Archive for Thursday, October 11, 2001

Right call, right time

From young phenom to owner-driver,

October 11, 2001

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Ricky Rudd is having the best season in his 26-year Winston Cup career.

Rudd has won twice this season, at Pocono and Richmond, matching his career best total in NASCAR's top series. He's second in the Winston Cup standings, the only driver with any realistic chance to catch points leader Jeff Gordon.

Rudd has had a long and sometimes difficult journey through the sport.

He went from young phenom to part of a successful multicar team, before going solo and testing the often turbulent waters of being a driver-owner.

The path has led him to Robert Yates Racing as driver of the No. 28 Fords, a team with its own rich history that includes the brilliant but tragically short career of the late Davey Allison.

Rudd, who turned 45 on Sept. 9, is enjoying his success.

"As far as I am concerned, I don't have anything to prove to anybody," Rudd said. "I sort of race for myself to do well. I am driven by my natural instincts to perform and do the best I can.

"I don't have to have anybody to tell me to do better."

Rudd's Winston Cup career began in 1975, but he has been racing since he was 9 years old.

"I was racing every week somewhere," he said. "I didn't really think about where I wanted to be or where I wanted to go. I just knew that one day I wanted to race cars and wanted to be successful at it."

He was 19 when he showed up at Rockingham for his first career start, on March 2, 1975. He had never been in a stock car before in his life.

"I'd been to a short track to watch cars race as a kid, but I'd never been in a race car," Rudd said. "I'd never raced anything but go-karts or motorcycles. The first laps I had in a race car, period, were in practice at Rockingham.

"I didn't even know what all of the flags meant. I knew green, yellow and checkered."

He finished 11th, "about 20 or 30 laps down," he said, in that first race, and was 10th at Bristol the next time out.

Racing in cars owned by his father, Rudd was rookie of the year in 1977. He went to Junie Donlavey's team in 1979 and then to Bill Gardner's DiGard team in 1981, where he won his first pole, finished second three times and ended up sixth in the points standings.

His first win came at Riverside, Calif., in 1983 in a car owned by Richard Childress, beginning a string of 16 straight seasons in which he would win at least one race. He went to Hendrick Motorsports in 1990 and finished second in points in 1991, then decided in 1993 to start his own team.

"I still think it was the right call for me at that particular time," Rudd said. "Owning my own team wasn't a lifelong ambition. If I had the sponsorship dollars it was all about people and organization and building a championship team, so we went off in that direction. That was my best opportunity, I thought, to win a championship.

"I knew it would be a building process. What I didn't anticipate was that pieces would fall off as you were picking them up and putting them back together. The goal kept getting moved back. Instead of a five-year plan, realistically, it's a 10-year plan to win a championship."

When Rudd lost his primary sponsor at the end of the 1999 season, he faced a difficult decision.

"You couldn't just walk away," he said. "My wife and I would sit up, literally, 24 hours working on stuff, trying to get our plans together, and all of that. There weren't enough hours in a day. When it came time to shut it down, it was hard to separate yourself from all the work it took to build it."

The opportunity to drive for Yates' team made that tough call easier, and the success he's enjoying only reinforces that.

"I rode the ownership deal as long as I could without everybody going to the poorhouse," Rudd said. "I am glad now looking back that a major sponsor didn't come along. I couldn't have planned it out any better."

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