Last season he hinted at retirement, tangled with a member of his Robert Yates Racing team, and generally had a rough go of things. But Ricky Rudd, now with new life driving Fords for the Wood Brothers, hopes the 2003 NASCAR season will put him back on track.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we got two or three wins this year,” said Rudd, who is piloting the No. 21 Motorcraft-sponsored Taurus.
Rudd is something of an “old-timer” in Winston Cup, having made his first start in the series in 1975 and winning Rookie of the Year honors in 1977. Between 1983 and 1998, Rudd had a streak of winning at least one race every season. But after being a car owner as well as driver from 1994 through 1999, the Virginia native found it more difficult to wear two hats.
“It seems like it’s been longer than it’s been since I was owner and driver,” Rudd said. “The schedule is still pretty grueling with the pace we have to go at, but it would be even more difficult as a driver/owner.
“Now my days get filled up, but not in a management role. I’ll leave that to the owners – they handle all the day-to-day headaches. It’s a very nice, refreshing way to go racing now.”
Now that Rudd is able to concentrate strictly on driving, he has found a renewed sense of confidence. Although he and his Yates teammates never seemed to be on the same page in 2002, he is ready to make a run at the top again under the guidance of the legendary Wood Brothers.
Rudd has seen Winston Cup racing grow from a regional sport to an international industry and has remained low-key through it all. But he wouldn’t mind stepping into the spotlight with a championship.
“To be honest, I’m not one to go out and seek the limelight – I’m kind of a low-profile-type person,” Rudd said. “It’s going to be going on all around me but I’m not mixed up in the middle of all of it. I’m there to race and take care of the loyal fans who have supported me.
“But if we could win the championship, we’d pack the family up and do all the necessary events as a family. I enjoy being competitive and having a chance to win, so having a shot at a championship would be great.”
IROC helps Cheever hone driving skills
Eddie Cheever, who began racing at the age of 13 at the Pista d’Oro karting track in Rome, Italy, in 1971, is one of the top drivers in the world. The man who was named CART Rookie of the Year in 1990 still holds the fastest lap in Indy 500 history (236.103 mph) and became the first owner/driver to win that event in 22 years when he took a milk bath at the Brickyard in 1998.
However, Cheever admits he had much to learn about the International Race of Champions – especially from the NASCAR drivers in IROC.
“I’d say I’m probably at about 50 percent as far as understanding how the draft works, and that’s something I have to learn from the NASCAR guys,” said Cheever, who started racing IROC in 1999. “I love racing against all the Winston Cup guys – notwithstanding some of the arguments we have after the race.”
In his IROC appearance at Daytona in February two years ago, Cheever finished third but is best remembered for spinning the late Dale Earnhardt out. Cheever apologized to the legend afterwards, and Earnhardt shrugged off the incident – opting to put the open-wheel star in a playful headlock.
“After I spun him out, I was relieved to get a bear hug from him,” Cheever said. “When you get in a race car your job is to win the race any way you can, and I know Dale understood that. He was one of my greatest friends in NASCAR, and I miss him.”
Some have suggested that IROC is geared more toward NASCAR drivers because all the tracks are traditional Winston Cup venues. Cheever agrees.
“I think guys like me could be good if we had a race at a track with rights and lefts and starts and stops,” Cheever said. “And the IROC cars are similar to the ones the NASCAR guys race every weekend. That being said, my driving has improved because of being on the track with those guys.”
IROC is a stark contrast to what Cheever is accustomed to in open-wheel competition. In Indy-style racing, competitors don’t have to worry about drafting and simply hope to work their way to the front and stay there.
“In IROC, you have to have a drafting buddy,” Cheever said. “You can’t win a race if you’re by yourself on an oval. The biggest thing to get used to is driving a car with a roof on it and taking advantage of what you can learn from the guys who drive cars with roofs all the time.”
Meet the Drivers
Hometown: Trinity, N.C.
Drives Sprint Dodges for Petty Enterprises. Son of “The King,” Richard Petty, Kyle entered Winston Cup racing full-time in 1981, and has since won eight races, although he hasn’t visited Victory Lane since 1995.
A singer as well as a racer, he is now CEO of Petty Enterprises and sponsors the Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America, which benefits children’s charities.
‘Soft wall’ technology may be used at more tracks in the future
After successful trial runs at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway in 2002, “soft wall” technology is now finding its way to other tracks across the country. More tracks on the NASCAR Winston Cup and Busch Series circuits will use the technology this season.
SAFER is the brainchild of Dr. Dean Sicking of the University of Nebraska. After years of development, it was used for the first time at the 2002 Indianapolis 500.
At Talladega, the SAFER system has been installed on the inside retaining walls at the exit of turn 4 and the entrance of turn 1.
“We appreciate the efforts of Dr. Sicking’s group in helping us implement this system on the inside walls,” said Talladega Superspeedway President Grant Lynch. “Talladega will continue its ongoing commitment to safety improvements. We’re hopeful the technology will be available for the high-banked walls in the near future.”
At Indy, the SAFER system consists of foam pads at all four turns of the 2.5-mile track, thickened from 16 inches to around 26 inches. Basically, the SAFER system is four steel tubes welded in 20-foot sections and bolted to the concrete walls.
Between the steel and concrete, pads of hard foam are placed 10 feet apart, allowing the surface to bend and reduce the force of a car’s impact.
During the Indy race the system was subjected to at least eight hard hits, and none of the drivers involved were seriously injured.
Sicking said there are still kinks to be worked out in the system, however, which is why it isn’t yet available at all tracks.
“We really have to test these issues using full-scale crash testing before we would recommend the use of these barriers on any short-radius track,” Sicking said. “At Indy, they have 10- or 11-degree banking and you can drive a truck right up and work on it.
“We need to find a way of making those repairs in a reasonable manner so we wouldn’t have to delay the race for 30 minutes.”
Work on the SAFER system will continue, with hopes that some form of the technology can be used everywhere, in all forms of racing.