Do you ever find your mind wandering to when you were younger or a child? I find myself doing that often. Sometimes to wish I could go back and relive those old memories. And other times I like thinking about those days because they still bring me happiness and make me smile to this day.
Few things bring me more happiness or nostalgia than thinking about when I used to be a big NASCAR fan as a little boy to my teenage years. And that was because of two reasons: My dad, and a driver named Ricky Rudd. To me, it was about more than just enjoying the excitement of watching race cars hurtle around the track at 200 miles an hour. My happiness came from quality father and son bonding time starting from when I was about five years old. But we also loved supporting Ricky Rudd.
Becoming a fan
I haven’t been even remotely into NASCAR since Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired. There just don’t seem to be many big personalities in the sport anymore. But it was the exact opposite when I rooted for Ricky Rudd every Sunday afternoon as a boy. My childhood in the 1990’s saw many larger than life drivers. There was The Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt Sr. in his classic black #3 car, Rusty Wallace in the blue #2 Miller Lite Car, Mark Martin in the Valvoline #6, and some young phenom by the name of Jeff Gordon in his DuPont #24 Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
But I became a Ricky Rudd fan when I first saw his #10 Tide Ford Thunderbird. I loved the way the car looked. The orange, white and yellow was a cool paint scheme! But the sentimental value for me came when I saw, on the back of his car, Whirlpool was one of his biggest sponsors! My father, Larry was working for Whirlpool at the time. So not only did I connect Ricky Rudd and the Tide car with the joy of watching races, it was just cool seeing the Whirlpool in huge letters near the rear spoiler and thinking, “Hey! Dad works here! I’ve gotta support Ricky Rudd now. He’s my driver!” Watching him race in the now legendary #10 reminded me of my dad and made me happy. Simple as that!
Ricky Rudd: The driver
Ricky didn’t always race in the classic #10 though. After the 1999 season, he switched over to the black and red #28 Havoline Ford Taurus when he signed on to drive for Robert Yates Racing. Oh no. A young boy’s fanhood crisis: Do I stick with Tide and whoever their new driver was? Or do I follow Ricky to his next stop? I chose to follow Ricky because by this time I had learned, and come to respect who he was as a driver and competitor: He was the model of consistency, tough as nails, and he didn’t back down from anyone. Even the legendary Intimidator himself, Dale Earnhardt, who was notorious for a short temper, couldn’t scare Ricky Rudd. Rumor has it that Ricky had a temper that could rival Dale’s! But I also respect Ricky because even though he was a fiery, aggressive driver who did what it took to win or do consistently well, he was also a gentleman. He was classy, and friendly with interviewers and fans. Some of these younger drivers in today’s NASCAR circuit could learn a few things from a legend on how to carry themselves. Who isn’t inspired by someone who is tough, aggressive, constantly striving to do their best, and who treats people with respect?
Best memories of my Rudd fandom: 1997 Brickyard 400
My past is littered with happy sports memories. Everything from watching my first Ohio State football game with my dad when I was five years old and learning the game from him, to watching the Cleveland Cavaliers win the NBA Championship, and everything in between. Following Ricky Rudd was no exception. The first favorite memory from being a Rudd fan that sticks out in my mind was when Ricky won the 1997 Brickyard 400. Even though he was a model of consistent excellence, 1997 overall was a bad season for Ricky Rudd, since he finished 17th in the points standings that year. Uncharted territory for someone who was consistently used to at least finishing in the Top 10 most years. I remember thinking as a kid, “Man, he’s been struggling this year. It would be awesome to see him win at least one race.” Well, on that hot and humid day in August of 1997, he FINALLY found Victory Lane!
It may have been an early memory from my childhood. But as a six year old boy, I remember two things: Being nervous as hell that Ricky would run out of gas at the end, and celebrating and going crazy with Mom and Dad. I hope our celebrating didn’t wake up Christy since she was still a baby at the time. But we were living in a house trailer at the time. And I remember pacing back and forth from the living room to my bedroom until the last few laps. I couldn’t watch my favorite driver stumble at the end. Not when he’d been having an awful season up to that point. That would just about break my heart! But the pacing back and forth turned to running back and forth after Ricky took the checkered flag! If there was ever pure, unadulterated, childhood joy, that was it!
Blisters and Burns: Gutting it out at Martinsville
My next favorite memory as a Rudd fan came the following year, 1998. But instead of remembering how happy I was, this time I remember being inspired by how tough Ricky was, and scared for his health. Folks, I bet most people do not see NASCAR drivers as athletes. When you think of an athlete, you probably think of football players, basketball players, and baseball players. But Ricky showed his toughness during the 1998 Martinsville race.
Inside a car during a race, temperatures reach at least 150 degrees. At least. That’s why drivers have a hose connected to the back of their helmet that’s constantly circulating cold air to keep them cool. Well, imagine that cooling hose malfunctioning at the beginning of the race. And having to race 200 laps with no protection from the heat. That was the reality for Ricky Rudd that day. His cooling equipment in his helmet malfunctioned at the very start of the race, and he gutted it out.
