Sears Point: Ricky Rudd Saturday interview

Ricky Rudd, driver of the No. 21 Motorcraft Taurus, was the Winston Breakfast Club guest this morning at Infineon Raceway. He is the defending race champion, and in 1989 won the very first NASCAR Winston Cup event held at the road course. Rudd,...

Ricky Rudd, driver of the No. 21 Motorcraft Taurus, was the Winston Breakfast Club guest this morning at Infineon Raceway. He is the defending race champion, and in 1989 won the very first NASCAR Winston Cup event held at the road course. Rudd, who also holds the track record for most career poles with four, qualified ninth for tomorrow's race. Rudd's first career NASCAR Winston Cup victory occurred 20 years ago this month at now-defunct Riverside (Calif.) International Raceway.

RICKY RUDD - No. 21 Motorcraft Taurus

YOU'RE ONE OF THE BETTER ROAD RACERS, BUT THERE ARE ONLY TWO ROAD RACES EACH SEASON. IS IT DIFFICULT TO MAKE THE TRANSITION?

"It is difficult. I've got a pretty good record on the road courses, but that doesn't mean that - I guess we would probably be a lot better if we did it a lot more often. Before we came here, we went to Kershaw, South Carolina, and the track really doesn't compare to Sears Point. And it was really for two reasons that we go there. Mainly, to make sure that all the brakes are working, and you get all your systems working, but it's just to tune the driver up as much as anything. It's almost been a year since we've been on a road course. It's very awkward the first time you roll out on a road course, even though I've run these things for many years. But doing it twice a year does handicap us a little bit."

BORIS SAID AND RON FELLOWS TOOK FIRST AND THIRD ON THE GRID. NO ROAD-COURSE SPECIALIST HAS EVER WON, BUT THOSE TWO CERTAINLY SEEM TO BE IN GOOD POSITION.

"I think Boris has been running with us longer than Ron Fellows has. Both of them are accomplished, great road racers, and Boris really would've won many more poles than this being his first one because he always comes out, runs fast, and when he qualifies, I think the qualifying session is not the way they normally do it. It other words, they're used to going out and running an hour session or 30-minute session, and taking the best laps. Or, going out and being on the clock right away, I think, has handicapped Boris over the years. I know he's been the fastest in practice several times, in qualifying he runs off the track in one corner, or whatever, and he's actually missed races because of his qualifying effort. There's no doubt that those guys go fast, and they should win every one they enter, really, based on experience and the caliber of drivers they are, but it's hard to pick Winston Cup drivers, too. Usually in the race, things settle into a little different rhythm, and those guys are going to run good. It wouldn't surprise me to see them win, but I wouldn't say that I would pick them as odds-on favorite."

YOU RUN A CUP CAR ALL YEAR. THEY RUN A CUP CAR TWICE A YEAR.

"Maybe that's the equalizer. Like I said, these guys run a road course almost every week, where we only run 'em twice a year. But the down side for them is they don't drive a heavy Cup car, but for coming here once or twice a year. So maybe that's the equalizer, hopefully. But they do a good job. In the past there have been some good road racers that have come in, and for whatever reasons maybe they weren't with a really good team with depth all the way through the organization, including the pit stops. Where now, these guys are in first-class equipment. They're very capable of winning the race. They're going to do well. Are they going to win? I don't know. We'll just have to wait and see on Sunday."

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON NEXTEL. ANY CONCERNS ABOUT THE NEW DEAL?

"It's definitely going to be new, there's going to be a lot of change. I guess I'm one of the guys that's been around some of the longest. I wasn't here when Reynolds first came into the sport, my first race was in the mid-'70s and Reynolds had been here for a little while before that. But, just good friends. I've known these guys a long time, and it's going to be different, it's going to be a change. As far as what our feelings are other than you're going to miss the friendships that you've generated over the years, but from the business side of the sport we have no say-so or control about how that sport is being steered, but I think it's in pretty good hands. I'm sure it's a series sponsor that'll carry the sport into the future. It's a high-tech company and where NASCAR seems to be headed, it seems like a good match."

