Alan Kulwicki (Class of 2019) scored his first career victory in his 85th start.

After winning his first race, Alan Kulwicki drove the wrong way around the track to salute the fans who jammed Phoenix Raceway. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

That race was especially significant because it was the first time NASCAR had ventured to the Valley of the Sun with its top racing series since 1960, when it ran on the old Arizona State Fairgrounds dirt track.

Phoenix had been a great racing town ever since native son Jimmy Bryan's heyday 30 years earlier. But in the late 1980s, Phoenix was an open-wheel town built around names like Foyt, Andretti and Unser, not around guys like Dale Earnhardt (Class of 2010) and Rusty Wallace (Class of 2013), let alone the relatively unknown Alan Kulwicki.

Although Phoenix opened in 1964, it had last hosted a major stock-car race in 1968, when the United States Auto Club ran there. “NASCAR made it a big deal, because it was one of the first forays into the open-wheel market,” says former Team Penske president Don Miller of the Phoenix race. “The open-wheel stuff had been there for years and years and years, and to bring a stock-car group in there it was almost like sacrilege.”

When the NASCAR squad arrived out west, Kulwicki was impatient to get his first race victory. Four races prior to the Phoenix event, Kulwicki had a chance to win his first premier series race at Martinsville Speedway, only to see victory snatched away by a bad pit stop that dropped him off the lead lap. Kulwicki recovered enough to finish second, but it wasn’t the win he wanted.

On his 85th try, Alan Kulwicki (car No. 7) finally won for the first time in NASCAR’s top division. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

And so Kulwicki redoubled the team's efforts for Phoenix. Always one of the smartest minds in the garage, Kulwicki figured that most of the competitors would be flat worn-out by the time the circuit hit Phoenix for the 28th and penultimate race of the 1988 season. And that would give him an excellent chance of winning.

Those were lean times. When the team set off for Phoenix, it was in Kulwicki's old open trailer from his short-track days in the American Speed Association, not one of the lavish 54-foot haulers that are the norm today.

He only had enough money to bring half a dozen people west with him, so he relied on his team to dig up some crew guys to pitch in for the weekend. In those days many crews were a loose fraternity of helpers and friends of friends who asked for and received little or nothing other than the chance to work on a big-league stock car.

As for the volunteer help, “He'd put them up in a motel. He'd pay you $50, if that,” former Kulwicki crewmen Peter Jellen said. “Alan's philosophy was, ‘If you're good enough to work on my car, that was your pay.’ That was how we got paid (for going) over the wall. We never got paid all this extra crazy money these (pit crew) guys are getting (today). If you were good enough in your heart, if you were a true racer, and you were good enough that Alan wanted you to stay on his team, then that was your pay. Because if you weren't good enough, he'd find someone else.”

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He'd put them up in a motel. He'd pay you $50, if that.

— Peter Jellen

“There were a lot of people there on a one-race deal,” said Crew Chief Paul Andrews. “That’s when you still had to do things like that. People would just volunteer help and just show up for the West Coast races. Stuff like that sticks out in your mind.”

Emotions in Victory Lane at Phoenix Raceway were high for Alan Kulwicki. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

Once they got to Phoenix, Kulwicki qualified 21st, which meant he would start dead in the middle of the pack.

When the race began, Tom Roberts, Kulwicki’s spotter and public relations rep, realized that the spotter's stand under the press box on the front stretch was useless, so he ran to the tall hill east of the track overlooking Turns 3 and 4 and spent the race spotting from among the race fans and Saguaro cacti.

It was there that Roberts first received word that the engine in leader Ricky Rudd's car was failing late in the race. “I told him just to ease it by,” Roberts recalled telling Kulwicki on the radio. And Kulwicki did exactly that. Rudd had led 183 laps in his Kenny Bernstein-owned Buick, and Kulwicki led just 41. But Kulwicki led the only lap that paid the money, the 312th and final circuit. His margin of victory was an astonishing 18.5 seconds ahead of four future Hall of Famers: Terry Labonte (Class of 2016), Davey Allison (Class of 2019), Bill Elliott (Class of 2015) and Rusty Wallace (Class of 2013). The win was worth $54,100, in those days a small fortune, especially for a small team like Kulwicki’s.

Just four years after his first Cup Series victory, Alan Kulwicki would become the NASCAR Cup Series champion. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

Kulwicki had had more than enough time to plan how he was going to celebrate his first victory. Months earlier, his friend and mentor H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, then general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway, had told him that when he finally wins his first race to do something original and make his mark.

And that mark would forever come to be known as the Polish Victory Lap. Cars race counterclockwise, but Kulwicki went slowly around Phoenix Raceway in a clockwise direction, so the fans could see his face and he could see their faces in the grandstands. It was a stroke of sheer genius.

“He (Kulwicki) told me months before that he was going to do this,” Roberts said. “He was scared to death that NASCAR was going to really come down on him, maybe even take the victory away from him.”

“He had wanted to do something special and something different for his first win and only his first,” Andrews said. “That's why he didn't do it the next time he had won. When it came time to do it, he was worried that he might be in trouble with NASCAR. But he decided to take the chance and go ahead and do it, and everybody loved it. It was really cool.”

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He had wanted to do something special and something different for his first win and only his first.

— Paul Andrews

Indeed it was. Kulwicki's Polish Victory Lap made headlines from coast to coast, and it ensured that even though the race itself wasn't exactly riveting, the event was a huge success.

Wisconsin racer Alan Kulwicki was posthumously inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame of Fame with the Class of 2019. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

Kulwicki was understandably enthusiastic in Victory Lane. “It's been a long road and it's taken a lot of hard work to get here,” he told Grand National Scene after the race. “But this has made it all worthwhile. When you work for something so hard for so long, you wonder if it's going to be worth all the anticipation. Believe me, it certainly was.

“And what do you think of my Polish victory lap? There will never be another first win and you know, everybody sprays champagne or stands up on the car. I wanted to do something different for the fans.”

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Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen

Tom is the Curatorial Affairs Manager at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. For more than 25 years, he has been part of the NASCAR media industry.