Spirit of fallen NASCAR driver lives on

Robert Prucka was still too young to legally drive a car by himself but not too young to work on engines when one of his favorite NASCAR drivers, Alan Kulwicki, died in a plane crash.

Now Prucka is taking on a new position at Clemson named for his fallen childhood hero.

Prucka, an automotive engineer whose passion for engines is alive as ever, is the new Kulwicki Endowed Professor in Motor Sports Engineering. His first big project will be guiding a team of graduate students and industry sponsors in building a next-generation Rallycross race car at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Engineering in Greenville.

“It’s awesome and it’s humbling,” Prucka said. “It’s a big responsibility to carry on his spirit. He left big shoes to fill.”

Kulwicki received a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and applied what he learned to make his car go faster. When Kulwicki won the 1992 Winston Cup Championship, Prucka was a teenager growing up in Monroe, a small town amidst the cornfields south of Detroit. He was a NASCAR fan and the kind of kid who loved working on engines, whether they powered cars, chainsaws or lawnmowers. “Alan Kulwicki was an engineer, and he owned and drove his own car,” Prucka said. “He used his engineering knowledge to make his small team more successful. In the 1990s, it was rare.” Kulwicki and three others died on April 1, 1993, when a small plane crashed near Blountville, Tennessee. The plane had just left Knoxville, where Kulwicki had been signing autographs at a Hooters restaurant as part of his new sponsorship deal. Among those killed was Mark Brooks ’91, the 26-year-old son of former Hooters restaurants chairman Robert H. Brooks.

The elder Brooks, a Clemson alumnus, later provided the funds that allowed the University to establish the Brooks Center for the Performing Arts, the Kulwicki Endowed Professorship and what is now called the Robert H. Brooks Sports Science Institute. He died at age 69 in 2006.

Prucka is now focusing much of his attention on Deep Orange 9. The ninth installment of the much-celebrated program will be the first aimed at motorsports. Rallycross cars are modified, high-horsepower road cars that compete in sprint races on dirt and paved tracks.

But the new Deep Orange car will be about more than racing. Students will also try to make the car safer and more fuel efficient while reducing emissions. “I love it,” Prucka said. “Deep Orange is a shining star, an example of the right way to educate students for industry. Cars are not four wheels and a steering wheel. They are a mobile electronics platform with advanced powertrains and miles of wire.

“They have the complexity of an airplane, and it’s tough to teach out of a textbook. You need to learn by doing. With Deep Orange, you teach them by building a vehicle.”

Students will also use sensors to track drivers’ eyes and reaction times. The information combined with artificial intelligence could help search for signs of concussion, a problem now largely self-diagnosed in racing.

Kulwicki died at age 38, but his legacy lives on in the way engineers have revolutionized NASCAR. “Today there’s an engineer on every pit box and at least two or three more back at the shop,” Prucka said. “It all started from him. It’s an essential part of being successful in motorsports.” Prucka, a member of the automotive engineering faculty since 2008, has long been central to the Brooks legacy at Clemson. He continues to be active in the Robert H. Brooks Sports Science Institute.

 

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