This Week in Ford Racing June 22, 2004 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Ricky Rudd, driver of the No. 21 Ford Genuine Parts and Service Taurus , has a track-record four poles at Infineon Raceway and is a two-time race winner at the road course (1989,...
This Week in Ford Racing
June 22, 2004
NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series
Ricky Rudd, driver of the No. 21 Ford Genuine Parts and Service Taurus , has a track-record four poles at Infineon Raceway and is a two-time race winner at the road course (1989, 2002). Rudd recently participated in a conference call to discuss the first road-course event of the season.
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IT SEEMS AGGRESSIVENESS WOULD HELP SELL THE SPORT, BUT IS IT MORE OFTEN CROSSING THE LINE TO BEING DANGEROUS THESE DAYS?
"I think there's a sense, as far as these cars being dangerous, I've been in it when safety features weren't as good as they are today. Even at that time we didn't realize that the cars could be dangerous. There really weren't that many tragic accidents in our sport, so you had a confidence in your car. If worse comes to worse, you're gonna hit that wall at 200 miles an hour but it's no big deal because the cars are safe and you won't have a problem. But then with the tragedy of Earnhardt's death and Adam Petty and a couple other drivers in that same time period, all of a sudden people started thinking, 'Wait a minute, these cars can hurt you.' But by the same token, NASCAR has stepped up their safety program. You have the Hans devices and I think drivers are back to feeling like they're invincible again and I think that probably helps lead to the accident rate being up more than it used to be because everybody sort of has the attitude, 'Well, these things can't hurt me anymore.'"
IS IT AS FUN FOR YOU AS IT WAS BEFORE?
"Again, I came up in a different era. I'm not saying it's bad or good right now. I think the bottom line is that if the fans don't see the racing that they've been accustomed to over the years, that's what's really gonna make the difference. You can have cars get out front and run single-file and lap the field. In my personal opinion, that's not good racing. I think the bottom line is whatever it takes to make the racing exciting for the fans is what needs to happen. We don't need to have a guy that laps the field two or three times. If I was a fan at home, I'd turn out the lights and go to bed or go out to a movie. I just think NASCAR needs to watch that real closely. I'm sure they're trying all they can, but it does seem like sometimes things have been stretched out more than they need to be."
IT SOUNDS LIKE MAYBE YOU'RE LOOKING FOR SOME EXIT STRATEGY?
"Well, I'm gonna be honest with you, I'm not happy and it's nothing to do with exit strategy. Racing these cars now has become too much of a science project. They're just too temperamental. These guys have gotten so smart on these race cars, which is an asset because you've got a lot of smart people in this sport, but the problem for me is that they've gotten so smart that these cars are designed and built in wind tunnels and you depend on the air to do a lot of things for you. As a result of that, you have big differences in the competitiveness of the individual teams. Some teams are much more advanced than others and you're starting to see a big gap in the have's and have-not's as far as having the support that it takes. If there's frustration, I guess it's because I sort of liked racing when it wasn't so dependent on the air to make the car work."
DO YOU THINK TRYING THINGS LIKE A BIGGER GREENHOUSE WILL HELP OR WILL THE SAME PROBLEM EXIST?
"I think NASCAR is talking about taking downforce out of these cars and I think that's definitely a step in the right direction. Like I say, the bottom line is these cars need to race each other. It used to be that the driver made a difference. There was always a ratio of what made a winning car on a particular day. Let's just say that ratio was 50 percent driver and 50 percent equipment. It's become now 95 percent equipment and 5 percent driver and I don't think that's what got this sport to the level it is today."
HOW DID IT COME ABOUT THAT YOU LIKE ROAD RACING?
"I came up from a background that was a lot different than most of the guys that were racing stock cars. When I came along in the mid to late seventies, I came from a go-kart background that ran tracks like Infineon Raceway - Road Atlanta on the east coast. We mainly stayed on the east coast tracks, but we ran a lot of road courses. That was my background, so when I went stock car racing there weren't that many road courses run. I remember the first time going out to Riverside, California, and racing on the road course. I wished I would have done it many years earlier. It was later in my career before I ran my first road course in a stock car and I fell in love with it right away and had a lot of carryover from when I was a kid racing motorcross dirt bikes and the go-karts on the big road course. A lot of the guys didn't come up the way I did, so I think maybe that's why I have a passion for road racing because of the way I came up in go-karts and motorcycles."