AS A GUY WHO USED TO GO OUT AND LOOK FOR SPONSORS AS A CAR OWNER, IS BRINGING A HIGH-TECH COMPANY INTO THE SPORT GOOD? WILL IT OPEN OTHER DOORS?

"I don't know if I'm qualified to answer those questions. We have no idea what it means. R.J. Reynolds has done a lot for the sport that we don't even know about as competitors. A lot of behind the scenes, not only money but a lot of support. A lot of things behind the scenes. Is Nextel the type of sponsor that can continue and be that involved, more of a partner? Time will tell. Obviously, they're pretty well committed, because financially it sounds like it's a pretty big deal for them. We'll just have to wait and see. It sounds like a great company to be partnering with."

LAST YEAR, YOU CAME HERE WITH A POWERHOUSE TEAM AND WON THE RACE. THIS YEAR, WITH THE WOOD BROTHERS YOU HAVEN'T HAD A GREAT SEASON. DO YOU STILL FEEL LIKE YOU'RE ONE OF THE FAVORITES HERE?

"I kind of like being an underdog rather than the favorite, because that puts pressure on you. I think when you come to a road course, things equalize quite a bit. Aerodynamics are not an issue. Are short-track program has been pretty racy. We ran fourth at Bristol. I think that's actually the only top-five we've got, or top 10, but we actually racing at Richmond top-fifth, -sixth, -seventh. At Martinsville we got to seventh on the white flag lap and ended up finishing 10th or 11th, I think. Our short-track program, which I compare the road course more to the short-track program, has been pretty good. You get on the bigger tracks where aerodynamics are real critical, and we've been a little bit more off there than we have been on the shorter tracks. Our short-track program is pretty solid. Our road-course car is nothing more than a short-track car, mirror image, reversed image, of the short-track car. I expect to do well here. To sit here and tell you we're going to win the race, I couldn't have told you that last year. I qualified seventh last year for this race, this year we qualified ninth. This practice that's coming up will be a lot better of an indicator of what's going to happen in the race. When you come up and run these Happy Hour practices, you guys get that sheet that just shows one fast lap, we throw that away. We look at what guys are running at lap eight, 10, 15, where they're at, and that's what we gauge who the competition is going to be. So we'll see how we shake out on that time sheet, and maybe have a little different opinion of it. Someone obviously is going to win this race tomorrow, it wouldn't hurt my feelings a bit for it to be us. I think we got right now an equal chance as anybody else right now, going in."

WHAT ARE YOUR PERSONAL CHALLENGES ON A ROAD COURSE?

"The challenge for everybody is to go fast and stay on the race track, and it sounds kind of simple to do, but staying on the track is easy to do if you're going slow. Going fast and staying on the track is not always easy to do the entire race. That's probably the key. And, making sure that you don't abuse your brakes so that you have 'em the entire race. The brakes is what's going to win the race for you or lose the race for you. All the passing is done under braking, just about most of it, anyway. And the brakes can allow you to either play good defense if you're leading, or the brakes can allow you to make passes if you're trying to move through the field. Taking care of the brakes for the whole race, making sure that you have them at the end when it's critical is a key point?"

ARE THERE CERTAIN CORNERS AT WHICH YOU'RE BETTER?

"I'd say the key to this race track is that most of the passing is done under braking, so you have to be good in the brake zones. The high-pass zone is coming into turn 11. You've got to be good on the braking there. If you weren't good anywhere else, you need to be good coming into 11. Not necessarily good through the corner, but being able to drive deep into the corner and use a lot of brakes. That keeps people from passing you. You can be a second slower than the guys that's trying pass you, if you can out-brake him into turn 11 you can still keep him behind you. Coming into turn seven, I think they call it, that's another critical brake zone back there. Ninety percent of the passing will be done braking into both of those corners."

THERE'S BEEN A NUMBER OF CHANGES IN THE SPORT LATELY. WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE NOT TO LOSE WHAT IT HAD TO ENTICE YOU TO COME INTO IT?

