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Auto racer Kulwicki, three others die in plane crash

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Race car driver Alan Kulwicki -- the 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup champion -- and three others were killed when a private plane registered to his corporate sponsor crashed on the way to a race.

Kulwicki, 38, was flying from Knoxville for Sunday's Food City 500 at Bristol International Raceway, a race he won last year, when the plane crashed Thursday night about five miles northeast of Tri-City Regional Airport.

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Five people were listed on the flight plan but officials said only four were aboard -- Kulwicki and three employees of Hooters of America Inc. restaurants, Kulwicki's sponsor.

Sullivan County Sheriff Keith Carr said the victims were Kulwicki; Mark Brooks, 26, Atlanta; Dan Duncan, 44, Taylor, S.C.; and the pilot, Charlie Campbell, 48, Peachtree City, Ga.

Hooters spokesman Mike McNeil in Atlanta said Brooks, Hooters' sports marketing manager, was the son of Hooters Chairman Robert H. Brooks of Fayetteville, Ga. McNeil said Duncan was the company's director of sports management and Campbell was the corporate pilot.

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Air traffic controller Dale Cannon said the airport lost radio contact at 9:29 p.m. as the plane followed the aircraft of fellow racer Dale Earnhardt. Earnhardt's pilot, Mike Colyer, said he noticed nothing wrong.

'They were about two miles behind us and they didn't have any problems that I noticed,' Colyer said. 'The ceiling was 4,000 feet and I saw the airport from 15 miles out.

'The pilot (Charlie Campbell) called the tower and said, 'We are outside the marker.' The tower called back and said they were cleared for landing on Runway Two.

'It wasn't 30 seconds later, I heard the impact on the radio.'

Colyer said the radio microphone in Kulwicki's aircraft was on at the time of the collision.

'I heard a grunt and a holler, then I heard the impact,' Colyer said. 'The tower controller heard it too because he was trying to call back and couldn't get a response.'

He said when he landed, he saw a group from Hooters waiting at the airport.

'The worst part was I told Earnhardt, Kulwicki had gone down, and then all the Hooter's people were waiting at the airport to pick them up,' Colyer said. 'I couldn't tell them. I just couldn't tell them.'

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Kulwicki, who was unmarried and lived in Charlotte, N.C., had made an appearance in Knoxville for Hooters before the flight on the Swearingen Merlin twin-engine turboprop, which McNeil said was owned by Robert Brooks and leased to Hooters.

Sullivan County Coroner Ike Lowry said a forensic pathologist determined all four victims died on impact.

Carr said the plane was on final approach to the airport with six- mile visibility in light rain and light fog.

'We do not believe fog was a contributing factor,' he said.

Carr said two deputies en route to a routine call saw the crash.

'It appeared to be on a normal glide slope and simply went into what they considered an extreme downward attitude, a spiral, impacting the ground,' he said. He said the plane was roughly 600 to 800 feet high when it went into the spiral. He also declined to speculate on a cause for the crash.

The plane came down on rolling farmland at the edge of a woods, within 500 to 600 feet of half a dozen houses. Carr said no one on the ground was injured.

The airport is in the center of a triangle formed by Bristol, Johnson City and Kingsport in northeastern Tennessee. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating to determine the cause of the crash.

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Kulwicki's peers paid tribute to him Friday at Bristol Raceway, watching as crew member Peter Jellen, weeping, drove the team transporter slowly around the track for one lap. As the truck crossed the finish line, NASCAR starter Doyle Ford waved the checkered flag.

Later NASCAR officials stopped practice while the transporter drove down the front straightaway, leaving the track for the final time.

The 1986 NASCAR Winston Cup rookie of the year, Kulwicki became an auto racing rags-to-riches story in 1992, winning the Winston Cup title as the first owner-driver since Richard Petty in 1979. The Greenfield, Wis., native won five races in 207 starts and won a total of $5,095,052. He finished sixth in last Sunday's TranSouth Financial 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.

Kulwicki was offered a ride by legendary car owner Junior Johnson before the 1989 season, but turned it down in order to build his own team.

'I look back on that and I don't know how I did it. It was a matter of blind faith and perseverance and looking at the goal and not the obstacles,' Kulwicki said. 'I guess that's what I've always done.'

NASCAR driver Benny Parsons said the death of Kulwicki was like losing a neighbor.

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'That's what we feel like with all those people in there. Just exactly like the guy next door,' he said. 'And that's who just passed away.'

Driver Darrell Waltrip said it was difficult to grasp the idea Kulwicki was gone.

'It was really getting to where he enjoyed having that car, and driving, and racing and all that went with it,' he said. 'It's a tough thing. I mean, it's hard to imagine. It's hard to imagine.'

Kulwicki had a masters degree in engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and drove stock cars on the American Speed Association circuit before loading up a pickup truck with all of his personal belongings in 1986 to head south to compete in NASCAR.

Kulwicki is survived by his father, Jerry Kulwicki. Brooks is survived by his parents Bob and Yvonne and a brother, Coby; Duncan is survived by his wife Joan and two children; and Campbell is survived by his wife Barbara and two children.

Hooters had been Kulwicki's team sponsor since March 1991.

'Our hearts go out to the victims' families and friends,' said Rick Akam, company president. 'All four individuals were an integral part of the Hooters organization. This is a tremendous business and personal loss.' The company closed its corporately owned restaurants Friday because of the deaths.

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Ford Motor Company recognized the death of one of its drivers by lowering flags at Ford's North American Automotive Operations headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., to half staff.

'We lost a good friend,' said Michael Kranefuss, who heads Ford's worldwide racing operations.

'Alan was a great example of what someone can accomplish through hard work and sheer determination,' he said. 'He certainly always did it his own way.'

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