Hensley never knew Alan Kulwicki, but will benefit from his racing legacy AUTO RACING

April 13, 1993|By Tom Higgins | Tom Higgins,Charlotte Observer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jimmy Hensley doesn't recall talking very much with Alan Kulwicki.

"Every time I saw Alan, especially at race tracks, he appeared to be concentrating so hard and was so deep in thought that I didn't want to bother him. . . I didn't want to interrupt," Hensley said. "We would just speak and that was about it. We were friendly, but we never stood around and had what you would call a long conversation."

Yet, it was Hensley, 47, a fellow driver Kulwicki seemingly hardly knew, whom the Winston Cup champion personally picked within the past month to fill in for him "if something ever happened."

Kulwicki, 38, indicated this was a precautionary plan in case of his "getting sick" or "getting hurt." Hensley would substitute until he got well.

Tragically, something did happen. The worst.

At the peak of a self-made career that brought him the NASCAR Winston Cup title and far-ranging respect, Alan Kulwicki died April 1 in the crash of a private plane.

In keeping with Kulwicki's directions, Hensley was hired by Felix Sabates and Don Hawk to take over the Fords of team owner/driver Kulwicki, starting with the First Union 400 Sunday at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

Sabates, who also owns the Pontiacs driven by Kyle Petty and Kenny Wallace on the Winston Cup tour, is the executor of Kulwicki's estate. Hawk is team manager of the operation.

It's a temporary deal for Hensley, subject to the sale of the team by Sabates for Gerald Kulwicki, the driver's father and sole heir. Keeping the No. 7 Fords on the track with Hensley as driver has the elder Kulwicki's blessing.

Hensley conceded the circumstances that have put him in one of stock car racing's best rides mean he "is going to be under a microscope," and motorsports fans aren't the only ones who will be looking.

"I understand the attention," Hensley said. "It's a human-interest type of thing. I hope all my years in racing -- more than a quarter-century -- will help me handle the situation. I think they will."

Much of the fascination centers, understandably, on Hensley's being unaware that Kulwicki held such high regard for him as a driver.

"I didn't know," Hensley said softly. "I sure appreciate that from a driver as good as Alan was."

The two never talked at length, comparing racing philosophies. They never socialized, nor had the same friends. They were contrasting personalities -- Kulwicki quiet and a bit introverted; Hensley an outgoing fellow who twice was voted most popular driver on the Grand National tour.

Kulwicki is known to have commented about Hensley's ability to "save equipment," or not tear up cars. Kulwicki had to do that in 1986, when he nursed one car and two engines through the season to become rookie of the year.

Or it could have been Kulwicki's sense of compassion, well known among friends. He felt badly, one says, that Hensley lost his ride this season with Cale Yarborough Motorsports after taking the Winston Cup Rookie of the Year title in 1992. That developed when driver Derrike Cope was able to take a sponsor to the Yarborough team, which had no backing.

Or maybe it's simply that Kulwicki saw how smoothly Hensley had stepped in to substitute for other drivers, including Dale Earnhardt, Davey Allison, Jimmy Means and the late Rob Moroso.

But exactly why was Kulwicki so specific that Hensley be his stand-in? That will never be known.

Hensley, though, is certain of this: "Alan's car and team are the best I've ever had for a race," he said. "The fellows on that team are winners, and it's up to me to go out and do the job. It's a great opportunity. I just wish that it had come under different circumstances."

Hensley has another wish. It's that Kulwicki hadn't always been concentrating so hard and so deep in thought. He would have liked to talk to him.

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