As NASCAR heads to Phoenix we take a look back at the importance of its inaugural race, the 1988 Checker 500.
Many don’t realize how much of an underdog, or “Underbird” as his 1992 Ford Thunderbird stated, that Alan Kulwicki was when he came into the sport. Most hardcore fans will instantly recognize the name, some will know of his rookie of the year and championship. What most don’t know is how hard his climb to the top was, how deserved his numerous considerations as one of the top drivers in the sport’s history.
As a rookie in 1986, Kulwicki was an unfunded, self owned driver running on minimal sponsorship. Being from the north and having an engineering degree with lack of any real driving experience many of the drivers in the garage didn’t take him seriously. However, with a strong season, taking rookie of the year honors over that of fully funded teams, including Davey Allison, drivers began to respect his talent and anticipated a breakthrough soon.
That breakthrough finally came two years later; in his 85th start “Special K” earned his first Cup series win after Ricky Rudd blew a motor in the closing laps. Kulwicki added to the “firsts” that race provided with the first ever NASCAR “Polish Victory Lap” After winning the race Kulwicki turned the car around and drove around the track backwards, allowing him to wave to the fans as the driver side of the car faced the outside of the track.
There will never be another first win and you know … I wanted to do something different for the fans
The 1988 Checker 500 isn’t a race that many think of as one of the most historical races in NASCAR history, but having your inaugural race won by a first time winner and a future champion isn’t a bad first impression. Kulwicki died in an unfortunate plane crash in 1993, just months after winning his Winston Cup Championship, he was only 38.
Before Kulwicki’s untimely death he would compete in 207 races, with this his first of 5 victories. He finished in the top ten 75 times and started in pole position 24. He won the 1992 title by 10 points over Bill Elliot in one of the sport’s most competitive championship battles.
Check in every Thursday for more throwback races! Next week: Las Vegas Motor Speedway. For a look at this race and a feel for what the sport was like in the late 80’s see the link below. Tweet and follow @UST_NASCAR for regular updates throughout the season.