Ricky Rudd hasn’t returned to a racetrack since he drove his final NASCAR Sprint Cup race in 2007 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Unlike some drivers who hang on far too long, Rudd knew when it was time to go. He never looked back.
Today, Rudd’s life is all about having fun, from wakeboarding on Lake Norman in North Carolina to snowboarding and skiing in the North Carolina mountains in the winter. 1997 Brickyard 400 winner Rudd, 54, gets a chance to live the life he didn’t have when he was racing nearly every weekend of his career.
When asked what he does now, Rudd proudly said: “As little as possible. But we make sure we stay busy having fun.”
That’s because he gave it his all in a 32-year career that was capped with his biggest win at the Brickyard in 1997.
There was something about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway suited Rudd’s racing style.
“I liked it from day one,” Rudd said. “I always liked road course racing, and it always reminded me of a road course with left-hand turns. It wasn’t high-banked corners. I always liked Pocono, and I always liked Indy.”
Rudd wanted to be an open-wheel race driver when he grew up in Chesapeake, Va. He competed in the World Karting Association and was national champion. Many of his national meets were at what was then Indianapolis Raceway Park when he was just a kid. The dream of racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was something he could have achieved well before the first Brickyard 400 in 1994.
“If I had had my early choice when I was a kid, Indy cars is where I would have gone,” Rudd said. “I didn’t understand anything about stock cars. I grew up in Virginia, and it is kind of a strange state. If you are up around the Washington, D.C. area, it’s got a northern and Midwestern influence. Same thing with that bottom corner in Virginia where I grew up in that Chesapeake/Norfolk area, which was a big military town. It wasn’t so much Southern stock car racing. If you went 100 miles up to Richmond, it became Southern stock car racing.
“I raced go-karts, and most of the guys went from the karts to the Midgets to open-wheel cars.”
Rudd’s first trip to Indianapolis came in 1971, when he was 12, to compete on the road course at Raceway Park. The registration and banquets took place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Motel. He was 13 when he won the karting national championship. He would peer out the window of the motel and see the second turn of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, dreaming of what it would be like to race there one day.
“It reminded me more of an old ball field than a speedway,” Rudd said. “It had a neat feel to it. It was so much different from any other speedway I had seen as a kid. We had been to VIR (Virginia International Raceway), Road Atlanta and the road course at Michigan International Raceway. I had never seen anything like Indianapolis. It was just a cool place.
“I dreamed that I would be back there one day.”
By 1975, Rudd was in a NASCAR Cup car as an 18-year-old in a race at North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham, N.C. He had advanced from karts to motocross to the NASCAR Cup Series.
“I had been to a stock car race when I was 6 or 7 years old,” Rudd said. “I went to Darlington and traveled there on a train from Norfolk with my dad and brother. Besides that, we were so busy racing our stuff, we were caught up in that. I had heard of Richard Petty, but the drivers I followed were A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, Mario Andretti and the Unsers. The Indy car guys were the names I heard more because the crowd we traveled in, all their goals and dreams were Indy car racing.”
Among his karting contemporaries were Scott Pruett, a famed sports car racer who competed in four Indianapolis 500s. One of Rudd’s closest friends in karting was Mark Dismore, who drove in seven Indianapolis 500s.
“Mark was a kid when I was 12 or 13 years old, and we hung out together at the go-kart track,” Rudd said. “The Unsers (Al Unser Jr., Robby and Bobby Jr.) and Andrettis (Michael, Jeff and John) came into karting after I did. I liked open-wheel racing and thought about Formula One, but stock cars gave me the opportunity. I blindly stumbled into stock car racing; it wasn’t my plan.”
Rudd was one of the original drivers that participated in a Goodyear tire test for NASCAR Cup cars in June 1992 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The invited drivers knew it was the beginning of something very big for NASCAR.
“I was excited as could be just to go there and test,” Rudd said. “It was to see how the stock cars could handle the big track. To me, that tire test, if we had never raced there again, it was a tremendous honor and thrill just to run at Indy. I had been to a lot of racetracks by that time, but nothing compared to hitting that big, old speedway. It felt a little awkward because we were so fast on the straightaways and the corners were so sharp.
“It was a very unique, exciting time. Sitting on pit road in the car my heart was beating like we were getting ready to start a race.”
Two years later, Rudd was in the starting lineup for the inaugural Brickyard 400 – one of the most anticipated races in NASCAR history.