"I came into the sport years ago when it was sort of a Southern sport, the good 'ol boys, and I enjoyed it. I found a home. I enjoyed racing here. I'm not so sure it was the same sport as it was when I began, and I don't mean that in a negative way. It's a changing sport. My career days are winding down. I won't be here, obviously, in five years or seven years, three will probably be pushing it. The sport is changing. It looks like it appears to be for the better. TV ratings seem to be pretty good. And I'm sure NASCAR hopefully - it's a balancing act - and hopefully they're not offending and running off the fans that basically built this sport, trading those fans in for new TV fans that may be fickle, may be here today and gone tomorrow. They've been smart people up to this point and hopefully they'll continue to be smart and not go over that balance too far one way or another."

ONE OF YOUR SPONSORS IS THE AIR FORCE. HOW HAS THAT SPONSORSHIP AFFECTED YOU?

"I guess racing is my first love, aviation is my second. So to have a chance to be affiliated with the Air Force is a pretty neat deal. I've been a pilot since 1983. I always get a kick going by, looking at the latest equipment, and we have plenty of opportunity to see the latest, greatest the Air Force has to offer. We've met a lot of good people in the armed services, from newly enlisted people to the top generals in the country, and been to the Pentagon. It's been an experience, especially coming right at the war time. I know I have gained a whole new respect for the way that whole system works."

HOW HAS YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH THE WOOD BROTHERS BEEN THIS YEAR?

"They're super people, great people to work with. I guess disappointment's the biggest word because I feel like I had a few good years left in me and I really wanted to go out and do my part to help get these guys back to the top. I think it's starting to come but it's such a slow progress. Our qualifying has been off all-year long. It just hasn't been good. Our race stuff has actually improved, but you can't see it because we wreck at lap two at Michigan, we get taken out there, we break a transmission at Pocono with 60 laps to go but we working our way through - we actually had a top-10 finish shaping up there. And the list goes on. We ran out of fuel at Charlotte and had to dive into the pits - try to dive into the pits - and I didn't make it. But our actual race performances have been hovering somewhere, if we could get to the end of the race, we'd be hovering somewhere between eighth and 12th, and wouldn't look nearly as poorly as sitting 27th in points. Still, the bottom line is we're not up there leading races like we need to be. We're not qualifying as well as we need to be. So, it's disappointing, but no one's giving up. It's the greatest people in the world to work with. They're just as hungry as I am to do well, but the same token there's not a lot of finger-pointing. It's, 'Let's identify where we're weak at and let's go to work on it.'"

CAN A ONE-CAR TEAM GET THERE IN THE TIME THAT YOU HAVE LEFT?

"I hope so. The Roush alliance is one of the main reasons I didn't look at it as being a single-team performance, even though technically it is, I felt the Roush alliance, being with that would be asset. And I'm sure it has been, but things that I noticed that we've had to work on - a good example, in a race, you start off and you're running, say you're running good. All of sudden, guys that weren't running so good are really running good. A lot of times that's directly related to tire pressure, chassis adjustments. When you have a teammate, at least you're able to go down in those pits and find out. Sometimes you make a tire adjustment and you go the wrong way, and you pay attention to that. If our teammate did that and he went backwards, it would be foolish for us to go out there and make that same adjustment and go backwards the next stop. So, the conversation for me and has been, 'Go down and find out what the 88 did on tire pressure, we don't want to go in that direction.' And we sort of lost that, we don't have that benefit, even though there's a couple of the Roush teams I think we can work with that maybe share that with us. But we also have to be aggressive and go ask for the help, too, and maybe that's something maybe we have to be a little more aggressive on."

BACK TO THE QUESTION OF SPONSORSHIP, ANOTHER DRIVER SAID BASICALLY THE PERSON THAT GETS THE SPONSOR MONEY CAN BUY ALL THE GADGETS, TOYS AND PEOPLE - AND WIN THE RACES.

"It's scary for me when I was an owner when I was trying to find money to stay in racing. When we started off we had a good budget. Things started going more and more high-tech, the cost of gadgets got more expensive. You got your scale-model wind tunnel programs now going on. There's all kinds of things going on that are very expensive for a car owner to absorb the cost. So what he's referring to, really, the guy with the biggest pocketbook hires the good people, hires the technology. The bigger pocketbook normally is going to win out. I hate to see head that way with Winston Cup, but it's there now."

