I have often said that I came to NASCAR as a fan of the Winston Cup Series during the last race of the 1990 season.
It was a fast-paced, adrenaline-pumping, against-all-odds show that appealed to me instantly.
I chose a driver to win the race, or even the championship, that I thought was an underdog. This driver had to perform better than his nearest competitor to claim the title.
This driver’s adversary was a Mark Martin.
History shows I chose the victor.
From that race on I was a Dale Earnhardt fan through and through.
I was rewarded at the end of the 1991 season when Earnhardt won his second championship in a row, and his fifth to that time. It was easy being a NASCAR fan when my driver was so dominant.
Then the 1992 season came along.
That season was emotion-filled, with the announcement that Richard Petty would retire at its end.
He mounted a “Fan Appreciation Tour” to thank his many fans and give them closure over his vastly successful driving career.
Davey Allison won the Daytona 500 kicking off what would be a very good year for him and team owner Robert Yates. Allison would stay first or near the top in points for the entire season.
In December 1991 at the Winston Cup Banquet honoring champion Earnhardt, Allison, who had finished third in points, warned the champ that he, Allison, would be at the head table the following year.
Bill Elliott, the man his many, many fans called “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville,” also experienced a strong season. He was near the top of the leaderboard along with aloof Alan Kulwicki from Wisconsin.
Other drivers – Harry Gant, Kyle Petty, and Martin – were all vying for the championship in 1992.
Glaringly, my driver was not. He had a terrible season in 1992 with only one win, several DNFs, and not even a presence in the Top-10 for the year.
At that time I was not a broadminded fan. If my driver did poorly I was uninterested in the rest of the field.
I had no love for Allison because he coveted my driver’s spot at the lead table at the Waldorf Astoria.
Martin was already a rival so I didn’t root for him and Kulwicki had left me cold. Although I had nothing against the younger Petty, I was pretty sure he was not going to be the champion.
Gant dazzled me in September of 1991 when he earned his nickname “Mr. September” after he posted six victories in four Cup races and two in the Busch Series. But Gant hadn’t won since Michigan in August of ‘92 so I didn’t think he had it in him either.
My husband insisted on watching all of the races during the 1992 season. So, when the Hooters 500 was run in Atlanta on Nov. 15 of that year, we were watching.
Listening to the pre-race broadcast I found I really did have a vested interest in the outcome. And, the more I heard about Kulwicki, the more I quietly rooted him on to victory.
My rationale was I could never root for Martin or Allison as they were two of Earnhardt’s staunchest rivals. Deep down I liked Allison because he was young, had a lovely family, and was a direct legacy of the Alabama Gang. But it seemed betrayal to openly root for the man.
Elliot was already a millionaire thanks to the Winston Million bonus he won in 1985, a feat he accomplished before my fandom. He didn’t seem to “need” the championship in my opinion.
That left Kulwicki. I loved the idea of a non-southerner winning the Cup. After all, I was a non-southerner watching NASCAR.
I appreciated that Kulwicki was a focused, determined, obsessive-compulsive competitor who worked on his car endlessly. He had no time for a wife or family. He was chained to his garage to make his team a success.
Kulwicki was doing everything on his own. He wasn’t a self-made millionaire. So I silently cheered him on to victory.
Allison made an incredible run for the championship, but, that day in Atlanta, he was involved in an unfortunate accident that ruined his chances.
Eventually the battle was between Elliot and Kulwicki. Although Elliot won the race, Kulwicki came in second. Each driver dominated the laps led, but Kulwicki earned the five bonus points for most laps led, edging out Elliot by one lap (103 to 102).
Kulwicki won the championship and my support as a new fan.
NASCAR put on a great show all season that culminated in the closest championship – Kulwicki won it by a mere 10 points – that stood until 2011 when Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart battled for the Cup.
As you know, when it was all over, Edwards and Stewart were tied in points. But Stewart won the title on NASCAR’s tiebreaker – most victories.
He had five, all in the Chase, Edwards one.
In 1993, NASCAR changed for me. Only a few months after that dramatic Atlanta race separate aviation accidents claimed the lives of both Kulwicki and Allison.
Then to lose my driver, Earnhardt, in 2001 was heartbreaking and inexplicable, but I believe I lost my rabid passion for the sport when Kulwicki and Allison passed.
For me, it’s been a long road back to NASCAR fandom. I carry these drivers in my memories for a lifetime and revisit them every so often.
Thank you for letting me share my recollections with you.