It Was Fun While It Lasted...

I began collecting little cars after I got Internet service in late 1994. Before that, I had read a couple of references to Hot Wheels™ collectors and collectors clubs, but I had no idea how to find them, and I wasn't really interested in contemporary offerings.

I was a NASCAR fan, though, and one day my wife came home from work to tell me she had met a guy who sold little Hot Wheels™-sized NASCAR racecars out of his basement. I thought that sounded odd, but was curious enough to give him a call. I ended up going over to his house and buying these two cars from him. At the time, I didn't realize I was beginning a NASCAR collection.

That's how I met John Sparano, who eventually leased a storefront and became J. J.'s Collectibles. He also sponsored our local NASCAR Fantasy League by providing obsolete or clearanced NASCAR merchandise for use as our end-of-year prizes. He went out of business in late 2005, and one of the reasons the Fantasy League became defunct the next year was that there was no way to get the prizes cheaply.

Many personal issues came up during that year, and when it was over, I decided that 1993 was going to be the worst year of my life. It was then, I believe it always will be, and I'm happy to be rid of it.

So, glancing at these two cars from time to time brings back poignant feelings, along with fleeting mental images of John's store and the people I met there, as well as the memories of the races in which I could escape my own life for a little while by watching these two drivers show their skills.

1993 Racing Champions® car
Article from AutoWeek, July 26, 1993, by Bob Myers

Racing's lost much more than a top young driver

"In time," said H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president of Charlotte Motor Speedway. "Davey will be replaced in his race car. What won't be replaced is his humility and compassion. He treated everyone the same, the floor-sweeper and the head of a motor company. The only time he wasn't humble was when he was strapped into that race car."

There certainly was nothing humble about the way Allison drove the No. 28 Texaco/Havoline Ford Thunderbird. Though only 32 years old when he died July 13 of injuries sustained the previous day in a helicopter crash, Allison had won 19 Winston Cup races, ranking him among the top 10 of NASCAR's modern era, the top 25 of all-time.

He was rookie of the year in 1987, and he became the first newcomer in NASCAR history to win more than once in his first season.

Davey was the older son of 1983 Winston Cup champion and 84-time race winner Bobby Allison. And even though he met with success early on, Davey always said the highlight of his own career came in 1988, when he followed his father across the line in a 1-2 finish in the Daytona 500.

After finishing third in the drivers' standings in 1991, Davey opened the 1992 season with a victory in the Daytona 500. Despite his brother Clifford's death and his own injuries suffered in crashes, Allison seemed destined to win the Winston Cup championship until a crash took him out of the final race of the season. Ironically, the driver who won that '92 title was 38-year-old Alan Kulwicki, who died April 1 in a plane crash.

"I cannot begin to describe my feeling about the tragedies of this year." said Ford's Michael Kranefuss. "The shock of April (when Kulwicki died) is still fresh in my mind. It's difficult to lose anyone, but to lose two such exceptional and talented champions to off-track accidents only months apart is unfathomable."

Kulwicki 's team has continued with Jimmy Hensley behind the wheel, though it has not been nearly as competitive since his death. Allison's car owner Robert Yates didn't race at Pocono and is considering what actions to take for the remainder of the season.

With his own father's career ending with a near-fatal crash in 1988, with Richard Petty's retirement and with drivers such as Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip in their 40s, Allison was a key link between the past, present and future of NASCAR racing.

"What makes this so hard is that not only was Davey one of the great young stars of NASCAR," said Kranefuss, "he was one of the great people in the sport off the track. He was a true competitor with tremendous spirit, but he never forgot that his family was the most important thing in his life. The Allison family has gone through so much in recent years that this doesn't make sense."

In the wake of his brother's death and his own severe crash at Pocono, Davey, one of Auto Week's Editors-at-Speed, wrote (prophetically) that it was time to get his own priorities back in line:

"When I watched a replay of the Pocono wreck, I knew the Man Upstairs had given me a second chance. I knew I needed to be prepared for when my number was drawn.

"Family has become my No. 1 priority. Liz and the kids (daughter Krista Marie and son Robbie), my parents and grandmother and sisters, in particular. I had allowed racing, its commitments and things I wanted to do to push my family to the back. Racing had become No. 1, learning to fly a helicopter became No. 2 and commitments No. 3."

Allison got his helicopter rating last year and bought a helicopter only three weeks before his fatal crash. He and veteran driver Red Farmer, a longtime family friend, flew to Talladega to watch practice. Farmer was released from the hospital after being treated for a broken collarbone, nose and ribs.

A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board said the chopper was within six inches of the ground before it shot 25 feet into the air, then hurtled some 75 feet to the north, where the rear rotor struck barbed wire atop a chain-link fence. The craft swayed like a pendulum, spun counterclockwise, banked sharply to the left and slammed on the pilot's side into a fence and fell to the ground.

"The chopper went crazy," Farmer recounted after his release from the hospital. "We spun and spun and you can't know the feeling unless you've been in a flipping race car. Davey was fighting the controls. I hollered, 'Davey, we need to get out of this thing, it's going to catch on fire (it didn't).' I was able to brace myself but Davey couldn't. Neil (Bonnett) dragged me 15-20 feet and I didn't see Davey anymore. I wish there was some way I could have doubled my injuries to take some away from Davey."

Allison's parents requested that his organs be donated so a part of him might live in others. A Davey Allison Memorial Fund has been established at the National Head Injury Foundation (1776 Massachusetts Ave., NW., Suite 100, Washington. D.C. 20036). A fund for his children has also been opened (Children of Davey Allison, National Bank of Commerce, Hueytown, AL 35023).

