Name: Ricky Rudd
Birthdate: September 12, 1956
Hometown: Chesapeake, Va.
Cup Debut: 1975 Carolina 500 – Rockingham, N.C.
Top Fives: 194
Top 10s: 374
– stats as of 11/15/2007
Career Highlights: Nickname: Rooster. 1977 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year. NASCAR’s Iron Man – holds record for most consecutive starts with 788; ranks second in total starts only to Richard Petty. Tied with Rusty Wallace for most consecutive seasons with at least one win (16), winning at least one race each year from 1983-1998. Winner of the 1997 Brickyard 400. 1992 IROC champion. Named as one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998.
Ricky Rudd began his racing career the same way as many of today’s drivers; behind the wheel of something other than a fendered stock car. Ricky got his start in go-karts at the tender age of nine, at the same time running motocross, and didn’t get into stock car racing until he was 17 years old. He made his first NASCAR start in 1975 at the Carolina 500 at the North Carolina Motor Speedway, in the sand hills of Rockingham, N.C. “The Rock” had always been a test of man and machine, but even more so back then. The extra 100 miles that were removed after 1995 were brutal – Rudd finished 11th in his Cup debut – albeit 56 laps down. His next start at Bristol would result in his first top-10 finish. This time he was only 44 laps down.
For the first few years, Ricky would run a handful of races for family friend Bill Champion as well as machines owned and often sponsored by his father, Al Rudd Sr., an auto parts dealer. Ricky would run nearly a full season in 1977, winning Rookie of the Year honors in the process. In 1979, he moved on to drive for one of the legends of the sport, fellow Virginian and long-time independent Ford campaigner Junie Donlavey.
His big break came in 1983, driving the No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress. Childress had initially wanted Dale Earnhardt to pilot the car, but wasn’t quite sure they equipment they had was good enough for Earnhardt. Perhaps, but it was good enough for Ricky to win the pole for the 1983 Daytona 500 and to take the top spot in the two races after that. Just 13 races into the season, he earned his first career win at Riverside International Raceway and three months later followed it up with a second win at Martinsville, in his home state of Virginia. For 1984, Rudd and Earnhardt essentially swapped rides, with Rudd going to drive for renowned Ford stalwart Bud Moore.
In his first race with Bud Moore Engineering, Rudd was involved in a vicious crash during the Busch Clash (now called the Bud Shootout) at Daytona in February of 1984. With no roof flaps or restrictor plates, Rudd’s car devolved into a genuine 200-mph aerodynamic disaster coming out of turn 4. His car spun sideways and became airborne as it hurled towards the infield embankment. It went into a series of violent flips, pirouettes and barrel rolls that would make Elliott Sadler‘s Talladega exploits look tame in comparison. He suffered a concussion, torn rib cartilage and several bumps and bruises; his face looked like he went the distance with Clubber Lang, and he had to tape his eyes open to compete in the Daytona 500. Rudd manned up for a seventh-place finish in the Great American Race and came back the next week to win in his home state of Virginia, taking the lead from Darrell Waltrip with 20 laps to go.
One of Rudd’s most interesting and memorable moments was an incident involving the No. 3 car he once drove. On the final lap of the Holly Farms 400 at North Wilkesboro in 1989, Rudd, driving the No. 26 Quaker State Buick for drag racer Kenny Bernstein, was racing with Earnhardt for the win. Going into turn 1, Rudd drifted up into Earnhardt, or Earnhardt came down on Rudd, however you want to look at it, sending both of them spinning up the racetrack. ESPN commentator Bob Jenkins was caught up in the moment, his voice raising about two octaves, shattering all glass and crystal within a 50-mile radius, exclaiming, “they go into turn 1 and BOTH OF THEM SPI-YAHN!!!” The incident cleared the way for Earnhardt’s favorite person in the world, Geoff Bodine, to win.
That incident would end up eventually costing Earnhardt the Winston Cup that season.
It was also during this time that Rudd started a trend among drivers; training like an athlete. Long before Carl Edwards graced the cover of Men’s Fitness or Jamie McMurray was rolling out his yoga mat, Rudd was in the gym throwing around steel, preparing for the next week’s 500-mile torture test. Racecars didn’t always have radial tires, cold air boxes or seats that actually held you in place. Driving on bias-ply tires meant sliding a car around for four hours, turning right as often as you would left.
After a stint with Hendrick Motorsports that would see him finish as high as second in points in 1991, ironically to Earnhardt, Rudd would leave to start his own team for 1994 – Rudd Performance Motorsports. At a time when many drivers were trying their hand at being a car owner, Rudd was a little late to the game, but still just as successful as he had been driving for other owners. His crowning accomplishment would come in 1997, holding off Bobby Labonte to win the Brickyard 400. At Martinsville in 1998, he put on a display of intestinal fortitude that solidified the “Iron Man” moniker. With his cooling system malfunctioning on an unseasonably hot September afternoon, Rudd would win the NAPA 500, holding off Jeff Gordon by half a second. Rudd’s team attempted to cool him off by spraying him with a hose. The hose however had been lying in the near 100-degree sun all day, and they ended up blistering him with scalding hot water. He gave his victory lane interview on his back, taking oxygen and cooling himself with cold towels and ice packs.
Rudd would eventually be forced out of his role as owner/driver following the 1999 season. Tide, the company who had sponsored him since 1991, abandoned him to go with the new Cal Wells team. All was not lost however. Rudd would go to Robert Yates Racing, where he would be paired with crew chief Michael “Fatback” McSwain. The driver nicknamed “Rooster” would once again contend for wins and bring Robert Yates flagship No. 28 Havoline entry back to prominence in NASCAR.
Ricky would call it quits following the 2005 season, returning in 2006 at Dover to relieve Tony Stewart, who was injured a week earlier in both Busch and Cup accidents at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Rudd would return to the fold full-time for 2007 for RYR, putting the No. 88 Snickers Ford on the front row for the Daytona 500. At California this past September, Rudd was involved in a grinding crash late in the going, striking the frontstretch wall with the driver’s side of the Snickers Fusion. His 900th start would result in a shoulder injury, leaving him to sit out the next five events.
Rudd was never a shrinking violet behind the wheel. His hot temper earned him the nickname “Rooster” from former crew chief Richard Broome. From 1979 to 1996, he would finish in the top 10 in points all but twice; one of those being an 11th-place effort for the 1988 season. From 1987 to 1991 Rudd would find a way win a road-course race or finish second, often battling with Wallace as the top road warrior in the sport. Back when ESPN actually showed drivers driving, Rudd’s car would be equipped with a foot-cam; his pedal dance proving that stock car drivers really could to something other than just turn left.
While this weekend looks to be the final ride for the Rooster, he and his legion of fans have had plenty to crow about. NASCAR’s Iron Man has personified what it means to show up, play hurt, and get the job done. His blue-collar work ethic has endeared him to many, and will be his lasting tribute. One of the few old-school drivers remaining that many of us grew up watching, Rudd will be missed by many but forgotten by few.