The first time anyone saw Ricky Rudd at a NASCAR event was the weekend of Feb. 28, 1975, at what was then known as North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham, N.C.
Rudd was entered in the Carolina 500 as the driver of the Ford owned by veteran independent competitor Bill Champion of Norfolk, Va., a friend of the Rudd family.
Rudd looked like a curly-haired, babyface teenager – which he was, given that he was only 18 years old. In those days one simply didn’t see youngsters wearing fire suits. Instead, those who did were older, rugged types.
As far as the race went, Rudd certainly didn’t attract attention. He finished 11th, a whopping 56 laps down.
Given that, most figured NASCAR had seen the last of Rudd, who most likely would go home to Chesapeake, Va., and finish high school.
Rudd raced for several seasons with his father Al Rudd’s team. The elder Rudd was an auto parts and scrapyard dealer. Their association held until it became obvious that the money was rapidly disappearing.
Instead of disappearing with it, Rudd was signed by veteran team owner Junie Donlavey of Richmond, Va. After a year, Rudd spent a couple of seasons with different team owners – among them D.K. Ulrich – until he was signed by DiGard Racing Co. in 1981.
Many speculated Rudd had his best opportunity to win with DiGard, an organization with a winning reputation, especially during the years Darrell Waltrip was its driver.
But the season was something of a tumultuous one for Rudd, who departed and seemed at loose ends until Richard Childress hired him to replace Dale Earnhardt for the 1982 season.
Rudd won his first two races, and the first two for Childress, in 1983 at Riverside International Raceway and Martinsville Speedway. This was an apparent sign the two were destined for a long, successful tenure – until something happened.
Earnhardt, who had been competing with owner Bud Moore, wanted to fulfill a promise he had made to Childress. It was Childress who quit racing and became an owner to accommodate Earnhardt – who left J.D. Stacy late in the 1981 season.
Afterward, Earnhardt and Childress agreed that if the right circumstances arose, they would reunite. Those circumstances happened prior to the 1984 season.
What occurred, basically, was a swap. Earnhardt would race with Childress in 1984 while Rudd would become Moore’s driver. In a most unusual development, Wrangler would sponsor both teams on a full-time basis, an unprecedented situation.
Through all of this, Rudd’s image to most fans, and nearly all media, was that of the baby-faced kid. Years may have passed but that image had never changed.
Even though people learned about his background as a daring kid who wore a bath towel like a cape and jump off house rooftops and later raced go-karts and motocross, among other things, he was still just a kid. He didn’t appear to be the rugged, rough-and-tumble type.
That all changed during the first three weeks of the 1984 NASCAR Cup Series season.
After 15 of the 20 laps in the Feb. 12 Busch Clash – a special, 11-car, 20-lap event at Daytona International Speedway, Rudd was involved in a frightening crash.
After it apparently made contact with Jody Ridley’s car, Rudd’s No. 15 Ford twisted into the air like a spinning top, bouncing off its nose repeatedly, digging up ground as metal flew everywhere.
Many feared for Rudd’s life. But it was initially reported he was only bruised.
That proved to be wrong.
Rudd suffered a concussion and torn cartilage in his rib cage. His bloodshot eyes were swollen so badly that he taped them open so he could compete in the Daytona 500 one week later.
He was fitted with a custom flak jacket to protect his ribs.
He raced to a respectable seventh-place finish.
The following week he entered the Miller High Life 400 at the 0.542-mile short track Richmond Raceway. He did so despite spells of dizziness, half his body rubbed down in heating ointment, wrapped in Ace bandages and outfitted in the protective flak jacket.
Rudd should never have been allowed to race. But this was a different era in NASCAR, one in which the sanctioning body was less scrupulous in attention to the potential ravages of physical injury.
Not so today – or for the past several years, in fact. If for no other reason, Rudd’s concussion would have kept him out of competition until he passed protocol and was cleared by physicians.
In a script right out of Hollywood, Rudd won at Richmond, overcoming Waltrip’s domination to earn the third win of his career.
It was a hugely emotional, popular victory. The grandstands erupted in cheers and Rudd’s sister Carolyn, a marketing and public relations official in NASCAR, openly wept tears of joy.
In his first two races with Moore, Rudd scored a top 10 and a victory, both achieved amid physically painful circumstances, to say the least.
While speaking to him during the Richmond weekend, I asked him how he overcame the pain.
“Three lines of cocaine,” he said with a smile.
He was kidding, of course.
Something changed drastically after those two weeks in 1984. No one ever again thought of Rudd merely as a baby-faced kid.
About the author
Steve Waid has been in journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.
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The first driver I ever cheered for! Ah, memories…
What a tough racer he was. I wonder what he’s up to these days. Possibly a future story, Frontstretch?
I wish networks would make more of an effort to get retired drivers who have dropped out of the limelight to come to the track, or go to them and get interviews. Each week a different driver. Never do the same driver more than once every three of four seasons. Maybe they can use those interviews to replace the “grid walk” segment which is universally hated and pointless (except to give MW a reason to be there).