Friday, April 1, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: NASCAR’s Horrible Season

April 1, 1993: Alan Kulwicki
July 12, 1993: Davey Allison

He was a small, quiet, polished, Polish-American Yankee walking through boisterous garage areas, wearing his driving uniform but carrying a briefcase. The good ol' boys snickered, but he was unobtrusive, so they let him alone. Then they began to watch him work. The big-name drivers, who rarely dirtied their hands, had a dozen crewmen swarming around their cars; Kulwicki was doing the same amount of work by himself with maybe two or three partially skilled volunteers. The briefcase was for his business papers . . . he had no agent, no business manager, no contract-negotiating team. He did it all himself..
Ed Hinton, Sports Illustrated

Alan Kulwicki was not a conventional NASCAR driver.  Born in Milwaukee, his father was racing engine designer Gary Kulwicki. Alan had a very different upbringing from the Souther-dominated bootleggers and dirt-track racer tradition that defined NASCAR through the 1980s. He grew up racing go karts and designing and building engines. He was an engineer by training and temperament, and in his career he always raced for his own team, creating the model of the briefly popular owner-driver in the 1990s. and also recreating the professional, scientifically-informed NASCAR crew that now dominates the sport.
            Kulwicki raced for over a decade on short tracks and dirt tracks before breaking in to NASCAR in 1985-86 as an owner-driver with no sponsor.  He finished 23 of 29 races and had three top ten finishes to win NASCAR Rookie of the Year.  After outstanding seasons in 1988 and 1989, Kulwicki was approached to drive for legendary owner Junior Johnson; he declined, preferring to run his own operation and drive for himself. 

Sponsorship problems plagued Kulwicki.  In 1991 his corporate sponsor Zerex ended their relationship, and a deal with Maxwell House fell through, so Alan prepared to run the season without a sponsor.  He ran Daytona with a one-race sponsorship from the US Army, then eventually landed Hooters as a sponsor. Kulwicki eventually reached the heights of NASCAR glory, winning the Winston Cup.  Kulwicki contended for the Winston Cup throughout the entire 1992 season, but was frustrated by the seemingly insurmountable lead built by Cup favorite Bill Elliott. But Awesome Bill from Dawsonville started to collape, running into repeated mechanical problems as Kulwicki, Davey Allison, Harry Gant and Kyle Petty lurked within striking range.  The final race of the season was the Hooter’s 500 in Atlanta. The race featured a six-way battle for the Winston Cup, in addition to being Richard Petty’s last race. Bill Elliott won the race, but Kulwicki led the most laps and accrued enough Winston Cup points to take the championship.  He was the last owner-driver to win the NASCAR championship.
Kulwicki, who had struggled to finance his own rise to the top, observed after his championship that “The only thing I really wanted to buy was a plane . . . but it turns out Hooters has a couple I can use.” On the afternoon of April 1 1993, the defending Winston Cup champion was flying from Knoxville to Blountville, Tennessee to prepare for the running of that weekend’s Winston Cup race at Briston International Motor Speedway. He was traveling on a Hooter’s corporate plane from an appearance at the chain’s restaurant in Knoxville.  Accompanying Kulwicki were Mark Brooks (son of Bob Brooks, the owner of Hooters), and Dan Duncan. Corporate pilot Charles Campbell was flying the craft.  The aircraft they were flying on was a Fairchild SA227-TT (the Merlin IIIC), a twin-engine turbo successor to a craft first developed in 1965 by Ed Swearingen.  The aircraft crashed near Blountsville, killing all four persons aboard the aircraft.
            The Crash: NTSB investigators fault pilot error for the crash.  Specifically, they find that Campbell failed to follow procedure for use of the engine inlet anti-ice system.  The flight took place under icy conditions and ice ingestion caused a loss of engine power.  The flight seemed uneventful, and conditions topically indicated good flying weather.  The pilot of the craft, Charles Campbell, was instrument rated but the flight took place under visual weather conditions – clear skies prevailed.  Nonetheless, at just before 9:30 PM local time, the Fairchild Merlin IIIC collided with the ground and then burned.
Campbell had done all of his homework that day.  He filed flight plans to fly a series of flights out of Fulton County Airport in Atlanta, and he requested a weather briefing.  He subsequently filed four instrument flight plans. The flight from Knoxville to Blountsville was the third of the four flights. Campbell had the jet serviced and was briefed on possible icy conditions on his next flight, a thirty minute hop up to the Tri-City airport. On communication with the tower for final approach at 2128 hours (9:28 PM) the pilot was informed of icy conditions reported by another pilot.  Air traffic controllers reported that the aircraft was on final approach and then just “disappeared from view” and then on hearing and “unintelligible radio transmission” he “observed the lights of the airplane descend out of the bottom of the clouds. The lights appeared to have been in a steep spiraling descent.” The Merlin was found in a pasture, a half-mile north of the outer marker. The craft cleared a stand of trees and made a swift contact with the ground, cutting gashes in the soil and catching fire.
According to the NTSB, manufacturer’s advisory from 1988 regarding the engines on the Merlin IIIC “emphasize[d] the purpose and use of engine inlet anti-ice systems. The operating information provided additional information on the use of the engine ignition in icing conditions” arising from “reported TPE331 engine flameouts during or following operation in icing conditions” such as those that prevailed on April 1 near Tri-City.
“The Polish Victory Lap”: Alan Kulwicki brought to NASCAR one tradition of the Midwestern dirt-track circuit – the backward victory lap. Short track racers would accept the checkered flag and then drive clockwise around the track to wave the flag from the driver’s side window to the crowd. After Kulwicki’s first NASCAR win at the Checker 500 (Phoenix) in 1988, Kulwicki did the short-track victory lap.  It was soon termed the “Polish victory lap” after Kulwicki’s Polish heritage. Kulwicki did the lap one other time, after winning the Winston Cup in Atlanta.  The weekend after Kulwicki’s death, both the Busch race winner Michael Waltrip and Winston Cup race winner Rusty Wallace did the Polish victory lap to honor Kulwicki. Every race winner on the circuit for the balance of the season followed suit, and after the last race of the season in 1993 (the Hooters 500), Winston Cup Champion Dale Earnhardt ran a Polish victory lap carrying flags with the numbers of Kulwicki and Davey Allison, who died late in the 1993 season in a helicopter crash at Talladega.
Davey Allison was born to drive.  His father, Bobby Allison, was a NASCAR legend who had dueled Richard Petty and his Uncle Donnie had literally fought Cale Yarborough after a crash on the last lap of the 1979 Daytona 500. The Allisons had been in NASCAR  since before the days when it was evolving from a southern regional event to become the most popular spectator sport in America. 
            Along with daddy Bobby, uncle Donnie, Neill Bonnett, Red Farmer, and a collection of other drivers, Davey Allison was one of the popular “Alabama Gang” that garaged and drove out of Hueytown, Alabama. He was the first NASCAR rookie to qualify for the front row at Daytona.  At the height of a driving career where he was winning races (19 Winston Cup events) and competing for the Winston Cup championship, Davey Allison (32) was fatally injured when the Hughes 369HS helicopter he was flying crashed at Talladega Super Speedway in Talladega Alabama.  He died a day later.  
            Davey Allison’s death came quick on the heals of that of his friend and rival Alan Kulwicki.  However, unlike Kulwiki’s death, where the hands of another was at the controls, Allison was flying his own aircraft and made a set of decisions that led to his own demise.
            According to the report of the National Transportation Safety Board, Allison had just nine hours of flight time in type. He was not, however, an inexperienced pilot. Allison held a private pilot’s certificate with airplane single engine, multiengine, helicopter, and instrument airplane ratings. He had almost 1,100 hours of total flight time, including 54 hours in helicopters.  According to the NTSB, “Insurance companies were contacted on behalf of Mr. Allison, and asked to provide a quotation of premium for coverage on the Hughes 369HS helicopter. One company who offered a quotation, would have required Mr. Allison to complete 25 hours of flight training in the Hughes 369HS prior to solo flight, and 25 hours of solo flight prior to carriage of passengers.” Allison had not met these conditions when he flew with fellow Alabama Gang member Red Farmer to Talladega.
            It was a clear day, with a north to south wind; VFR conditions existed and no flight plan had been filed. Allison had left Birmingham for Talladega at 2:15 PM (1415 hours). The flight departed Birmingham, Alabama about 1415. The landing that he attempted, in a confined part of the Talledega Super Speedway called the Media Parking Lot, was on a surface less than 17,500 square feet (168’ by 105’).  Allison approached from an altitude of fifty feet, and the landing area was “surrounded on all sides by tall fences & power lines” including a 10’ snow fence and 16’ high power lines. According to witnesses of the crash, just before touchdown the chopper started to “oscillate from side to side” then ascended 25’ and started spinning. “The aircraft then banked sharply to the left and impacted the terrain and a 10 foot fence adjacent to the original intended landing site.”
            The right front seat passenger on the aircraft, NASCAR driver Red Farmer stated that “the approach seemed to be normal until about 6 inches to one foot above the ground. He said that at that point the helicopter appeared to turn to the right approximately 30 degrees, and then rapidly ascended to a height above the power line poles. He stated that at that point, the ride became very violent, and he became scared . . .  He stated that the aircraft impacted the terrain on the left side.”
            Unable to identify a structural or mechanical source of the crash, NTSB laid the responsibility with Allison, stating that “The pilot's poor in-flight decision to land downwind in a confined area that was surrounded by high obstructions, and his failure to properly compensate for the tailwind condition. A factor related to the accident was: the pilot's lack of total experience in the type of aircraft.”

