By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — A pair of aviation accidents in a span of 102 days altered NASCAR by claiming two stars in their prime.
Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison died just over three months apart during the 1993 season, which also happened to be Jeff Gordon’s rookie year. Kulwicki was the reigning Cup champion at the time of his death and Allison the best bet to end Dale Earnhardt’s reign.
The verdict was out on Gordon, an outsider from the West Coast who had come from sprint cars to make his mark on a predominantly Southern sport. Wherever Gordon was headed in NASCAR, Allison and Kulwicki were going to be in his path.
Kulwicki died in an April 1 plane crash returning to Bristol Motor Speedway from a sponsor appearance. Allison died July 12 when he crashed the helicopter he was piloting in the infield at Talladega Superspeedway, where he’d gone with Red Farmer to watch Neil Bonnett’s son test for his Busch Series debut.
Gordon had a quiet rookie year while Earnhardt went on to his sixth championship and added his seventh title the next season. Gordon did eventually take Allison’s role as Earnhardt’s nemesis by dethroning him in 1995.
Gordon won four titles over seven seasons. Earnhardt never won another.
Gordon, Allison and Kulwicki, forever intertwined in NASCAR history, were set for induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame together on Friday night. Roger Penske and Jack Roush, Detroit-based stalwarts of the auto industry and champion team owners, complete the 10th class.
Davey Allison was born into a racing family and although he preferred playing football, he was a member of NASCAR’s vaunted “Alabama Gang” and settled on driving cars. He is the son of Hall of Famer Bobby Allison, a nephew of Donnie Allison, and he learned his skills at Alabama tracks. His break came in 1987 when he replaced Cale Yarborough in Ranier-Lundy’s Ford Thunderbird and won two races and rookie of the year honors. The next season he finished second to his father for the only father-son 1-2 finish in Daytona 500 history. The 1992 Daytona 500 is among Allison’s 19 career victories, and he entered the infamous 1992 season finale ranked first in the championship standings but crashed during the race. He fell to third in the final standings and his fatal helicopter crash was 16 races into the 1993 season.
He made his Cup debut in the 1992 season finale, the last race of Richard Petty’s career, and three years later was the youngest NASCAR champion in the modern era with his first title at the age of 24. Gordon added championships in 1997, 1998 and 2001, and his 93 Cup victories rank third on the all-time list. Gordon won the Daytona 500 three times, the Brickyard 400 a record five times and holds NASCAR’s “Iron Man” record with 797 consecutive starts. Gordon’s rivalry with Dale Earnhardt drew new fans to NASCAR, and his charisma and savvy business sense pushed the sport beyond its regional boundaries. He’s largely credited with attracting global corporations to NASCAR as new sponsors.
He was a short-track racer from Wisconsin when he arrived in Charlotte in 1984 pulling a self-built race car with his pickup truck but Kulwicki was determined to make it in NASCAR. He was the 1986 rookie of the year driving for his own AK Racing team, which operated with limited sponsorship and small budget. Kulwicki repeatedly turned down better offers to join established teams to run his own program and he did it successfully. The first of his five career victories was in 1988 at Phoenix, where he unveiled his “Polish Victory Lap” — a celebratory cool-down lap clockwise with the driver window facing the fans. He overcame a 278-point deficit with six races remaining in the 1992 season to win the Cup title by 10 points over Bill Elliott in what was the closest final championship margin of its time. Kulwicki was named to NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers list five years after his 1993 death in a plane crash.
Team Penske celebrated its 50th year in racing in 2016, the same season the team owner earned his 100th victory in NASCAR’s Cup Series. His drivers have won two Cup titles and two Daytona 500s, and Penske tied an Xfinity Series record with three consecutive owner championships from 2013 to 2015. His election last May came days before Penske won the Indianapolis 500 for a record 17th time and in a season in which the organization also swept the major races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, won the Australian Supercars championship, the organization’s 500th victory and the Cup title with Joey Logano. Penske also built the two-mile speedway in Fontana, California, in 1996, and at one time owned Michigan International Speedway.
Roush owned drag racing teams but turned to NASCAR in 1988. Roush Racing became a hotbed for young talent and Roush is credited for launching the careers of Mark Martin, a Hall of Famer, champions Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, as well Jeff Burton, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards. Roush teams have won a record 322 races across NASCAR’s three national series and the organization has five NASCAR national series owner championships. Roush is a graduate-level mathematician, engineering entrepreneur, strong supporter of the Detroit automotive scene and Ford Motor Co., as well as a pilot. He was involved in two near-fatal plane crashes, including a 2002 scare in which he was rescued by a bystander from his capsized plane in an Alabama lake during Talladega race weekend. Eight years later, Roush lost his left eye when he crashed during an aborted landing in Wisconsin.