20 years ago, NASCAR was a much different place. The key players included Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott, Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison. The top series was the Winston Cup Series, the Busch Series (now the Nationwide Series) was much more of a development series than it is today, and the Truck Series was just a thought in someone's head.
1993 changed the face of NASCAR in many ways, namely with untimely passings, a quality rookie class and a competition change that could finally call those races that were "too close to call."
Losing a champion - The loss of reigning Cup Series champion Alan Kulwicki in 1993 was a shock to the system of NASCAR, something no one, from executives down to the fans, was ready for. On April 1, 1993, a small plane carrying Kulwicki and three others crashed on approach to the Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Tennessee, heading to Bristol for the next race. Kulwicki, the last owner-driver to win a championship before Tony Stewart did it in 2011, was known for doing things his way: he called his own shots, could always be found working on his car, and even turned down a ride from the legendary Junior Johnson. That weekend in Bristol, it seemed only fitting that Rusty Wallace, who had starred with Kulwicki in some memorable commercials for Zerex antifreeze, won the race, then completed a "Polish Victory Lap" in honor of his fallen friend.
The end of the Alabama Gang - 1993 may go down as the most tragic season in NASCAR, as not only was Kulwicki killed in an aviation accident, but also Davey Allison, one of Kulwicki's closest competitors for the 1992 title. Allison, son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison, suffered serious head injuries when the helicopter he was piloting crashed in the infield at Talladega Superspeedway on July 12, 1993, also injuring family friend and long-time "Alabama Gang" member Red Farmer; Allison died from his injuries the next day, while Farmer survived. Allison's death was part of a series of tragedies that led to the end of the "Alabama Gang," including his father's life-threatening and career-ending crash in June 1988, brother Clifford's death in a racing practice accident in August 1992, and Neil Bonnett's death in a practice crash in February 1994. At season's end, finale winner Wallace and season champion Earnhardt drove a side-by-side "Polish Victory Lap," carrying flags with Kulwicki's No. 7 and Allison's No. 28.
A career beginning - 1993 marked a rookie battle that evolved into three long-term NASCAR careers. The Rookie of the Year in 1993, not surprisingly, was Jeff Gordon, who made his Cup Series debut in the season finale in 1992 - which also marked Richard Petty's final race. Gordon and his "Rainbow Warriors" pit crew scored 11 top 10 finishes and a pole in his rookie year in the No. 24 of Hendrick Motorsports; he went on to score four Cup Series titles (1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001), win 87 races and 72 poles (through the end of 2012).
Gordon's main competition for the season: Bobby Labonte, who earned six top 10s and a pole in 1993, and Kenny Wallace, who earned three top 10 finishes. Labonte, brother of two-time Cup champ Terry Labonte, went on to win a Cup Series title of his own in 2000 (the first driver to win both the Nationwide Series and Cup Series championships), while Wallace, youngest brother of NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace, has become a favorite NASCAR television broadcaster while still continuing to race in the Nationwide Series and on dirt tracks. P.J. Jones, son of the legendary Parnelli Jones, finished fourth in the rookie battle; he collected his first top 10 Cup Series finish at Watkins Glen that season.
NASCAR + Trucks = A New Series - Four SCORE International Off-Road Racing Series drivers - Dick Landfield, Jimmy Smith, Jim Venable, and Frank "Scoop" Vessels - were brainstorming ideas on how to get more publicity for truck racing and build a bigger audience. The foursome built a prototype NASCAR-style pickup truck in 1993, which made its debut in February 1994 at the Daytona 500. Four demonstration races were contested that season, including one at Tucson Raceway Park in Arizona. Tucson went on to host four more events that winter as part of its Winter Heat Series; the popularity of the series during Winter Heat led NASCAR to create the Super Truck Series in 1995, now known as the Camping World Truck Series.
Integrated electronic scoring debuts - In May 1993, NASCAR threw away the stop watches and analog timing clocks and switched to integrated electronic scoring. Instead of photo finishes - like the 1959 Daytona 500, which was completed for 61 hours before an official winner was declared - NASCAR could now determine finishes down to a fraction of a second. That same season, the July race at Talladega Superspeedway was decided by just 0.005 seconds, as Earnhardt beat Ernie Irvan to the checkered flag. Since then, the closest finishes in NASCAR history are at 0.002 seconds (Ricky Craven over Kurt Busch in 2003 and Jimmie Johnson over Clint Bowyer in 2011).
Paula is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in motorsports. She also covers NASCAR at Skirts & Scuffs and Examiner.com.