This Week in Ford Racing May 21, 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup Ricky Rudd, driver of the No. 28 Havoline Taurus, will set the record for consecutive starts on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series this weekend at 656 when he takes the green flag for...
This Week in Ford Racing
May 21, 2002
NASCAR Winston Cup
Ricky Rudd, driver of the No. 28 Havoline Taurus, will set the record for consecutive starts on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series this weekend at 656 when he takes the green flag for Sunday's Coca-Cola Racing Family 600. Rudd will break the previous mark set by Terry Labonte, who started 655 consecutive events from 1979 to 2000. Rudd spoke about the streak recently at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
RICKY RUDD -28- Havoline Taurus
WHAT ABOUT THIS STREAK? "To be mentioned in the company with Terry Labonte, and we all know how tough he is week in and week out. He hasn't just been out there. This guy is a champion. He's a competitor and wins races, and what can you say about Richard Petty and being named in the same breath with him. It's a tremendous honor to be with this group of guys and then for me to take the award at Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600 is a pretty neat deal. It's one of the things where you don't start your career thinking 'I'm gonna go out there and race every week just to win this award.' Week in and week out, I feel like I just do what I get paid to do and that's to go out and try to win each and every race we go to. If you don't win, you go out and give it 120 percent. Thinking about not driving sick or injured was really never a consideration."
DID YOU HAVE ANY CLOSE CALLS WHERE THE STREAK COULD HAVE ENDED? "I can think of maybe two. One of them was in the Daytona 500 way back in '84 and, really, there was never really a question of not racing the next weekend. It had taken me my whole career to get to a point to get to a team like Bud Moore and I wasn't about to let somebody else have that steering wheel that weekend because I might not have gotten a chance to get it back after that. So that was one time. The other one was during The Winston, I guess, in the late eighties back during the tire war. We blew a right-front tire and hit the fence pretty hard and tore the ligaments in my left leg. Even then, there really wasn't consideration about whether I was gonna start the race or not, it was just how can the crew work and adapt the car because I couldn't use the clutch anymore, they had to rig up a hand clutch. But, again, I don't feel like I've done anything special that any other Winston Cup driver wouldn't have done at the time. You do what you have to do to go out there and race, and not just race but to go out there and try to compete and win a race."
CAN YOU REMEMBER ANY MOMENTS ON TRACK WITH TERRY THAT MIGHT HAVE MADE YOU MAD? "I really can't think of anything. I've run into just about everybody out there on the circuit once or twice, but it's amazing that I haven't run into Terry over the years and he hasn't run into me. I can't really think of anything."
ON DRIVING FOR ROBERT YATES THE FIRST TIME. "That was a neat deal. I was just a kid at the time, but I think it's neat that I came back after all these years. He fired me 20 years ago and he hired me back. That was a big educational year to drive for Robert. I wasn't ready for that ride at that time, but to be back with him is a really neat deal."
DID YOU EVER IMAGINE YOU WOULD BE OUT THERE EVERY WEEK FOR THIS LONG IN QUALITY EQUIPMENT? "You did what you had to do. You didn't think about starting a consecutive streak at that time, you just did what you had to do to get to the race. In our case, in our early years, everybody worked hard and you'd get your car and go racing. It might be 30 days later and then we'd race again. Whenever my dad was able to sell some more used parts, we'd go buy some tires and we'd go race again. We didn't think about consecutive streaks. Just real quickly, to let you know how much Winston Cup racing has changed in my era, in 1977 we're at Talladega. The preceding week we had blown our last motor at Pocono, Pennsylvania. In '77 we were running for rookie of the year against a company called MC Anderson, which was a heavily financed operation, and we were starting out in my dad's salvage yard. We blew our last engine up at Pocono. The deal was that we had a tow truck at the time. It was a one-ton Chevrolet pick-up that had an aluminum box on the back and we pulled a trailer. That was a pretty nice rig in it's day, but we blew the motor and the only motor we had left out there was in the truck. Back then, you used a Chevrolet block and the only one we had was in our tow truck. My brother and I worked a deal. I pulled the motor out and he went to work on it. I wasn't very good at building stuff, I could tear the stuff apart, so I pulled the motor out of the truck. My brother took it back and stripped it down and rebuilt that motor in just a couple of days and we carried it to Talladega. We got to Talladega and got qualified and then right before the race in happy hour practice, we blew an engine. There weren't anymore spare motors, that was it. That was the last thing we could race with, so Robert was over there and I'm not sure exactly how we conned him out of a motor, but I'm sure we made some kind of promise that we probably wouldn't have been able to keep. I think the motor was like $7,000 at the time and it was a fair deal, but we didn't have any money to pay him. So we go out and we end up having our best race of the year. We finished fourth at Talladega and I think the purse was like $7,000 at the time. Back then you waited for your payoff, you didn't wait for the check to come in the mail, you went and hung out at the pay booth. So we went there, got the money and handed it over to Robert. It all worked out for everybody."
