CLEMSON — 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.

With the crash’s 24th anniversary approaching this Saturday, Prucka is taking on a new position at Clemson University named for his fallen childhood hero.

Dr. Robert Prucka checks the sensors on an engine in a lab at Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research.

Robert Prucka checks the sensors on an engine in a lab at Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research.

Prucka, an automotive engineer whose passion for engines is alive as ever, is the new Kulwicki Endowed Chair in Motorsports.

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, 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 Chair and what is now called the Brooks Institute for Sports Science. He died at 69 years old in 2006.

Zoran Filipi, chair of Clemson’s automotive engineering department, said the contributions are helping the Kulwicki and Brooks names live on through the university.

“Dr. Prucka’s passion for motorsports makes his new position a fitting honor,” Filipi said. “He is an outstanding teacher and scholar. Students are consistent in saying that he is instrumental in complementing science with the hands-on experience that prepares them for careers in the automotive industry.

“In addition, Robert has been effective in using motorsports as a way to boost interest among the middle and high-school students for STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math”

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.

Prucka said the extreme-sport culture will help excite students. The potential is reflected in YouTube videos that capture tens of millions of views, including a 10-minute clip in Ken Block’s Gymkhana series that has been viewed more than 90 million times.

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.

Also as part of the project, marketing students working under associate professor Jennifer Siemens will look for new ways to make Rallycross even more exciting to viewers.

Prucka is now 38 years old, the same age as Kulwicki when he died.

Prucka said that when he was a teenager, Kulwicki and Davey Allison were his favorite drivers. Allison died in a helicopter crash little more than three months after Kulwicki’s plane crash.

Even as he sat in his CU-ICAR office nearly a quarter century removed, Prucka remembered the transporter carrying Kulwicki’s car around Bristol Motor Speedway for one final tribute lap.

“It’s one of those images you don’t forget,” Prucka said.

But Kulwicki’s 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 previously served as director of the Brooks Motorsports Institute, which was the forerunner to the Brooks Institute for Sports Science. He remains active in the institute.

Prucka has received several honors, including SAE International’s Ralph R. Teetor Educational Award and the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences’ Murray Stokely Award for Outstanding Teaching.

Anand Gramopadhye, the college’s dean, said Prucka is well-positioned to carry on the spirit of his childhood hero.

“His accomplishments, passion for students and close work with industry make him an excellent fit for the Kulwicki Endowed Chair in Motorsports,” Gramopadhye said. “I congratulate him. This is a well-deserved honor, one that helps further the legacies of the Brooks family and Alan Kulwicki.”

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