WASN'T IT ALWAYS THAT WAY, THOUGH?

"No, I don't think so. A good example, I came in with my team in '94 and we won a race, top five or six in the point standings and we didn't have a large budget. We had a bunch of guys at that time that maybe had been with a big team but didn't like big-team politics. We had a group we started with, we were very racy, very competitive, successful. And at that time we were doing it, even then, on a smaller budget than everybody else was. Nobody was scale-model wind-tunnel testing at that time. The wind tunnel was something you did maybe twice a year, not 20 times, 30 times a year. I don't know how you can control that. There are some ways you can do it. I know as an owner I was pushing to have - the ASA circuit has a fiberglass body rule that will save these teams million of dollars if they had a, quote, out-of-the-mold Chevrolet, out-of-the-mold Ford, out-of-the-mold Dodge where you can't touch that shape. So all that wind tunnel time would really be nonsense, and the location rules were set up a certain way. I was pushing hard for that as an owner just because of the money I was spending cutting cars up every week. So there's ways that you can maybe try to limit where that technology doesn't buy the sport. Right now it doesn't seem to be a concern to NASCAR."

BUT THEN WHAT WOULD HAPPEN WITH FIBERGLASS BODIES?

"It would put a lot of fabricators out of work, probably. They're making a lot of money - which it's a lot of work, what they do. They're working and earning the money, but you wouldn't need nearly the amount personnel you need today."

BUT FANS DON'T WANT COMMON BODIES.

"Certain areas you need to be able to be creative in, but I was just looking at the expense of it. And I'm five years rusty on the subject. You'd be more interested with somebody that could give you real input, but there's a lot being gained on the bodies right now, a lot to the aero, a lot's going on underneath these race cars right now, which is very expensive to do. I'd just like to see it back in the drivers' hands a little bit more."

SOME OF THE YOUNGER DRIVERS PLAY VIDEO GAMES TO GET READY FOR ROAD COURSES. DO YOU SEE THAT AS HELPFUL?

"I could see it. I've got an eight-year-old son and he's big into video games and he's big into the race games. I can be standing 30 feet away and he'll be playing that thing on television and I can look over and I can say, 'There's Dover, there's Charlotte.' Those things are so realistic now. I think it's smart. I think it's real smart. How much can actually be gained? At least when you pop around a corner for the first time, the graphics on these video games are so realistic that you come around a corner for the first time, you ride around here even in a street car, and when you ride around it, you try to think, 'I've done that before,' anyway, you ride around the corner and you know what's over that next hill. You know which way the track's going to go because you drove around on that video game. So there are some similarities. To say you can go faster because of it, I'd question that a little bit, but it at least make you feel like you're familiar when you come to a track for the first time."

HAVE YOU EVER PLAYED THE VIDEO GAMES?

"Yeah, I've played the video games with my boy, but most time we get to the tracks, a lot of these guys that are first starting off, the games are out now and they've got a library of four or five years old now. When I go to a track, the game hasn't been built yet."

WHO WON?

"Hey, you can't beat kids on video games, you outta know that."

HOW DO YOU WORK WITH YOUR SPOTTER AT THIS TRACK?

"I think we'll have two spotters. But the biggest thing is getting everybody figured out on the same page. We only run this track once a year and it's got 12 corners. Everywhere else we run at we only have to deal with four corners. We've got 12 to deal with. So the biggest thing, we sat down, Eddie Wood and I sat down right when we first got here. We got our maps out, because the map says one thing and we call it something different, so let's get our terminology. At least when you're saying 'esses,' and I'm saying, 'esses,' we're saying the same thing. Don't tell me, 'turn five, six, seven and eight,' or something, just call it the 'esses.' Once you get the language barrier kind of figured out, then you're okay. But I've been with teams before that you start talking about 'turn 11' or 'the hairpin,' and, all of a sudden, 'Hairpin? What are you talking about?' And you need to know quick, because you need to know what's going to happen. It might be right in front of you. That's pretty important, to sit down with your spotter to make sure that you're talking apples and apples."

-fr-

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Series NASCAR Cup