“The Daytona 500 was awfully big, but when we went to Indianapolis for the first race, it was a big deal,” Rudd said. “There was a sense of something special. You could tell it with NASCAR and with the France family. It was a big deal for NASCAR to be there. When we were there, it wasn’t to upstage the Indy cars. It was their house, and we were invited into their house – that’s how it felt to me.
“They invited us to their house to come play.”
In 1996, Rudd started 35th and made it all the way to sixth place by the end of a race won by Dale Jarrett – the first of his two Brickyard 400 wins.
“We worked our way up through the field by ourselves, and it took forever to get there,” Rudd said. “We got back to sixth, and it was a disappointing day because we had a better car than that.”
Rudd played it perfectly at the end of the 1997 race to take a car that wasn’t going to win the race and put it into Victory Lane.
“When the last caution came out, a lot of guys came to pit road and didn’t realize how important track position was at that track,” Rudd said. “The cars had an aero push, so a lot of guys that were dominant out front got a splash of fuel and right-side tires, but when they got in the dirty air they couldn’t get back to the front. We took off, and the field behind us, even with the new tires, couldn’t advance. Fuel mileage put us in a position of clean air to try to win the race.
“The guys with gas and tires were on our bumper, but they found out in the dirty air they couldn’t beat us. The dirty air was a worse disadvantage than the advantage of putting on new tires.”
Rudd held Bobby Labonte off at the end to win the race – the biggest victory of his career.
“When you look at the measuring stick, there is no doubt about it that was the biggest of my career,” Rudd said. “As a driver, winning my first race at Riverside, Calif., was a huge event. Winning at Richmond after getting tore all to pieces the week before at Daytona in 1984, that was a big race for me. But when you list the races, that was my big race.
“I won 23 races in my career, but it’s what comes with that race. It’s like you are welcome into a club. Your name gets put on the PPG Trophy. Every time at Christmas, we get a gift from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Twenty-two other racetracks where you won at don’t even know you exist.
“They (IMS) make you feel part of a unique club. A few years ago, they invited the winners of their races as far back as those still living to Indianapolis in the wintertime for a gala. It was a big party. What an honor to be in that group. Indy to me and stock car racing are two separate entities. To still be recognized for that win that was 14 years ago is great.”
Rudd shut down his team as an owner/driver after the 1999 season and joined team owner Robert Yates in 2000. The combination paid off in a Brickyard 400 pole in the famed No. 28 Texaco/Havoline Ford. Rudd would spend a few more years with Yates before spending three seasons with the Wood Brothers. He took off the 2006 season after his father died before returning to Yates team in 2007 in what would be the final season for both.
“When I came back over there I believe Robert was trying to rebuild the team,” Rudd said. “Robert would talk about the days when he had the field covered by 150 horsepower, but when I got there, Robert said he thought we had enough to keep up. I said: ‘Wait a minute. Where is that 150-horsepower advantage?’ The disappointing part was the engines were always top-notch, but the car side had slipped behind. Everything became engineering-based. Dallara was going to be the engineering side in a deal that Ford had put together, but that deal never happened.
“They hired an intern from the University of North Carolina to run the computer, and that was the engineering side of it. So that year was tough. As it turns out, it was the final year for both Robert and I.”
Rudd believes today’s NASCAR is set up for the 18- to 25-year old driver. When a top driver gets over 40, his days are numbered. Rudd sensed his days as that 18-year-old racing at Rockingham in 1975 were a thing of the past.
“Robert’s deal was a one-shot deal, and we did it,” Rudd said. “Our season wasn’t great and I knew it wasn’t going to be fixed, so I said, ‘I’m done.’ When you get older, you don’t have a lot of years to build and rebuild. It’s not the end of the world for a guy in their 20s, but for a driver in their 40s, they don’t have a lot of years to be patient while a team is rebuilding. At the age I was, I didn’t have the patience and the time to see it through.
“The middle of that season I decided I was gone. There was no wishy-washiness when I’m gone; I’m done. The sport has been great to me, and it’s time for the young guys to have fun with it.”
Rudd proved to be a man of his word, trading in his race cars for jet-skis and a boat. He misses the competition on the racetrack but doesn’t miss dealing with gate guards, traffic jams, going to hospitality appearances and the commitments that it takes to make it in the sport.
He spends time with his wife, Linda, and their son, Landon, who is 16.
“We are doing the stuff most people consider boring, but having never done it, it’s like living a normal lifestyle,” Rudd said. “Getting away from racing, you go through detox for a while. Now we just hang around and go wakeboarding, wake surfing and a little bit of karting. It’s an adjustment period. I think I will always miss parts of racing, but life on the outside is different – not in a bad way – it’s just different.
“We stay busy playing.”