WOULD THE GRAND-AM ROAD RACING CIRCUIT BE A POSSIBILITY FOR YOU IN A FEW YEARS?
"I think they've got a good thing going right now. Yeah, it's an attractive series and they're growing that series. Like I say, I came from road racing and maybe one day I'll go back to it, but right now I've got 120 percent focus on trying to do my part and get this Motorcraft/Air Force Taurus up to speed. We haven't been as fast as we needed to be all year, but I see some signs of progress in recent weeks. We did win a pole at Talladega a couple weeks back and I'm starting to see some progress, so I'm pretty enthused about that. I'll worry about that (another series) one day when I step out of the Cup cars, but if I do decide to run some other series, it most likely would be some type of a road race series."
DO YOU BELIEVE SOME SORT OF RULING WILL BE INVOKED ABOUT RACING DAMAGED CARS ON THE TRACK IN LIGHT OF THE CASEY MEARS EPISODE AT DOVER?
"They have a rule now that says you have to meet a minimum speed requirement if you return to the track after being damaged. It's a pretty fast speed. The thing that happened at Dover was sort of a freakish thing and I don't know how you can really guard against that to be honest with you. The oil on that particular concrete race track is hard to see. Oil is hard to see on any concrete track. I'm sitting here thinking about it and it's one of those freakish deals that normally doesn't happen, but it did and it was pretty severe. It took Kasey Kahne's chance of winning his first race away from him, but I don't fault anything that the Ganassi team did with the 41 car. I'm not sure of the problem, but it wasn't on purpose and it wasn't from a lack of preparation. It was a part failure and I don't know how you guard against that."
ARE DRIVERS JUST AS ACCESSIBLE TO FANS NOW AS YEARS AGO?
"I think it's changed a little bit because there are so many fans at the race track. I remember going to qualifying day on a Friday and, I mean, you could shoot a shotgun up in the stands and not hit anybody. Now they've got quite a few people packed in there for qualifying. I don't know how to answer that. I think at the race track itself drivers might be a little bit harder to access, but drivers are also doing more and more appearances and making themselves available in local markets maybe more than they used to. It used to be that after the race it was part of the deal, you would sit on the pit wall or sit on the back of a truck and sign autographs for two hours. That would generally cover most everybody that needed an autograph and then you'd get in your car and drive home. Obviously, those times have changed quite a bit. Everyone is rushing to the airport to either get home or get to the next test session that's taking place the next day. It's just a different time. I don't know that they're less accessible, but accessibility is changing on where you can find the drivers now."
HOW MUCH DOES GIVING AN AUTOGRAPH MEAN TO HELPING GROW THE SPORT?
"I don't think there's any question that this sport doesn't need to lose access to its drivers. That's really what built this sport. They got it to the level where the major networks wanted to spend the millions of dollars that it did on the rights to it. What built the sport to that point is definitely drivers being accessible. It's kind of a two-fold deal and I don't know how you handle it. There are only so many hours in a day and there are right times and times that are not right to sign autographs. Like when you're getting ready to go qualify and pit road is lined with 10,000 people, obviously, the time logistics won't allow you to walk down pit road and sign every autograph and make it to your car on time. It would take four hours, so I think there might be some type of program looked at - where I think all the drivers would be willing to participate - where maybe there's some sort of a rotation system that on qualifying day each driver will be accessible for a certain time slot. Maybe that's something that could be looked at so if any fans feel like they're being short-changed and not able to get a driver's autograph, that you have some type of arrangement where drivers are accessible. Again, it couldn't be for five hours at a time, but maybe something like that is the answer."
DO YOU MISS THOSE TIMES WHEN YOU COULD DO THINGS WITH THE CAR ON OTHER KINDS OF TIRES?
"When I mentioned tires, it's not really a problem. Goodyear is so good at these tires. They are the best in the world at building performance tires and that's what we have - very high performance tires as we always have had. But it's not just the tires that have gotten better. The cars make more downforce. They stick better in the corners. The current rules structure does not allow a driver to get a car 90 degrees sideway and usually drive out of it. When cars didn't make any downforce and the tires were the old bias style tires, where they weren't as good as they are today, it was almost like being on a dirt track. You'd run a car hung out a lot more. There's no question about it. Earnhardt, Sr., was probably the best guy at getting a car so far out of shape that you thought there was no way anybody could correct it and then he'd gather it up and straighten it out. He might run five laps in a row the same way. The current cars and the current tires that we run today will not allow a driver to get a car that far out of shape, so I don't know if you can compare the two styles."
