Fontana II: Rudd - Friday wake-up call, part 1

Ricky Rudd, driver of the No. 88 Snickers Ford Fusion, will be making his 900th career NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series start on Sunday. Rudd was this week's Nextel Wake-Up Call guest in the California Speedway infield media center. RICKY RUDD -- No. 88...

Ricky Rudd, driver of the No. 88 Snickers Ford Fusion, will be making his 900th career NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series start on Sunday. Rudd was this week's Nextel Wake-Up Call guest in the California Speedway infield media center.

RICKY RUDD -- No. 88 Snickers Ford Fusion

WHAT DOES 900 STARTS MEAN TO YOU? "It means I'm old, that's what it means. Nine hundred starts, it's a huge number. It's not one that I set out for when I first started my career and said, 'Hey, I can't wait to run my 900th race.' The early part of my career was sort of a struggle just to find out if you were gonna be in the next race or not, trying to find sponsorship, trying to find a car to drive. So I had no idea that I'd be able to be here talking about my 900th start, but I'm pretty proud about that."

WHAT IS YOUR PLAN FOR SUNDAY? "I've always liked this speedway. It reminds me a lot of Michigan and I've always liked that track. Either you hit it here on the chassis at California or you miss it and right now we're missing it. I haven't hit on a combination. We brought a new, unproven and untested car. The guys worked really hard to get it built and aero-wise, it's probably a better car but it's requiring us to set the car up a little differently and so far they haven't found out what makes it tick. We've got all day tomorrow to work on it and we know that the body is more like what we've been racing against, but, like I said, it requires a whole different chassis setup. We're out here trying to make the best of it, but, like I said, it's a fine line between hitting the combination and missing it. If you miss it, it's a long day, but if you hit it right, it's a fun day here."

HOW MUCH HAS RYR IMPROVED ITS COT PROGRAM THIS YEAR? "If you look at where the team was last year at this time, there's no question that the Yates organization wasn't what it was a couple of years ago. When I agreed to come on board, they really started over again. They had a couple of key people leave, but it was kind of a new organization. I knew it was gonna be a lot of hard work and I believe the team is better off now than they were a year ago. I don't think there's any question it's better off. Our car of tomorrow, we qualified eighth with it at Bristol last week and was gonna finish somewhere around 15th or 17th, but somebody got impatient and wrecked us from behind and took us out of the race, but that had really been the weak point for the team is the car of tomorrow. What happened was the speedway program at the Yates organization was exceptionally good when I came on board. It wasn't broke, so they didn't work on that and both team cars were one and two on the front row at Daytona. That was sort of the highlight of the year and both of them ran well, but, unfortunately, that's only three races this year that you're gonna run those cars. Then you look at what else was going on -- you had the car of tomorrow, then you had the intermediate track car program, which was way off and wasn't where it needed to be. Most teams just really had to deal with one issue, they had to deal with the car of tomorrow. Their intermediate track car was tunable from the previous year, so we were spread kind of thin. Which way do you spread your resources? So they concentrated on our intermediate track car and got it going better. I think our best race of the year, we finished seventh at Charlotte, that has been a better program but the car of tomorrow program definitely suffered and we're trying to get that going right now. I saw some daylight last week at Bristol. The biggest thing that's gonna help this team is the merger with Newman/Haas and Lanigan. Once that engineering support merges with the Yates operation -- a process that is just starting now -- trying to figure out the management structure to implement that with -- but when that starts happened the performance of the team isn't gonna be like going from a 15th-20th place car today to a winning car tomorrow, it's gonna take some building, but I think once that gets implemented, and I think the plans over the winter will be to work pretty hard on getting technicians and engineers into the North Carolina operation, once that happens I think you'll start seeing some results. If I was in my thirties or my twenties, I would hang around a few more years. It would be an exciting time to be there, but I've decided to call it quits."

CAN YOU REMEMBER RACES FROM YEARS AGO? "It's kind of strange, I come here and I'm not sure how many races have been here because it's a relatively new speedway so there's not a whole lot of history here as far as remembering this race track, but you remember the highs and the lows. I remember it a lot more from a handling aspect and from a driver's standpoint. On certain days we've had really lousy cars at these tracks and certain days we've had really good cars, so you sort of forget the lousy ones and you try to remember what made that car unique. What did it do? Did it exit the corner really well or did it get into the corner really well? Even though time changes things, still, you'd be surprised at how much of a pattern sort of gets developed. If you want to try to have a car that can win a race at this particular track, you sort of reflect back to a day when you ran well. I can recall here, I was really good from the center off. The entry was OK, so you work on the center off and that's what you need to work on to win races here. So you remember things like that, but as far as details, you can remember some things like spring numbers and stuff, which have absolutely no bearing on today's cars. So all the stuff that can't help you, I just kind of let it get gone and try to retain the stuff that does help."

