On the eve of the anniversary of the death of NASCAR Winston Cup champion Alan Kulwicki, news came of the untimely death of Jimmie Johnson’s brother-in-law.
Jordon Janway, Johnson’s wife’s brother, was killed in an unfortunate skydiving incident.
He was snuffed out before reaching his potential.
Much like Kulwicki was 21 years ago when a freak accident left him dead and a NASCAR community reeling, Janway’s death has struck a chord.
NASCAR is truly a family and when one suffers they all do.
As my thoughts and prayers are sent to the Johnson and Janway families, I am taken back to April 1, 1993.
Kulwicki’s memory is etched in my thoughts.
After a triumphant 1992 season culminating in a three-way possibility for champion, Kulwicki won the coveted Winston Cup as an owner-driver.
Kulwicki did it “his way” bucking more traditional methods, work schedules, and personnel.
Kulwicki even turned down an offer from legendary driver/owner Junior Johnson preferring to write his own history alone in NASCAR’s tome.
As the 1993 season dawned there was much optimism and speculation about whether lightning could strike twice in one team for a back-to-back championship.
Only a couple of months into the 1993 season, Kulwicki’s plane went down killing he and the other passengers and leaving a gaping hole in NASCAR.
Not only was its defending champion gone, but a member – all be it a black sheep one – of the NASCAR family was, too.
I remember clearly hearing the news. I lived in Salem, VA at the time and had already given myself over to NASCAR fandom.
Although a staunch Earnhardt fan I had great respect for Kulwicki and what he had accomplished in the sport.
If watching the 1990 season finale NASCAR race and subsequent 1991 season had solidified the fact that I was an Earnhardt fan through and through, watching Kulwicki battle for the championship against Davey Allison and Bill Elliott in 1992 made me a fan of the sport.
So losing Kulwicki stopped me in my tracks.
I knew racing was inherently dangerous, but to lose a champion? A driver in his prime, no less, ripped from our world was unthinkable.
It was baffling, heartbreaking, and just plain sad.
My heart still aches when I think about potential snuffed out too soon.
Kulwicki may have won more championships.
He may have fallen in love and had little Kulwickis.
He may have raced to a point and then become a team owner. And, in doing that, may have been as successful as Junior Johnson, Rick Hendrick, or Tony Stewart.
Every time a Polish Victory Lap is run, every time I hear Sinatra singing “My Way”, and any time I see a Hooter’s restaurant I think of Kulwicki.
He is still very much a part of the NASCAR fabric and my racing experience.
In the same year, about two and a half months later, tragedy struck again taking Davey Allison away from us.
It was a difficult year in NASCAR.
April 1st is still a difficult day for me.
But I am so glad I was able to witness, firsthand, the greatness that was Kulwicki.
There have been several “golden eras” in NASCAR. I hit pay dirt seeing the likes of Dale Earnhardt, Davey Allison, and Alan Kulwicki race.
This was my era.
These drivers were the reason I became a fan.
So, as I wipe misty eyes watching pictures and videos of Kulwicki, I also smile through the tears.
Kulwicki did it his way on his terms, and taught me that it was okay to do things my way, too.
And his untimely death taught me there is no time like the present to do things “my way”.
Thank you, Alan.
Say hi to Earnhardt for me.