Ricky Rudd remembers the first set of tires his father bought him,
the 16-by-32-foot shop in which his brother Al Jr. built Ricky's
first racing engine, and those pesty mice. Twenty-six years ago
Ricky, Al Jr. and a group of friends spent their days at father
Al Sr.'s auto salvage yard in Chesapeake, Va., in a makeshift
shop tinkering with Ricky's first race car. Every day they came
with brown-bag lunches in hand and the knowledge that their cold
sandwiches were hot commodities. "We'd always tie a string to our
lunch bags and tie them to the rafters," says Ricky. "If we
didn't, somebody would have visited our lunch bags before we
did." Somebody? "At the junkyard, there are mice all around,"
says Ricky. "Those were pretty bad working conditions."
As Rudd takes a break from testing two of his number 28 Fords on
an unseasonably cold October morning at the Atlanta Motor
Speedway, he sits back in his hauler and reflects on where he
came from and where he's going. "Anytime I start feeling bad
about the season--how we could have won [the Winston Cup points
title]," says the 45-year-old Rudd, "I realize it's not that bad
when you think about how you started."
These days Rudd is thousands of miles and millions of dollars
from his dad's junkyard. After his 26th place finish at Talladega
on Sunday he was second in the Winston Cup standings, trailing
three-time champion Jeff Gordon by a nearly insurmountable 395
points with only five races remaining. The possibility of Rudd
overtaking Gordon is as likely as Mighty Mouse taking over the
junkyard, but the number 28 team hasn't given up. Michael
(Fatback) McSwain, Rudd's portly crew chief, said that when
Rudd's engine blew during the Oct. 15 Old Dominion 500 in
Martinsville, Va., it felt as if a door had slammed on the
season. Well, almost. "It's a door with a glass window, so light
is still coming in," McSwain says, "but not a lot."
It was hard to imagine even a second-place finish a few years ago
when Rudd fell off NASCAR's radar screen. After 16 years in the
top 10, including a career-high second in 1991, Rudd began
plummeting in the final series standings in 1997, and by '99 he'd
bottomed out at 31st. Tide announced it was pulling its
sponsorship at the end of that year, and Rudd's streak of 16
consecutive years with a race win ended.
Rudd's stint as a driver-owner--he'd become an owner in 1994--had
taken its toll physically, emotionally and financially. "Monday
after any race I'd be back in the shop at seven in the morning,"
Rudd says. "Tired, physically beat up, it didn't matter." He also
had underestimated how expensive owning a car would be, and it
became difficult to pay his crew wages comparable with those of
the larger, multiteam organizations.
Rudd vowed to find either a new owner or, failing that, a new
sponsor by September 1999. Meanwhile, owner Robert Yates had
ended his relationship with Kenny Irwin and was eager to find a
driver for storied number 28. (Davey Allison and Ernie Irvan had
also driven the car.) In July '99 Rudd and Yates bumped into each
other during a testing session in Indianapolis. Rudd was carrying
a race car seat across the grounds when he half jokingly said to
Yates, "I need a car to put this in."
"Well, I got one," replied Yates. By September the deal was done.
In the ensuing 24 months Yates, Rudd and McSwain have put
together a team with championship potential. In their first year
Rudd was fifth in the series standings with 12 top five finishes.
This year has been even better--two wins and 13 top fives. "It's
been very pleasant getting the 28 car back in Victory Lane," says
As Rudd's career has taken off again, he has found more time for
wife, Linda, and their seven-year-old son, Landon. Rudd and
Linda, who have been married for 22 years, want to give Landon as
normal a life as possible. When he's home, Rudd takes his son to
school and rides on four-wheelers with him. "Ricky enjoys regular
things," McSwain says. "He doesn't look for fun from a big old
yacht or taking fancy trips. He's just a regular guy."
Even if Rudd doesn't win the championship this season, he won't
be too disappointed. He remembers the early days, and he
remembers the mice. Life looks pretty good now.
from his dad's junkyard