By the 1988 season, Alan Kulwicki's Zerex Ford Thunderbird was a threatto win every race.
Like the burning embers of a campfire rising into the evening sky,Phoenix International Raceway will shine brightly when the NASCAR NextelCup Series competes in the first-ever night race at the famed desertoval on Saturday, April 23.
The Subway Fresh 500 will take the greenflag at 7:55 p.m. Eastern Time and will be the 18th Nextel Cup race heldat the track. It will be the first of two Nextel Cup races at the trackthis year and the only one to be run at night.
The historic event isjust the latest chapter in PIR's history, one that dates back toFebruary 1964 when the facility opened with Davey McDonald winning onthe track's road course. A.J. Foyt proved to be the winner of thetrack's first oval track event, a 100-mile Indy Car race later thatyear.
The stock car crowd didn't make it on to the new Phoenix racingsurface until January 1968 when Don White captured a 250-mile event onthe road course. It took 20 years for NASCAR's Cup division to returnthe desert oval raceway with the running of the Checker 500 in 1988.Long a hot bed of racing, NASCAR's top division had competed at the oldArizona State Fairgrounds track in the 1950s with top stars Buck Baker,Marshall Teague and Tim Flock all winning on the one-mile oval there.
The 1988 PIR event proved to be historic not only for the return ofNASCAR to the Southwest, but also marked the first career NASCAR Cupvictory for Alan Kulwicki.
Kulwicki, a mechanical engineer, apprenticedfor his Cup career on the Wisconsin short tracks and the American SpeedAssociation before running his first Cup event at Richmond, Virginia, inthe fall of 1985.
Kulwicki competed in 5 of 28 Cup events in 1985 andcollected $10,290 for his efforts. His season-best finish--13th--came atCharlotte (now Lowe's) Motor Speedway in the Miller High Life 500.
Alan Kulwicki salutes the crowd after winning his first-ever NASCARWinston Cup event - the
In1986, Kulwicki gained notoriety for racing hard with significantly lessfunding than most of his competitors. Acting as both team owner anddriver, Kulwicki made it through the season with using basically onecar--the No. 35 Quincy's Steakhouse Ford Thunderbird dubbed "OldSirloin"--and a couple of engines. For his efforts, Kulwicki was namedRookie of the Year in the Cup division.
With more funding in 1987,Kulwicki began to make waves on the Cup tour by winning three poles,including the top spot for both Richmond races. He finished arespectable 15th in the season championship chase and earned $369,889 inprize money.
The 1988 season proved to be Kulwicki's breakthrough year.Driving his own No. 7 Zerex-sponsored Ford Thunderbird, dubbed the"Underbird," Kulwicki scored six Top-5 finishes heading into theinaugural Phoenix Cup event. It seemed like just a matter of time beforethe driven Greenfield, Wisconsin, native would break into the wincolumn.
In qualifying for the 1988 Checker 500, Geoff Bodine proved tobe the class of the field by winning the pole position in his No. 5 LeviGarrett-sponsored Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet with a lap 123.203miles per hour.
On race day, a crowd estimated at 60,000 looked on asBodine, Kulwicki and 41 other drivers began competing for the first-everCup checkered flag at Phoenix. Kulwicki, who started 21st, was a distantsecond to race leader Ricky Rudd late in the event. Rudd, who dominatedthe race by leading a whopping 183 laps, saw the win slip away when theengine expired in his Kenny Bernstein-owned Buick. That gave Kulwicki,who led a total of 41 laps in the race, the top spot with just 12 lapsremaining.
At the finish, it was Kulwicki by a wide margin--18.5 secondsover Terry Labonte, Davey Allison, Bill Elliott and Rusty Wallace. Theevent was slowed six times for cautions, totaling 52 of the 312 laps.Kulwicki's margin of victory is still the largest in the history of theCup division at Phoenix. Ironically, his winning average speed of 90.457miles per hour is still the slowest in the history of the division atthe track.
Slow or fast, Kulwicki didn't care. After years of trying,the independent driver had won his first Cup race. He celebrated byinitiating the "Polish Victory Lap" in which he circled the track in theopposite direction, window net down, while saluting the fans in theceremonial ritual he would become famous for.
Eventually, Kulwicki wonfive Cup races in his short career. His life ended tragically, though,when his private plane crashed en route to the spring race at Bristol,Tennessee, on April 1, 1993.
Few drivers have ever displayed the intensity of Alan Kulwicki. Amechanical engineer, Kulw
In all, Kulwicki competed in 207 Cup eventsand finished in the Top-5 38 times and the Top-10 on 75 occasions.Always a good qualifier, Kulwicki scored 24 poles in his career, six ofthem in his 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup championship-winning season.
SinceKulwicki's win in the inaugural Cup race at Phoenix in 1988, 13 otherdrivers have visited Victory Lane at Phoenix. Included in that group areDavey Allison, Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd, Elliott, DaleEarnhardt, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, BobbyHamilton, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Earnhardt, Jr. etched hisname into the record books last fall when he won the Checker Auto Parts500 at Phoenix International Raceway for the second-straight season. Thetwo victories put Earnhardt, Jr. in the same company as Allison(1991-1992) and Burton (2000-2001) as the only drivers to winback-to-back Cup races at Phoenix.
Earnhardt Jr. started last year'sPhoenix Cup clash from the 14th position and led 118 of the 312circuits. He secured the victory when he roared by Jeff Gordon and intothe lead for good with 11 laps remaining.
Earnhardt collected $274,503for his winning effort, more than two-thirds the $368,630 total pursethat was up for grabs in the first Cup race at Phoenix in 1988. Arace-record 11 cautions slowed the 2004 event for 63 of the 315 lapswith Earnhardt's average winning speed a leisurely 94.848 miles perhour.
Can Earnhardt, Jr. become the first driver to win three Cup racesin a row at Phoenix? If not, who will become the first driver to win aNASCAR Nextel Cup night race at the Phoenix oval?
Whatever the outcomeand despite the glitter and spectacle of the first-ever night race inthe desert, the 2005 Subway Fresh 500 will be hard-pressed to match theexcitement of the 1988 Phoenix Cup event when a hard-working, underdogracer from Wisconsin scored his first NASCAR Cup victory and burned theevent into our racing consciousness forever with his "Polish VictoryLap."