DO YOU MISS GETTING OUT OF SHAPE LIKE THAT?
"Yeah, I miss them but I don't know how you ever get back to them. You can't stop progress I guess and that's kind of what we've got. We've got a lot of smart people and a lot of program and I don't know how you would step back. I'm not smart enough to figure that out, but maybe NASCAR is."
HOW HAVE THE CHANGES TO THE TRACK AFFECTED YOU?
"The race track has done an excellent job. The resurfacing has put a lot of grip in these cars to where they're gonna run very fast - not only for qualifying, but we were running speeds at the end of a fuel stop quicker than the pole was for the last race. That just kind of puts it in perspective as to how good of a job they've done at Infineon. But I think as a result of the cars feeling good to the drivers and the speeds being up that you'll see more aggressive driving. When I say aggressive, you'll see more passing in places that maybe you're not used to seeing passing. Again, the track has a lot of grip. There's not a perfect line around the race track anymore. When it comes to racing, you can run side by side in places that you normally would not have run before, so I'm kind of excited about it. We had a good test out there with the Motorcraft Ford and we're looking forward to going back."
IS ROAD RACING A SPECIAL LOVE FOR YOU?
"I've just enjoyed the road courses since the first day we ran on them. To me, they're just a heckuva lot of fun. The cars are fun to drive. They have a lot of horsepower on these race tracks. The brake systems have gotten better and better over the years, so you don't really have to guard the brakes to make sure you don't have a brake failure by the race end. So it allows you to be more aggressive with the car the entire race. It's kind of hard to put it in words, but it's just a heckuva lot of fun to go out there and throw one of these Nextel Cup cars around on that race track."
DID YOU RUN A DIFFERENT SORT OF ENGINE AT CHARLOTTE?
"What we had at Lowe's was a motor that some of the guys had run the previous week. It's a new combination with the Robert Yates-Jack Roush merger of the engine shops. It's a new combination they were working on that has a new Ford-designed cylinder head and, yes, we did run it at Charlotte. I think we were the only car that ran it in the 600 and it definitely had a lot of potential. I think the biggest thing was to see if it would run 600 miles and we found out that it would be OK."
IS THAT AN ENGINE YOU WOULD BRING HERE?
"I would love to bring it, but there's sort of a pecking order that everyone is well aware of. There's no favoritism by any means, but they'll probably go down the point standings in the camp at Roush. There might be two or three motors available, but eventually all of the teams will have it, but in the interim the way the priority works is that the highest guy in the points gets the first chance to either accept or decline the right to use that new motor. What they're doing is if you're a high points car, it's still considered experimental and you might not want to take the risk versus the gain. They don't want to break an engine and fall out of a race, whereas somebody like us and the Motorcraft team that is back in points, if the motor is a performance gain and nobody else wants it, then we can role the dice a little bit more than some of the other teams can because we're back in the points."
WOULD THAT BE CONDUCIVE TO A TRACK LIKE INFINEON?
"Extra horsepower or horsepower anywhere is an improvement. It doesn't always translate into race wins or better runs, but it's kind of a combination. Obviously, you've got have a good performing motor, but the chassis has to work good, the pit stops have got to be good and the driver has to use his head all day. If all that comes together, that's sort of the recipe to win races. Just having one of those ingredients in the recipe doesn't fix everything, but I would definitely rather have an engine that has power."
COULD THE NEW POINT SYSTEM BE ADDING TO THAT URGENCY YOU SAY DRIVERS FEEL?
"No, I don't think it's that at all. Again, this is my opinion and it's that cars need clean air. They need clean air to run and there's a battle for that spot to get the clean air, so positions are fought for a lot harder than they used to be. There's so much of an emphasis on track position. No, I don't think it has anything to do with the new point system at all. I think that things kind of like out of sight, out of mind right now. I think most teams are smart enough to sort of treat the season as though it's an abbreviated short season to get to the cutoff point, but I don't think that's affected it all."