"Davey touched a lot of people, many he never met," said Bobby Allison. "They loved him and we loved him."

Some 8000 people attended the wake or funeral. U.S. Air donated a plane to fly nearly 150 members of the racing community from Charlotte to the funeral in Alabama.

Davey drove his entire Winston Cup career for Yates, who withdrew the team's Ford from the July 18 race at Pocono.

"We go to races to win," said Yates. "We can't do that with tears in our eyes."

1993 Racing Champions® car
Article from AutoWeek, April 12, 1993, by Al Pearce

Kulwicki's example lives on

It seems so unfair. After working seven years to climb from minor-league star to Winston Cup champion, Alan Kulwicki won't have a chance to enjoy it. Just five races into his reign, Kulwicki died in a plane crash near Bristol, Tenn. He was 38.

The accident stunned the NASCAR family, leaving drivers and crewmen wrestling with the meaning of it all. "We like to give all glory, praise and honor to God," said Darrell Waltrip, "but it's at times like these that we wonder what it's all about. Alan worked so hard to get where he did; now this has to happen. It just doesn't seem right."

Crews went half-heartedly about their preparations for the Food City 500 race. "I don't think anyone is really into being here this weekend," said pole-sitter Rusty Wallace. "It's not a very good atmosphere."

Several drivers wanted NASCAR to postpone the race. "I don't want to be here," said Mark Martin, who used to race Kulwicki on the Midwestern-based ASA circuit. "This is a tough, tough deal for all of us."

NASCAR president Bill France Jr. said Kulwicki's legacy will be "his determination and commitment to give his best to every endeavor. His death reminds us all of the realities of everyday life."

Ford's Michael Kranefuss called Kulwicki "the people's champion, a great example of what someone can accomplish through hard work and sheer determination."

At the time, I was enough of a fan that I had this T-shirt.

It may take the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board as long as a year to determine the cause of the crash that killed Kulwicki, pilot Charlie Campbell, Mark Brooks, 26-year-old son of Hooters restaurants CEO Robert Brooks, and Hooters sports marketing director Dan Duncan. Officials said it was too early to speculate why the twin-engine Merlin Fairchild nosed over from 2000 feet and slammed into a meadow four miles from Tri-Cities Regional Airport.

The original manifest listed five people on board. The flight left Charlotte late in the afternoon of April 1, stopped at Knoxville while Kulwicki made an appearance at one of his sponsor's restaurants, then left for Bristol. Team spokesman Tom Roberts was to have flown, too, but decided at the last minute to drive to Bristol.

Sullivan County sheriff Keith Carr said Campbell gave no indication of problems. "The plane was on a normal glideslope pattern when it went into a heavy spiral," he said. "It was a vicious impact. Parts of the plane were deeply embedded in the ground."

A plane carrying Dale Earnhardt landed without incident moments before Kulwicki's plane was to touch down at the airport. There was light fog and rain, but visibility was six miles.

There was immediate speculation that a propellor or part of an engine fell off, but FAA and NTSB investigators found both engines at the crash site and said the rumor of a missing propeller was unfounded.

Mike Colyer, piloting Earnhardt's plane, heard Campbell request permission to land. "The tower said, '10-4, you're second in line behind a King-Air,"' Colyer said. "Thirty seconds later I heard somebody key the mike. Then there was sort of a grunt or a scream, then nothing."

Kulwicki's father, Gerald Kulwicki, has asked Winston Cup team owner Felix Sabates to oversee Alan Kulwicki's team until it is sold. Sabates quickly discounted talk he might buy the team.

"We've had calls from people asking when the liquidation sale began," Sabates said. "If I'd been close enough, I would have punched them in the mouth. There won't be any liquidation. This is a championship-caliber team that will go on." Ironically, Sabates said Kulwicki recently had suggested that "if anything ever happened and he couldn't drive his car, he'd want Jimmy (Hensley) in it."

Sabates said he hopes Kulwicki's father will agree to put Hensley, 47-year-old 1992 Winston Cup rookie of the year, in the car.

"It would be good if Mr. Kulwicki could come to Charlotte and take over his son's team," Sabates said, "but he's retired and probably isn't financially able to. I'll stay with the team as long as it needs me. (In addition to those inquiring about the liquidation of the team) We've already had some good-intentioned calls about buying the team.

"Really, everything is up to Mr. Kulwicki. Whatever he wants is what we'll try to do."

Sabates, the multi-millionaire, and Kulwicki, a struggling racer from Wisconsin, entered Winston Cup racing about the same time. Kulwicki often flew to and from races with Sabates and his driver, Kyle Petty.

Kulwicki moved from his native Wisconsin to North Carolina in 1985 and started his own Winston Cup team the following year. He won rookie of the year honors, yet as recently as March of 1991 didn't have a sponsor. But he persevered, turning down offers to drive for others because of his belief in himself and his own team.

He won 26 poles and five races, and last year he beat Bill Elliott by 10 points in a dramatic finish to his championship season.

"He was like a member of my family," Sabates said. "We'd spent Christmases and New Year's together. He'd come to my house for meals and we'd see each other all the time. This is hard on me, very hard."

Asked how he'd manage his own two teams as well as Kulwicki's, Sabates didn't hesitate: "This is more important than the rest of what I do. This is for Alan." has the complete story of the restoration of Kulwicki's famous race car.

For a different driver tribute, see my Tim Richmond page.

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