By admin | June 9, 2009
By Richard Allen
Anyone who has the title of owner/driver in front of his name and has success in NASCAR is ultimately going to be compared to other successful owner/drivers in the sport’s history.
Tony Stewart is having a great deal of success as an owner/driver in 2009. He won the Sprint All Star Challenge and most recently he visited victory lane in Pocono. And, he currently leads the Sprint Cup standings.
As a result, many have talked or written about the difficulties of owning a NASCAR Sprint Cup team and at the same time driving for that team. Few have been able to do both successfully in the last couple of decades.
Among the most well known and successful owner/drivers in relatively recent memory was Alan Kulwicki.
There are only a few similarities between Stewart and Kulwicki. Stewart owns half of the team he drives for along with California businessman Gene Haas. Kulwicki owned the team he drove for. And, both men cut their racing teeth in the Midwest.
However, the similarities do not go much beyond that point.
Unfortunately, Kulwicki was killed in a plane crash near Bristol, Tennessee in April of 1993. He had won the 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup(Sprint Cup) championship the season prior.
Where Kulwicki differed most from Stewart is in the way he ran his team. Kulwicki was very much a hands-on owner/driver. He had an engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and he put that education to use by actually working on his cars in the shop throughout the week before driving them on the weekend.
It is unlikely that Stewart has the time, whether he has the actual know-how or not, to do such a thing. Today’s NASCAR drivers, for better or worse, have so many obligations to do such things as make sponsor related appearances, commercials and the like that they could not possibly do the sort of work Kulwicki once did.
Aside from being a great driver, Stewart is an excellent businessman. He not only has a race team to worry about but he owns the Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio as well as having interests in other tracks.
Last year when he was approached in regard to accepting half interest in the team he now drives for, the businessman in Stewart could hardly have passed such an opportunity by. Even though he had been a part of one of the most successful driver/team relationships in modern NASCAR history, he left Joe Gibbs Racing to open a new chapter in his career.
Even though the Haas team had two cars struggling to make it into the Top 35 of the standings and the team’s owner had been sentenced to federal prison, an essentially free gift of half interest in a NASCAR team was still too good to turn down.
Unlike Stewart, Kulwicki did not have the luxury, or perhaps even the desire, to build a successful career and recognizable name first then be essentially handed half of a NASCAR team. He built his company from the ground up.
Kulwicki was known for being a meticulous boss who had a hand in much of what was going on in his shop. Little took place within his organization he did not know about.
Stewart Haas Racing has a general manager and numerous other people handling a myriad of jobs today that Kulwicki did not have to concern himself with 17 years ago.
Even though he was on his way to the Bristol track from a sponsor related appearance in Knoxville the night he was killed, Kulwicki did not have the type of personality to relish that sort of thing. One has to wonder if in the personality driven climate of NASCAR today whether Kulwicki could have even survived as an owner/driver, much less thrived.
This comparison has not been made to diminish anything Tony Stewart has been able to do this season. His talents and accomplishments have allowed him to get to the position he now finds himself in. And, he was smart enough to align himself with the most successful organization in racing if not all of professional sports in Hendrick Motorsports. He deserves plenty of credit for that.
He has pulled off one of the more shrewd business deals in quite some time and is reaping the benefits of that now. Combined with his driving talents he has been able to lead his team to elite status in a short period of time.
In my opinion there are only two people in the Sprint Cup garage who could have announced last summer that they were leaving a successful team to join one with the issues mentioned above and be first in points by this time. The other would have been Jeff Gordon.
The real purpose of this piece was to show just how much NASCAR has changed in the past 17 years. What Alan Kulwicki was able to do in 1992 as an actual hands-on owner will never be done again.
Tony Stewart may well win the Sprint Cup title in 2009, but he is no Alan Kulwicki. Unfortunately, there will never be another Alan Kulwicki.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
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