Ricky Rudd, driver of the No. 88 Snickers Ford Fusion, was a guest during the lunch break in the Daytona International Speedway infield media center to discuss his return to full-time NASCAR Nextel Cup Series racing. His comments follow:
RICKY RUDD -- No. 88 Snickers Ford Fusion
"We're looking forward to it. We're having a good test so far and it's good to be back. I had a nice little vacation and I'm kind of refreshed a little bit. The burnout factor was setting in a little bit too much and I just took some time off -- took a year off -- and just sort of cleared my head and figured out what I wanted to do. I was fortunate enough that, first of all, the risk that I knew I was taking when I did that was if I decided I wanted to come back, there might not be an opportunity for me because all the seats would already have been filled. As the way things turned out, it worked out really good that Robert Yates was looking for someone to fill the seat in the 88 and the Mars Candy Company and Snickers was good enough to step up and sponsor the car and I'm really looking forward to it and that's where we sit. We're down here at Daytona for about the 900th time I think and we out there testing trying to figure out what it takes to go fast here."
YOUR THOUGHTS ON BOBBY HAMILTON?
"Bobby is just a super guy. He's a racer and a competitor. He came up back when nobody was making any money in this sport. He was here because he loved this sport. He worked hard to build his race team, but even before that as a competitor he was very good. He was very aggressive when he needed to be. He was very smart. He was a real good setup guy -- really good on getting his cars to be dialed in and set up. I think that's what sort of what separated Bobby and made him different than a lot of the competitors because he was very good at setting his own cars up. I'm not really sure what happened. The Cup deal is kind of crazy because if you're in the wrong car at the wrong time, all of a sudden your career can sort of be over and I'm not really sure what happened to Bobby, but he went over to the Truck Series and started his own team. Everybody knows he did very well over there, but Bobby was a great guy and a great competitor and he'll be missed in this garage area for sure."
HE WON A TRUCK CHAMPIONSHIP.
"Yeah, Bobby worked for that. He put a lot into it. He put a lot of time and effort into it. He put a lot of his own money. He could have walked away and taken all his money and saved it somewhere, but he sort of put it out there for risk and invested heavily in that truck team and it paid off dividends. Hopefully, financially it made sense for him and his family is taken care of because these things will eat large amounts of money, but I have a lot of respect for Bobby, not only as a driver but as a car owner and a set up guy."
WHAT WAS IT LIKE THE FIRST TIME YOU WATCHED A RACE ON TV AND WHEN DID THE ITCH TO RACE COME BACK?
"I don't think the itch to race ever really left. I tried to keep it in check and tried not to watch too many broadcasts or listen to it on the radio. We did a lot of things. On Sundays there wasn't a whole lot of free Sundays to sit around and watch the TV even if we wanted to, but occasionally it worked out where I could see the race. I'll say I'd just watch the start of the race and usually that was the case, but sometimes if the race was really good I'd sit there and watch the whole thing, but not too many times did that happen. We were off busy doing other things. We were busy and working hard at playing and catching up and visiting people that I hadn't seen in many years, and doing a lot of maintenance unfortunately. That wasn't necessarily the pretty thing about sitting by the wayside there. Back when you race you've got enough money to do all of your maintenance stuff. When you quit, you've got to start doing your own stuff. That's probably the biggest reality check, but I was always good about trying to keep that in perspective because I knew the day would be coming someday where we wouldn't always be spoiled like we are today and you'd have to go out and cut your own grass and do all that, so I never really got too far away from that because I knew that day would be coming."
WHAT LED TO THE BURNOUT FACTOR AND DO YOU HAVE A DIFFERENT FRAME OF MIND NOW?
"The burnout factor, I think it's probably not too hard to figure out. Thirty-one years of non-stop -- they call it an off season right now -- but as you can see it's not much of an off-season. It's really just one season rolls into the next and the next one rolls into the next and before you know it, you look around and 10-15 years have gone by. The biggest thing for me was to really sit back. My father passed away last year. He was 81 years old and lived a full life and I'm sitting there thinking, 'Man, how did he get to be 81?' I don't think it's no different than anything else you do in life, whether you have your own business and you put heart and soul into it, time does have a way of getting by and flying away from us, but I think that was sort of a reality check for me. 'Gosh, he's 81. How did he get to be that age?'
And I'm looking at my son and he's coming along and before I know it he's 12 years old and I don't feel like we got a chance to spend the time together that I would have liked to have had. He goes to school when it's dark and he comes home when it's dark, so you don't see him during the week. Drivers are off some weekdays, but to spend time with your kids and your family -- the weekend is what we do and he's not particularly a huge race fan so he doesn't go to the races and I was not seeing much of him. It was just a chance to get to know everybody again and take a little time off and really figure out what I wanted to do. Since I was a kid, this is all I wanted to do. You work and you work and you work to try to get to the top of your sport and, again, time gets by, but is that really what I wanted to do. I'm 50 years old now. Is this really what I want to do and how much longer can I really do it? It really was just sort of thoughts on life on what you want to do, I guess, when you grow up. It was good for me. I got a chance to come back and clear my head. I found out what I really wanted to do was I wanted to race and wanted to be in competitive cars and the opportunity sort of presented itself. There was some great opportunities early on -- like February and March -- with some of the start-up teams that you have that are gonna be pretty darn good out of the box, but I interviewed for a couple of those and talked to a couple of those owners and, really, I wasn't ready to make that commitment. To be fair to myself and to be fair to the teams, I wasn't able and wasn't ready to commit to a full-time schedule at that time, so that was February/March.