DO YOU THINK ANYBODY WILL REACH THIS STREAK BECAUSE OF THE SCHEDULE BEING SO LONG? "I think you're gonna see guys coming in much younger, but leave much younger. I think it will probably sort of mirror the Formula One circuit. You watch those younger guys come in at like 30 years old and then they sort of move on. I think you're gonna see that trend probably start to happen and it's already starting to happen. I won my first race when I was 26, but I had run something like 165 races before I won my first one. Times change and times move on, but I think you'll see the trend where guys come in younger, make beaucoup of money and be retired at an earlier age. Things are constantly changing. I think the farm system seems to be working for NASCAR, not only the NASCAR farm system with the Busch Series, but ARCA is a big part of that. My nephew ran last week at Kentucky and that's almost a throwback to the way it was twenty-some years ago. They just got a group they put together and they carried a car to the race track and finished third and now they're gonna go back and save their money. It might be another month before they can race again, but the farm systems are working. The sport is pretty healthy right now. I'm not always necessarily in agreement with what's going on with certain things, but, all in all, it's pretty healthy."
IF KENNY BERNSTEIN HAD NOT TAKEN YOU TO INDY AFTER YOUR ACCIDENT IN THE WINSTON, WOULD YOUR STREAK HAVE ENDED? "I blew a tire and hit the fence and tore the medial collateral ligament in my left leg. The local doctors here wanted to operate on me and I'd be out for six weeks. That was the end of the story and it was not even open for discussion. So Kenny Bernstein flew me up to Indianapolis later that afternoon and saw Dr. Terry Trammell. He was used to putting everybody's legs back together on the Indy car circuit when they crashed and he took a look at it. He had a big difference in philosophy on how to treat the injury and he had me on an exercise bike working out later that day. An operation wasn't even a consideration, but I think back then sports medicine wasn't as cranked up to the point where it is today. They look at injuries different. That was something where we couldn't deal with six weeks, so I guess we went to the doctor that told us something we wanted to hear. But had we not gone to see him, there's probably not a question that I would have gone with the local doctors here and been operated on. Instead of probably six weeks I probably would have been out two weeks just because of being hard-headed and determined, but, still, the streak would have probably come to an end."
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO REACH THIS POINT WITH THE STREAK? "It's a tremendous honor to beat that record. Right now we've got it tied with Terry Labonte and, obviously, the guys in front of me that have held this honor - not only Terry Labonte, but Richard Petty. It's a tremendous honor and there aren't a whole lot of people who can say they've got this record. It'll be a big day when we start the Coca-Cola 600."
DID YOU THINK YOU'D EVER RACE THIS LONG TO REACH THIS POINT? "No, I never really thought about it. The early part of my career was such a struggle just to get from one race to the next. In the early days we would run one race a weekend and then we might skip five or six before we could get cars built back together and go race again. The early part of my career was always a struggle just to get with a team that could run all the races. Once we started doing that around 1981, it was kind of amazing when I think back about never skipping a race since that year. Again, that's not something everybody can lay claim to because there were probably plenty of opportunities to have sat out on occasions when we decided to go on and get the race started."
HOW DO YOU FEEL AFTER ALL THESE YEARS? "I've been pretty fortunate. I've been fairly injury free. I've had a few minor ones along the way and some situations where you hurt and maybe didn't feel like getting in a car right away, but I'm pretty lucky. I guess the only thing that sort of popped up last winter was that I ended up having back surgery because I had a disc problem. That probably had something to do with the wear and tear of all those miles on the race track, but I guess if I come away from racing with just a little bit of a disc problem, then I'll be happy."
THERE'S BEEN SPECULATION ABOUT YOU RETIRING AFTER THIS YEAR. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS? "To be honest with you, I'm not sure exactly. I'm 45 years old and I know I'm not gonna be racing when I'm 50, so sometime between now and the next five years I'll be stepping aside. I think at this time I'd like to just take it year by year. Right now I'm coming off one of the best years I've had in my career driving the Havoline Ford Taurus. We contended for the championship most of the year and ended up finishing fourth and won a couple of races, so I had a good season. This season didn't get off to a good start, but we're starting to come back around. We probably should be talking about a victory we had at Richmond. We were lapping a car and a lapped car wrecked us, but we're happy to be in the top 10. We've got a good chance of finishing up well and you can't rule out a championship either, but somewhere along the line - if you go until you're 60 or 70 - performance is gonna start falling off. I'm just taking it a year at a time and as long as my abilities haven't deteriorated, I'll be out here another year. It could be a year, it could be two years or it could be three years, but it won't be longer than five."