Red Farmer Describes the Talladega crash to Sports Illustrated:

 “You can't describe unless you've been in a race car that is flipping, turning over. You get disoriented. I could see the sun, I could sec the ground, I could see the sky, I could see the dirt and asphalt, and everything was spinning and the helicopter was just going crazy and Davey was fighting the controls . . . I braced myself . . . I put my left hand against the console and my right hand against the window. I guess natural instinct from driving race cars tells you to always brace yourself when you figure something's going to happen. Davey was still fighting the controls and couldn't brace himself. When it went down on the left side, he probably hit his head against the side of the helicopter. Then it flipped over and spun a couple of times and landed on my side . . . I hollered, 'Davey! We gotta get out of here before it catches on fire!' I knew it was full of fuel and the motor was still running, wide open. I've been in situations where friends of mine have turned over in race cars, and if they're hanging upside down, you don't pull the belts, because if you do, they crash down, and sometimes that hurts them worse than hanging there. And with one arm I couldn't undo the scat belt and hold Davey up at the same time . . .I knew we were at the track, where there would be help coming [from safety crews]. The windshield was busted out, and I kicked more of the glass away and tried to wriggle out. I got about halfway out, and Neil [Bonnett] was there. He dragged me 15 or 20 feet away from the helicopter, and I said, 'Neil, go get Davey, because he's unconscious. He's got to get out before it catches on fire.' So Neil ran back to the helicopter, and I lay there for a few minutes, and then someone said, 'We've got Davey out, and we're gonna get you to the hospital.'”

The last NASCAR driver to die in a plane crash before Kulwicki and Allison was NASCAR pioneer Curtis Turner, on October 4 1970. Turner and golfer Clarence King were killed when the craft they were flying, Turner’s Aero Commander (the same type of plane as in the Audie Murphy crash), went into a tailspin and crashed into a mine in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania.