Until this year, it was a dubious honor to be named NASCAR's Rookie of the Year. Because a stock-car driver is all but guaranteed to lose thousands of dollars in his first season—more like his first few seasons—Rookie of the Year often meant little more than that the winner entered more races and thus lost more money than any other rookie. But this year Citicorp Travelers Checks has bankrolled a program that pays $10,000 to the top rookie, plus $500 to the highest finisher in each race, plus $1,000 a race next season. Thus, in one stroke of the pen that signs the checks, Rookie of the Year has become a distinction worth racing for.
This stroke of good fortune affects NASCAR as well as the rookies. Aside from the fact that motor racing always needs more money, NASCAR, in particular, needs fresh faces, and the Citicorp money has drawn them. The three most conspicuous new faces bring more than freshness to NASCAR; they add youth, femininity and reserve, qualities not often found among stock-car drivers. Ricky Rudd (21 years old), Janet Guthrie (female) and Sam Sommers (soft-spoken) have all raced hard for Rookie of the Year, and after last Sunday's Dixie 500 at Atlanta, Rudd, who finished eighth behind winner Darell Waltrip, and Sommers, who was 28th, stand only seven points apart. Guthrie, who finished 16th and is the best-financed of the three, now can no longer win the points race.
So with only the Ontario 500 on Nov. 20 left on the NASCAR schedule, it is down to Rudd vs. Sommers, youth vs. experience—one of the classic sporting face-offs. But the circumstances make it unusual: 1) 21-year-olds like Rudd almost never succeed at stock-car racing; 2) 38-year-olds like Sommers are almost never rookies.
This is Sommers' first season on the Grand National circuit after 11 years of racing Late Model Sportsman cars, the stock-car equivalent of baseball's AAA leagues. Which explains the paradox of Sommers' being an experienced rookie.
There are other contrasts between Sommers and Rudd besides age and experience. Sommers is tall, laconic and not in the least outspoken. Rudd is short and intense. He also is not outspoken, but this is by design, not nature. "It didn't take me long to learn how things work," Rudd says. "When it comes down to making it in NASCAR, racing is only half the game; the other 50% is how you handle yourself off the track."
Quite obviously, Rudd has figured out the nuances of becoming Rookie of the Year. Points awarded for finishing position count most in determining the winner, but attitude also is taken into account. According to the rules, a four-man panel votes "subjectively on three criteria: 1) each rookie's conduct with the technical inspectors in the garage area and the pits and with other NASCAR officials; 2) conduct and awareness on the racetrack; and 3) personal appearance and relationship with the media."
Last year rookie Terry Bivins scored more points from race results than Skip Manning, but NASCAR awarded Manning Rookie of the Year. Observes Rudd, "Terry had a way of running his mouth too much in public. If he could have toned down a little bit, he wouldn't have had any trouble."
Says Lin Kuchler, executive vice-president of NASCAR and chairman of the judging panel, "You've got to have some leeway in the system because a situation might arise sometime where it's in the best interest of everyone to select someone other than the rookie point champion. But in my opinion, knowing the competitors involved this year, the man who wins it on racing points will definitely win Rookie of the Year." In other words, in the chairman's opinion, on attitude it's a tie.
But what if it's a tie on racing points? Pit-row whispers favor Rudd because his face is fresher.
Rudd began racing stock cars in the Grand National division, which puts him in a very exclusive club, about the only other member of which is Richard Petty. Most other drivers work their way up from Hobby Class to Late Models to Grand National cars; Rudd made the move directly into Grand National cars from motocross bikes. Ricky is financed by his father Al, who has been sponsoring his youngest son's racing (he has four other children) for 13 years, or since Ricky was eight and driving go-karts. Al Rudd likes to describe himself as "just a hardworking junkman." His business is Al Rudd Auto Parts in Chesapeake, Va., an eight-acre prairie of wrecks. His approach toward business and life is simple and old-fashioned: work hard, pay cash. He is in the junkyard office six days a week; both his house and business are paid for.
The junkyard has been extremely good to Al Rudd financially, but it hasn't changed his life-style. Nor has becoming the owner-sponsor of a race team. He still stays home and relaxes on Sundays. "I'm just in the way at the races," he says. "They don't need an old guy like me around. They need me back here making the money so they can go on."
Sommers, too, knows what it's like to scratch. For 11 of his 12 racing years he worked as a sheet-metal fabricator. This year he is finally being paid a weekly salary to race. His sponsor-car owner is M. C. Anderson, head of a Savannah construction company employing about 140 people. "There is no budget on our team," said Anderson. "They get what they need and they charge it and I pay the bills. I'll spend whatever it takes to win."
By "win" Anderson means first place, not first-place rookie or Rookie of the Year. Therefore when a rumor that Buddy Baker would replace Sommers next season was confirmed at Atlanta, Sommers reacted as you might expect a driver to who has had to scratch for sponsorship money most of his career. In his next-to-last ride for Anderson, Sommers qualified on the pole for the first time all season.
Compared to what Sommers has been through, losing a ride ranks as a setback, not a disaster. Sommers knows the difference. From his Late Model Sportsman days he carries a steel plate in his forehead, the result of a postrace assault by a wrench-wielding crewman from a competing team. The incident occurred early in the 1970s, a period in which Sommers won Georgia State Late Model Sportsman championships five times. Sommers has had several operations on his skull.
Says Sommers of the assault, "If it hadn't happened, I probably would have been in Grand National racing three years earlier."
When Sommers and Rudd are on the track together and both their Chevys are right, Sommers is faster. Rudd's engines are more reliable, however. They are built by his older brother Al Jr. in a small shop behind the junkyard. Al builds the engines by intuition—the shop lacks a dynamometer and other equipment most engine builders consider absolutely necessary. In the Talladega 500, Rudd's last engine blew during practice, so he bought a fresh, dynamometer-tested engine from Waltrip's team. With the extra horsepower, he came in fourth, the best finish of his career.
"Ricky's racing good," says Sommers, "but he still lacks experience. I don't care who you are, you don't jump in a Grand National car and be experienced overnight. It takes time to get it." Pause. "Ricky's getting it, though."
"I wish I had the money those guys on Sommers' team have," Rudd says.
So now it is down to the last race of the year, not only for Rookie of the Year, but also quite possibly for who will have a ride next season. Despite his father's help, Rudd is looking for a sponsor to pick up his bills. Now Sommers finds himself in the same situation. Sommers has it pegged. "It's do or die now, ain't it?" he says.