This Day In History: April 1

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On April 1, 1993, race car driver and owner Alan Kulwicki, who won the 1992 National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) Winston Cup championship by one of the tightest margins in series history, is killed in a plane crash near Bristol, Tennessee, where he was scheduled to compete in a race the following day. The 38-year-old Kulwicki had been the first owner-driver to collect the championship since Richard Petty did so in 1979, as well as the first NASCAR champ to hold a college degree.

Kulwicki was born on December 14, 1954, in Greenfield, Wisconsin, a fact that later marked him as an outsider among the other NASCAR drivers of his era, who typically hailed from the southern U.S. Kulwicki’s father, Gerry, built race-car engines and as a teenager Alan became involved in Go-Kart racing. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in mechanical engineering, Kulwicki raced stock cars, first as a hobby then as a professional. In the mid-1980s, he relocated to North Carolina and, with no financial backing, began competing in NASCAR events. In 1986 he was named the Winston Cup Series (now known as the NASCAR Cup Series) Rookie of the Year. Kulwicki, who earned a reputation as a hard-working perfectionist, later turned down offers to drive for other teams, opting to remain on his own.

In 1988, Kulwicki, who was nicknamed “The Polish Prince” and “Special K,” won his first Winston Cup race at the Phoenix International Raceway in Arizona. Afterward, he spun his car around and took a victory lap the wrong way around the track, a move that was subsequently dubbed a “Polish Victory Lap.”

One of the most exciting races of Kulwicki’s career occurred on November 15, 1992, at the Hooters 500, the last race of the Winston Cup season, in front of more than 100,000 fans at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Going into the race, six drivers had a chance to win the Winston Cup championship, which is based on points accumulated over the season. Kulwicki, who considered himself an underdog, altered the lettering on the front of his Ford Thunderbird to read Underbird. He finished the race in second place, behind Bill Elliott, but scored enough points to capture the series championship title. The race was also notable because it marked the first Winston Cup start for future star driver Jeff Gordon and the last for seven-time NASCAR champ Richard Petty, who retired afterward.

Kulwicki competed in just a handful of other races before he was killed, along with three other people, aboard a private plane that crashed on April 1, 1993. In 2005, a film about his life, titled Dare to Dream: The Alan Kulwicki Story, was released.