On top of that, he also dealt with his seat becoming unbearably hot. The metal surrounding the seat was so hot that it blistered his back and most of his body. Once his crew chief found out about this, he repeatedly asked Ricky at every pit stop whether or not he wanted to quit and have someone finish the race for him. But he did not quit. And as good fortune would have it, he had the best car on the racetrack that day, and made it to Victory Lane…where he was helped out of the car, and did the post-race interview lying down. On his severely blistered back and wearing an oxygen mask. Ricky Rudd is the toughest race car driver I’ve ever seen, and it’s not even close. My goodness!
A Boyhood Dream: Behind the Wheel of the Beast (Twice!)
You’d think I’d have enough fun watching my favorite NASCAR driver at home right? Well, what if I told you I not only got to sit in a race car not once, but twice? Yep. I got to sit behind the wheel of those monsters! As a boy, I got to sit in one of the #10 cars, as well as the black and red #28 Havoline car. Unfortunately I don’t remember what the inside of the #10 looked like, and I could swear to this day that the #10 that I got to sit in was a showroom car, rather than a real race car. Dad tells me he remembers hoisting me up into it. But I remember someone opening a door and sitting me down in it. Who knows? All I know is I DO remember wearing my Ricky Rudd gear from head to toe.
Imagine a nervous and excited little boy with bleach blond hair, wearing a Ricky Rudd Tide hat and Ricky Rudd Tide shirt. Hell, imagine the kid even wearing Ricky Rudd Tide shorts. (Yes, there were even NASCAR-themed shorts back in the day). That was me. I was decked out in so much orange, yellow and white, that someone could’ve put a headset on me at the time, and I would’ve looked like a little Crew Chief.
But I got to sit in a showroom model of one of the #10 Tide cars, which was awesome! I was an equal mix of extremely happy and extremely nervous that day though. I don’t remember where Dad and I were, but because he worked at Whirlpool at the time, we went to an event where the car I got to sit in was being showed off. And Ricky Rudd himself was also supposed to meet fans that day. I remember being so nervous when I heard he might actually be there, that I was on the verge of tears. I was also afraid of embarrassing myself in front of him by crying. Crying in front of one of my childhood heroes? That wouldn’t be good. Unfortunately, I think something came up in Ricky’s schedule that day, and I never got to meet him in person. But I still remember attending that show with Dad, and getting to sit in that car. I’ll carry the memories of that day with me forever.
Sometime later Ricky Rudd had moved on from running his own racing team, Rudd Performance Motorsports, to driving the #28 Havoline Ford Taurus for Robert Yates. And wouldn’t you know, as luck would have it, Dad and I attended another one of these events where NASCAR race cars were being showed off for fans. This time however, I distinctly remember being hoisted into the car, and told to watch my head as I slid into the driver’s seat. But once I was in there it sunk in. Here I was. A kid. In the driver’s seat of a real, live, race car! I just remember how huge everything felt surrounding me. I looked out the windshield at everybody, and then at all the gauges and switches. And wishing I could fire that thing up! 800+ horses of pure American muscle. She was beautiful!
Future NASCAR Hall of Famer?
After driving the #10 and #28 cars, Ricky Rudd continued racing for quite a while. First in the red and white #21 Motorcraft Ford for Wood Brothers Racing, and then in the #88 Snickers car, again for Robert Yates, until his retirement in 2007 at the age of 51. He’s currently enjoying his retirement somewhere in his home state of Virginia, and I hope he, his wife Linda and their son Landon are doing well.
I have always respected Ricky Rudd for his toughness, consistent excellence, and never backing down from a challenge. But never did I think I may live to see the day that my favorite driver may just be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame! Here’s the link!
He’s been up for induction since 2017. He may not have seven championships like Dale Earnhardt, or 200 wins like Richard Petty. But his career still is incredibly impressive! Some of his stats:
- 906 career starts from 1975-2007, second only to Richard Petty. This earned him the nickname “The Iron Man.”
- 16 straight seasons with at least one win.
- 1977 Rookie of the Year
- 23 career wins
- 374 Top 10 Finishes
- 194 Top 5 Finishes
- Named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers.
I hope Ricky Rudd one day makes it into the NASCAR Hall of Fame alongside Dale Earnhardt Sr., Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace and others. If he does, I’ll be celebrating right along with him! Watching him race all those years ago as a kid meant a lot to me. It was more than just watching a skilled race car driver hurtle around the track. Watching Ricky Rudd race reminded me of my dad. Both in that Whirlpool was a sponsor, and that many a Sunday afternoon was spent watching him race with my family. He’s my first sports hero. A man who busted his butt to be the best, who never took any disrespect from anyone, and who treated others with the respect they were due. Thanks for everything, Champ!