Those guys need to move forward with their race teams and they need to start putting plans together to know who their driver is -- even as early as February of last year or March. So, anyway, the opportunity with Robert Yates Racing came along. I hated to see the downfall of that team and how far the performance had gotten off in a fairly short period of time, but there's many different reasons for that and Robert is bound and determined to try to build this thing back up to where it was. He's there every morning opening the doors to the shop and I'm working with a great guy in Butch Hylton as the crew chief. It's got a lot of the right chemistry that can come along and we can be good. David Gilliland, I've never had an opportunity to really work with a driver before. When I was in the multi-car teams it was years ago and they really weren't successful at that time. They worked harder to beat each other than they did the competition and that's changed drastically.
David is a great guy. He's gonna be good to work with. He's my size. We can get in and out of each other's cars, so, anyway, there were many good things that I could see in that team and sometimes the public can look and say, 'Aw, look at the performance of the team. It's in the tank.' I'm not gonna fix it by myself obviously, but I feel like I can bring some tools to the team that can help benefit them that necessarily a young guy can't really bring. He doesn't have that tremendous amount of background experience on all these race tracks like I do and there's no question these guys can drive. David Gilliland can drive as good as anybody out there, but he hasn't seen these race tracks. Some of them he's never been to before, so I can help him a little bit on that. So, anyway, there are many positives there and I was kind of excited about the challenge so I'm back."
WHAT ARE YOUR IMPRESSIONS OF GILLILAND?
"I haven't seen him in race conditions. I've seen him in a race car. We rolled into Rockingham, North Carolina and he'd never seen the place before. The same thing with Greenville, South Carolina, a place we tested. Right off the truck I'm impressed. Right off the truck he's right up to speed. It wasn't like he had to work at going fast. He's able to go fast and that's a good thing. I know he's had a couple of accidents and a couple of wrecks along the way, but that comes with time. To me, that's the right ingredient. It's easier to take a guy that can run fast just by nature and work at slowing him down and getting him to be smart and knowing when to run, than it is to take a guy that's not up to speed and trying to get him to go fast. That sometimes can be an impossible task, where you can work with a guy that can go fast. He needs to learn how to race a 500-mile race and I'm sure he's come a long way since he first hopped in that car about the middle of the season and he's got some ways to go, but I think there are some mental things that you go through as a driver to put a 500-mile race together and I think he's definitely gonna come into his own this coming season."
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON JIMMIE JOHNSON'S SUCCESS AND IS THE SPECULATION FAIR ABOUT HIM BEING THIS GOOD JUST BECAUSE HE'S IN A GOOD SITUATION?
"I guess people are always gonna compare today's racers to yesterday's racers. That's probably gonna always go on. Jimmie is great. He's proven himself. He's a champion. He's won races by being smart. His team has been very good. It takes the whole thing. Right now that operation is 450-500 employees and it's a little different deal. I was over there back in the late eighties and early nineties and it was just a different era. They were just getting going and just being able to take advantage of all the resources they had back then, but they're smart.
If you look in these organizations and you look at one versus the other, there is smart personnel within all the organizations, but you really start looking at the depth of the organization. That's when you look at a Hendrick and you look at how much depth they have. Some of the organizations, when they're at the race track they've got a lot of their key people at the race track, so sometimes back at the shop maybe they're spread a little thin or maybe their R&D side of it is a little weak. There's not time for the R&D because they're full-time racing, when an organization like Hendrick has definitely figured out how to make that R&D side continue to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A lot of organizations are probably trying to model themselves and copy that, but it really gets back to the depth of the people they've got working for them and the leadership abilities they have within the team are second to none. Certainly Jimmie Johnson, what driver wouldn't like to step into an organization that's a fine-tuned machine. That's not to take anything away from him, but you could take Jimmie out and plug anyone of 15-20 guys in there and they would do the same job."
DO YOU HAVE ANY FAVORITE BENNY PARSONS STORIES?
"Hopefully he is gonna rebound from this thing he's got going on. It looks like he's got the cancer whipped, but I guess he's got some injuries due to the nature of the aggressiveness that I guess they treated him with. Benny is a class-act guy. He's been around a long time. He's won races. He's won a championship. He's well-respected in the garage for sure. If you watch Benny, I've never heard him say anything negative about anybody. Sometimes he might elect to maybe not mention certain people, but that's not always a bad thing. What do they say? If you can't say something good about somebody, don't say anything at all. I think that's kind of the philosophy that Benny's gone by. I don't know of anybody that will say Benny Parsons is their enemy because he's had that strategy all the way through his broadcast career. I'm not gonna say too much more because I don't want to think about the negative. I think Benny is gonna be back because he's a tough guy."
Continued in part 2