It looked like a scene in an old western movie.
Lined atop a ridge and silhouetted against the sky were dozens of Indians mounted on horseback, sitting there as if ready to swoop down and attack a passing wagon train.
The Indians wanted to see a “train” all right, but not one filled with pioneers seeking to settle the Old West.
The train they awaited was a long line of NASCAR Cup Series race cars, going into competition for the first time at Phoenix International Raceway.
The date was Nov. 6, 1988, and among the 43 drivers in the field for the NASCAR big time’s inaugural event in Arizona was Alan Kulwicki.
That event and driver of 24 years ago return to mind as the Cup teams gather again at the Arizona track for Sunday’s Subway 500.
The Gila River Indian Reservation bound the 1-mile Phoenix speedway on one side and the Gila River on the other.
The latter is where the horsemen had ridden from, negotiating the rugged, but picturesque, terrain of the Sierra Estrella Mountains.
They had no idea of the memorable stock car racing history they were about to witness.
Heck, no one in a crowd estimated at 63,000 fans, plus a big press contingent, had an inkling.
Engine failures and crashes on the essentially flat layout led to the race then known as the Checker 500 getting off to a slow start because of repeated caution flags.
In an especially frightening incident, Greg Sacks’ Olds hit the wall during a six-car tangle coming off the fourth turn and spectacularly burst into flame as it careened down the frontstretch.
Sacks escaped unscathed, as did the drivers involved in all the other wrecks.
Meanwhile taking turns at leading for stretches were Rusty Wallace, Sterling Marlin, Ricky Rudd and Kulwicki, who had moved up from the 21st starting position.
Rudd’s Buick appeared to be by far the strongest car. He had been in front for a total of 182 laps and held a five-second lead when his engine failed on the 296th lap of the 312-lap, 500-kilometer race.
The misfortune of Rudd gave the front spot to the Ford-driving Kulwicki, and he maintained the lead the rest of the way, finishing a whopping 18.5 seconds ahead of runnerup Terry Labonte’s Chevy.
Ironically, Labonte had provided one of the breaks Kulwicki needed to score his first Cup victory after four years of trying and 84 previous starts.
During a restart from one of the caution periods, Labonte noticed the right front tire going down on Kulwicki’s car. Labonte radioed the information to his pit, and his crew relayed the message to that of Kulwicki, who was able to stop for a new tire without losing a lap.
Kulwicki, a driver nicknamed “Special K” who had struggled to build and operate his own team, was understandably emotional as he led the final 16 laps.
“I was almost crying,” said the 33-year-old driver, a native of Greenfield, Wisc., who had moved to Charlotte to pursue his motorsports career. “It had been a long road with a lot of hard work and heartache, but winning made it all worthwhile.”
Upon taking the checkered flag and going around most of the track on the cool-down lap, Kulwicki did the most stunning thing. He made a U-turn in his car while in the fourth turn and started back around the track clockwise.
For some time he had been planning what he might do when – and if – he ever won at NASCAR’s top level. Two months earlier he had decided. And now he was going to share the shenanigan with an amused, appreciative Phoenix Raceway crowd and fans watching the race telecast on ESPN.
“There never will be another first Cup win for me, so I wanted to do something memorable other than spewing champagne and standing on top of the car in Victory Lane,” said Kulwicki. “I wanted to give the fans something to remember me and my first win by, and I figured running the wrong way to celebrate would do it.”
Kulwicki, who had earned an engineering degree in college in Wisconsin, grinned broadly.
“It was my Polish victory lap!” he said.
Kulwicki could joke like that without arousing ethnic anger. His ancestors were Poles.
A bit later a serious Kulwicki acknowledged that some fans might feel he “inherited” the victory because of Rudd’s bad luck.
“I don’t feel I backed into it, ’cause I’ve lost some the same way,” said Kulwicki. “Falling out of races is a part of this sport, and it happens to everybody. I feel I earned the win fair and square.
“I was closing pretty fast on Ricky, driving and concentrating as hard as I could (in cutting an eight-second lead to five). I might have won anyway. We’ll never know.
“I’ve always believed that racing luck averages out. This time I finally got the breaks. I’ve always wondered if the feeling of winning would be as good as I anticipated. It is.”
Kulwicki was to know that feeling four more times. And also the absolute exhilaration of taking the Winston Cup championship in 1992, the last team-owner/driver ever to do so until Tony Stewart last year.
Kulwicki was his sport’s reigning champion when he tragically lost his life, along with four others, in the crash of his private plane on April 1, 1993, on landing approach at an airport in Tennessee while en route to a race at Bristol.
In the following months some other winning drivers, friends of Kulwicki, took “Polish Victory Laps” in his honor.
Through the seasons his clockwise turn of the track has often been copied.
However, Kulwicki’s original two dozen years ago will never be equaled.