When the Sprint Cup schedule rolls around to the early season Atlanta-to-Bristol segment, Eddie and Len Wood of the Wood Brothers race team often think back to that portion of the schedule back in 1993. It was a bittersweet time for the Woods and for NASCAR as a whole. It was at Atlanta that Alan Kulwicki helped engineer a Wood Brothers victory just 12 days before he died in a plane crash en route to a race in Bristol.
The story started with a snowstorm still referred to around Atlanta as “The Blizzard of ’93.” It hit town about the same time as the NASCAR circuit, and by Saturday afternoon, it was evident there would be no racing on Sunday. “It snowed so much so fast we couldn’t get out of town,” Eddie Wood recalled. “We stayed at the Holiday Inn in Griffin. We ate every meal at the Waffle House. There was no power at the hotel, but the Waffle House had power.” Finally power was restored, roads were cleared and the Woods returned home. But they were soon back at the track for the rescheduled Motorcraft 500, which was run the Saturday after its originally scheduled date.
Morgan Shepherd was at the wheel of the No. 21 Ford at that time. Atlanta was by far Shepherd’s best track as three of his four career Cup wins came on the old Atlanta oval. That Saturday he was running well, as usual, in a race that at one point appeared to be the one that would bring Jeff Gordon his first Cup victory. But he wound up bouncing off the wall after leading Laps 265-316 and was a non factor at the end. The Woods and Shepherd were strong contenders all afternoon, and by the time they were preparing to make their final scheduled pit stop, they’d built a 17-second lead. But Shepherd had a flat tire and had to pit earlier than expected under green. The Woods changed four tires and packed the No. 21 full of fuel.
Earlier that day, Kulwicki, the defending Cup champion, had crashed out, but instead of trying to beat the traffic and head home early, he came over to the Wood Brothers’ pit area and watched the rest of the race with his friends Len and Eddie Wood. With about 25 laps left to run and no sign of another caution flag, the Woods, with encouragement from Kulwicki, decided to try to stretch their fuel to the end. “Alan said we should start saving gas right then,” Eddie Wood said. “Saving gas that early in a run is a natural thing to do now, but it wasn’t then.” Wood radioed to Shepherd that they were going to try to stretch the fuel and told him to start slowing down. “As we backed him down, he got faster, which happens a lot,” Wood said, explaining that when a driver backs off early to enter a corner, the car rolls easier and lap speeds often pick up.
“Kulwicki was clocking every lap, like it was his own race car. He kept jerking me on the arm, and saying, ‘You need to slow him down, more, more, more.” Shepherd obeyed, and also began running a lower line, which translates to a shorter distance to be traveled. The fuel-saving measures worked, and Shepherd beat Ernie Irvan and Rusty Wallace to get the victory. And Kulwicki was there to celebrate with his friends the Woods.
“He was really pulling for us,” Wood said. “He stayed until the end of the race. It was hard to get out of the track with the traffic and all, but he stayed anyway.” When Kulwicki won the Cup championship the year before at Atlanta, beating the Woods’ current driver Bill Elliott by 10 points in what many describe as the greatest points finish ever in NASCAR, the Woods sent Kulwicki a bottle of Dom Perignon champagne. After their Atlanta win, Kulwicki sent the Woods their own bottle of Dom Perignon. “It’s in our museum now,” Wood said.
Although there’s always been a sense of camaraderie among the competitors in the Cup garage, the relationship between the Woods and Kulwicki was special. They both were young. They both raced Fords, and they even had something in common when it came to car numbers. Kulwicki’s No. 7 came from the Woods, who had been running that number while sponsored by the 7-Eleven convenience store chain but switched back to their familiar No. 21 for the 1987 season. Even though they were competitors, a visit with Kulwicki was a regular part of the Woods’ Sunday morning routine at the track. It was during those meetings that the two teams shared their set-up information, although it wasn’t done until after the cars were ready to race.
“At that time you had a book with the set-up information in it,” Wood said. “We’d throw ours out there. Alan would have his in his pocket. “We didn’t share set-ups before then, during the week or before the race, but most every time we’d be within a couple of hundred pounds on the springs, and the shocks would be very similar.” That was uncanny given the fact that Shepherd did his set-ups based on his own instincts and experience and what he felt from the seat of the car while Kulwicki had not only his experience in the car but an engineering background to boot. “They came up with almost identical set-ups week after week after week,” Wood said.
Like others in the sport back in 1993, Wood was in a hotel room in Bristol on Thursday night, April 1, when he got word that a plane had crashed, possibly the one carrying Kulwicki. Wood called the North Carolina residence of Don Hawk, Kulwicki’s business manager. He feared Hawk had been on the plane, but Hawk answered the phone. “He said he hadn’t heard anything,” Wood said. “I said, ‘I think you need to check.’ “He hung up, and the rest is history.” Wood said NASCAR would be a lot different today had Kulwicki not died in his prime. “He’d have won more championships,” Wood said. “History would have been different.”
The Wood Brothers and their Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion return to action on April 16-18 with the Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.