HOW HAS YOUR WEEKLY SCHEDULE CHANGED FROM WHEN YOU FIRST STARTED? "It's a little different. When I first started, I worked on the cars. I built cars -- didn't do any motor work, but did everything but that. We loaded them on the truck and two of us would usually drive the truck and we'd rotate drivers down the highway and we'd get to the race track. That was a different era than when I just became a driver. In my early years, I started running limited races in '75 and it wasn't until '79 when I actually went and drove for another team, where then it took about a year to learn how to not be under the hood of a car and not be working on one, and sit back and sort of let the guys do their job. Once you became just the driver and didn't have the responsibility of maintaining the car, we might be racing here today and then probably be in a car driving to the next week's race on a Thursday afternoon, instead of being in an airplane, you're gonna be driving. But the whole week was pretty much yours to deal with. There was no testing to speak of, only just going to Daytona there was usually a test for that, but as far as testing at different race tracks, it didn't exist -- nobody did it. You pretty much had Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and some of the day Thursday just to do whatever. I remember my wife and I, when we first got married, we'd sit around and watch soap operas some during the week. That just seems like it was another era -- almost like a dream. So that gives you an idea because today you have very little free time. You're required to do testing and the media things that you've got going that your PR company is lining up things for you to do during the week. There's very little time that you can call your own, and that's just the way it is now. It's just a different time, but it wasn't always like that. But the sport wasn't to the level that it is today and people weren't making money like they're making today, and it wasn't on television every week either. So there are some good things that come with that and some bad things that come with that."

WHAT'S THE STATE OF RACING ON TRACK AS YOU SEE IT NOW? "If you go through this garage area and you look at the worst operation out there -- go to qualifying and pick the last four or five cars on the grid -- a lot of times they're not bad teams, they're good teams that just missed their setups a little bit. It's not like they came in here and they drove the truck here themselves, they worked on it -- it's usually a funded team that has the resources to do what they need to do to get the job done. The difference is that there's such a fine line with the cars of today, the way technology is in these cars, the guys that are excelling is like the Hendrick group -- all your teams that are heavily engineer based. It's no different than it was years ago, your car is either a winning car off the trailer or it was a 20th-place car off the trailer. A lot of that hasn't changed. The work is really done back at the shop, but now the difference is a lot of it is done with computer simulation, a lot of it is done with a seven post shake rig. The teams are kind of the haves and have nots today. The haves are getting stronger and more powerful and they're starting to break away.

"You're starting to see a gap between the really well engineered teams with money behind them, versus the teams that were considered not small teams in anybody's mind, but race teams without the technology. All of them have technology, but to different levels. So, to me, you hate to get beat because one team has better engineers than the other. For many years, you go back in the Cale Yarborough days, and I saw the point where technology started to come in on a limited way, and all of a sudden a guy like Cale Yarborough couldn't take a car that was probably a 20th-place car, manhandle it, get to the front and win a race. That era sort of started going out when Cale retired. He was just one of the guys who was at his best at taking something and making something happen with it. Now it's technology. Alan Kulwicki comes in and all of a sudden he's an engineer-based guy, so, slowly engineering has become more of a presence in racing today. I hate to say it, but it's really what teams have the best experienced engineers and best sim programs are the guys that win races and that's the way it is today. I wouldn't say it's a bad thing or a good thing, that's just the way it is."

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND THIS PLACE AND HOW THE SPORT HAS CHANGED? "That was just sort of a different era then. It was more or less, back then everyone sort of had cars that were really nothing special. Most of them back then were like oval track cars that I think they had to move your dry brake system. I don't think you even had to move it at Riverside. No, you didn't. It wasn't much difference. Your Martinsville car was basically your Riverside car, so everybody was sort of dealing with the same thing. The better drivers that had road race skills -- and at that time there weren't a whole lot of them, there were a handful of them -- and usually it didn't matter what cars those guys were in, they would generally excel. Now not only do you have a lot of guys that run good on the road course, but you've got your road course specialists that come in. The cars are specially built just to run road courses all the way through, so a lot more time and dedication is put towards it than it was back in the Riverside days."

HOW IS DAVID GILLILAND DOING FROM A MORALE AND TEAM STANDPOINT? "David is a very talented driver. He's got all the skills that it takes and he's getting the necessary experience. It's got to be frustrating, I know. It's frustrating for me. It's a time right now where the Yates operation is rebuilding and trying to become an engineer-based team. The performance hasn't been all gloom, there has been some nice things along the way, but I think right now David is being judged too much by finishing results. If he's guilty of anything, he drives too hard. He's so committed to wanting to do well that sometimes maybe the equipment at best is a 15th-place car and David is trying to make something happen to get it to be a 12th-place car. He drives awful hard and has a lot of talent. When the operation gets turned around with all the engineers coming in, you'll see David all of a sudden -- some of the questions people ask him won't be asking those questions. I know he's very capable of running up front. You can't miss anything today. Your crew has to be on top of it. Your car has got to be good right off the truck. He's gonna get the results, you've just got to make sure that the team comes along with him."

Continued in part 2

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Cale Yarborough , Alan Kulwicki