SO A STRONG FINISH THIS YEAR COULD BRING YOU BACK NEXT YEAR? "I think so. I think that's the motivation all of us are out here for is to challenge for a championship and race wins. That's the biggest motivational factor you can have."
WITH ALL THIS TALK ABOUT HTE YOUNG DRIVERS DO YOU FEEL LIKE YELLING OIUT AND LETTING PEOPLE KNOW YOU OLDER GUYS CAN STILL GET IT DONE? "There's no doubt about the fact that you've got some young guys who have come into this sport and done an excellent job and you can't fault them for that. There have been many young drivers come along, but probably not that many with the opportunity a lot of these young guys have got today. Certainly they've got the talent. There have been a lot of young drivers in the past that have been come and gone that maybe didn't necessarily have the top-notch equipment and it's about timing really. First of all, good equipment is one thing but you've got to be able to take something and make something out of that good equipment. If you don't, you probably won't get another year to prove yourself. These guys are proving out and doing well. The only thing I guess I don't like that I see is that if a guy is leading a race - whether he's 50 or 20 - he should be mentioned. Just give credit where credit is due. The age thing is not really all that relative to me. If you're doing the job and you're getting it done, whether you're young or your old it doesn't matter because these teams are motivated. The guys that work on these race cars work awfully hard and put a lot of hours in. If their car is up front, they deserve to be mentioned and the sponsors deserve to be mentioned if they're up front. If they're in the back of the pack, then you can understand people getting skipped over."
DOES LONGEVITY HELP ON THE TRACK AS FAR AS HAVING EXPERIENCE? "I don't know. I think, if anything, it helps you be a little smarter about things. That's something when I watched these guys come along this year. We knew we had a big rookie crop. I'm a past Darlington Record Club president and used to conduct the rookie meetings a couple years back, so, usually a young driver comes out and has a lot of talent. They want to go fast right away and they generally don't think things through and that's what I've sort of been surprised by with this group right now. Not only do they drive good and drive smart, but they drive like they've got years of experience under their belt. A lot of that can be contributed to the teams. They have spotters that work with these guys and help them do a lot of their thinking and that's a big plus nowadays. I think it's a trend you're gonna continue to see in the future."
WILL THIS KIND OF RECORD SINK IN AFTER YOU RETIRE? "I think right now you're so busy trying to get to the next weekend's race and you're thinking strictly about competition. This record is a tremendous honor, especially to be mentioned with Richard Petty and Terry Labonte in the same breath. It's a big honor for me to be mentioned like that, but, in the same breath, you have to also say that a 16-year win streak means a lot to me also. So those two together, I think it just says that determination is hopefully something we'll be known for one day when we step aside."
HOW IMPORTANT HAS YOUR FAMILY BEEN IN THIS STREAK? "They've been tremendous. Linda has been with me the whole way. We actually went to school together and when I raced motorcycles and dirt bikes and eventually Winston Cup stock cars, she's been there for my whole career. She's been very instrumental over the years, especially when you come out and have an injury or something you're trying to nurse along. Without her help at home trying to get me through those injuries, I wouldn't have been out here being able to compete week in and week out without breaking that streak record."
WHAT ABOUT TERRY LABONTE AS A COMPETITOR? "There's no doubt about it, Terry goes out there every week and gives 120 percent. He's a Winston Cup champion and just a tough guy. It's unfortunate that I'm basically getting this record because Terry had to step aside a couple of years ago with an injury that he just couldn't whip right away. Throughout all these years we've probably had contact or run into each other, but I don't think we've ever had a harsh word against one another."
DO YOU FEEL LUCKY THE LAST 20 YEARS TO SEE THE CHANGES THAT HAVE OCCURRED? "Changes don't happen right away, they develop over time. I guess I've had the blinders on. I'm more tunnel-visioned because I look and focus strictly on the competition side of the race car. I look at the changes that have taken place in the equipment and have sort of been blind to all the changes around us and then, all of a sudden, you wake up one day and you've got 75,000 people in the grandstands. That was unheard of 15-20 years ago, so the sport has changed and the whole thing about it is that the fans will continue to come out as long as the races are good. The minute that changes, they'll stop coming so, hopefully, NASCAR keeps the races exciting and will continue to build the sport. And that's what I see happening."