The Underbird on Glory Road
by Tom Jensen October 07, 2020
Alan Kulwicki’s last win car part of “Dale Jr.: Glory Road Champions” exhibit at NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Nearly three decades after it happened, Hall of Famer Alan Kulwicki’s (2019) 1992 championship season remains one of NASCAR’s ultimate David and Goliath stories.
Kulwicki’s AK Racing team were such unlikely title contenders that by year-end, he took the “Th” off the front of his Thunderbird’s bumper to create the “Underbird.” And to further drive the point home, all of Kulwicki’s uniforms carried the image of the tiny cartoon character Might Mouse.
At a time when bigger, better-funded NASCAR teams had 100 employees or more, Kulwicki’s undermanned squad employed just 14 full-timers, Kulwicki and the team’s receptionist included.
And that makes the 1992 season all that much more remarkable.
At Dover Downs International Speedway (now Dover International Speedway) in late September of that year, Kulwicki had a disastrous weekend, crashing his primary car in practice and his backup car in the race. Although he qualified on the pole, Kulwicki finished 34thin a 36-car field, dropping him to fourth in the premier series standings.
Kulwicki left Dover 278 points behind Hall of Famer Bill Elliott (2015), then the points leader. But in the five races after Dover, Kulwicki strung together consistent strong finishes, while Elliott stumbled on several occasions. As the series headed into the final race of the season, the Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Davey Allison (2019) led Kulwicki by 30 points and Elliott by 40.
Points leader Allison got taken out in a crash at Atlanta, while Elliott went on to win. Although Elliott scored the victory at Atlanta, Kulwicki took the ’92 championship because he finished second in the field in the race and actually led one more lap than Elliott. By leading the most laps, Kulwicki picked up 5 bonus points, which gave him the margin he needed to edge out Elliott for the ’92 NASCAR championship.
Thus, Kulwicki became the first true owner/driver to win the premier series championship since Rex White (2015) in 1960 and the first to come from behind and win the title in the final race of the year since Richard Petty (2010) in 1979. Kulwicki also became the first series champion with a college degree.
Because Kulwicki’s AK Racing team ran on a shoestring budget, they didn’t have an armada of cars like some of the larger teams did. Crashing two cars at Dover seriously depleted the team’s car count.
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. agreed to be the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s guest curator for its Glory Road exhibit, he was emphatic that one of Kulwicki’s cars be displayed in what ultimately came to be called “Dale Jr.: Glory Road Champions.” And to the extent possible, Earnhardt wanted the cars to be genuine race cars, not show cars.
Given how few of Kulwicki’s cars there were to begin with and fewer still that survived, finding a legit example of one his race cars was a daunting task for the Hall of Fame Curatorial Department.
After much scrambling, we were able to secure Kulwicki’s last win car, a Hooters-sponsored 1992 Ford Thunderbird that won the Champion Spark Plug 500 at Pocono International Raceway (now Pocono Raceway) on June 14, 1992.
In that race, Kulwicki passed Elliott on Lap 190 of 200, holding on the rest of the way to win over Mark Martin (2017) and Elliott. Winning the race allowed Kulwicki to collect the $74,255 payout, good money for a small team.
“We’re a little bit of an underdog right now,” Kulwicki said after his Pocono triumph. “But our team’s coming along real good and the guys on the crew are doing a good job. This car’s been finishing week after week and … the crew really deserves the credit for that.
We’re a little bit of an underdog right now, but our team’s coming along real good.
— Alan Kulwicki
Kulwicki’s Pocono-winning car was generously loaned to the Hall of Fame by John Safro, a Wisconsin resident who actually used the No. 7 to participate in a number of vintage races.
Safro loaned the car for Kulwicki’s Hall of Honor exhibit in 2019 and agreed to let the car be shown on Glory Road for three years. We thank him for his friendship and commitment to preserving and displaying the history and heritage of the sport.
When the car was put in the Hall of Honor, several members of the AK Racing 1992 championship were there to see it installed, and they autographed the inside of the trunk for Safro.
Curator’s note: The “Dale Jr.: Glory Road Champions” exhibit features 18 NASCAR race cars, all representing past premier series champions. Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty (2010) and Jimmie Johnson, the sport’s seven-time champions, have two cars each in the exhibit. Collectively, the drivers represented on Glory Road have won 46 of the 71 premier series championships through the end of 2019, or roughly 65 percent of the series championships since 1949.
Seven different decades are represented in the exhibit, as are seven different manufacturers: Hudson, Ford, Oldsmobile, Buick, Chevrolet, Pontiac and Plymouth.