Race Weekend Central

Waid’s World: The Driver Who Looked Like a Kid Raced His Way into the Hall of Fame

I know there is little chance of total acceptance of every candidate inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame and I reckon the class for 2024 is no exception.

But for me personally, to see Ricky Rudd be part of the induction ceremony in January is a good thing.

Other than his worthy credentials, there are a couple of reasons Rudd’s pending induction is personally satisfying.

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First, he’s a fellow Virginian who is practically a neighbor. He’s from Chesapeake and I hail from Virginia Beach, both just a few miles apart in the Tidewater area.

Second, I’ve known Rudd for all of his NASCAR career – not just most of it. He started racing Bill Champion’s No. 10 Fords in 1975, debuting at the spring Rockingham Speedway race. I was there.

He finished 11th in that race and it was the first time he raised eyebrows. That he was an unknown out of nowhere and outlasted many veterans of the day was enough to attract attention, but as for Rudd, there was another reason.

He was decidedly not the image of the rough-and-tumble stock car driver. True, he was 18 years old but looked far more like an 11-year-old fifth grader.

He was slight of stature and had a headful of curly hair – and a baby face. I mean a baby face. And when he smiled, which was often, he looked even younger.

When I saw Rudd on that race day in Rockingham, I admit I was amused at his youthful appearance.

“Look at that guy,” I said to a bemused colleague. “I mean, I’ve heard of young competitors, but I didn’t think NASCAR let any one of them drive before 16 years of age.”

“Looks like NASCAR’s new rule says if you’re potty trained, you can race!” he replied.

We should have realized there was another, more rugged and daring side to Rudd. Perhaps he first displayed it when, as a kid, he and his friends visited home construction sites wearing towels around their necks – their homage to Superman.

They climbed atop finished or unfinished roofs and then jumped into sand piles. By the way, not all of them were close by.

Also, as a youngster, Rudd was an avid Go-Kart driver who raced in heavy competition for years. He did turns in motocross. Nothing timid about that.

Rudd raced in NASCAR with his family team and team owner Junie Donlavey (a fellow Virginian) for a few desperate years before finding stability with DiGard Racing Co. as Darrell Waltrip’s replacement in 1981.

But, as it was for several of its drivers, existence with DiGard became untenable. Rudd seized what turned out to be the most significant opportunity of his career when, in 1982, he was asked to be Dale Earnhardt’s replacement after his short tenure with Richard Childress Racing.

In 1983 Rudd and Richard Childress achieved landmarks in their careers when Rudd won the June 5 Budweiser 400 at the road course Riverside International Raceway.

The victory was the first of Rudd’s career and the first of Childress’ career as a team owner – he never won as a driver.

Rudd’s victory eliminated forever the image of a school kid in a driver’s seat. Although he still looked like a college freshman, that was just an appearance. He was a competitor and winner.

And, although his youthful looks and mild-mannered personality persisted, Rudd proved tough, durable and, when provoked, downright belligerent.

Earlier in 1983, at Martinsville Speedway, Rudd became increasingly frustrated with the beating and banging he took during the Virginia National Bank 500 on the tight, 0.525-mile short track.

When a restart came with only a few laps to go, furious racing ensued. Rudd took a beating and fell to fifth place. On the cool-down lap, a furious Rudd slammed into Joe Ruttman continuously down the backstretch and topped that off by slamming into him on pit road.

Ruttman admitted he had no idea what, if anything, he had done wrong.

NASCAR promptly fined Rudd $1,500 and slapped him with a 10-race probation.

At North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1988, Rudd led 154 of 400 laps in the Holly Farms 400. When he fell to second place when Earnhardt passed him, Rudd responded with a rear-end shove and moved back into first. Earnhardt responded with a hefty blow to Rudd’s rear end that sent him into a smoking spin.

The two drivers got into another bumper-banging session with just five laps to go.

NASCAR had enough and both drivers were ordered to go to the hauler after the race.

An unrepentant Rudd bowed in sarcasm to the crowd as it booed him.

Rudd was also a principal in one of the most controversial incidents in NASCAR’s history.

The winner of the 1991 Banquet Frozen Foods 300 on the road course at Sonoma Raceway came down to Rudd and Davey Allison. In the final turn on the next-to-last lap, Rudd shoved Allison out of the way and off the track.

Instead of the checkered flag when he came back around, Rudd saw the black flag. NASCAR declared that his treatment of Allison was a serious offense.

Rudd was disqualified and Allison was declared the winner. For hours after the race, controversy raged as angry confrontations took place. Rudd was right in the middle of it all.

When it comes to anger and confrontation, Rudd was not and never has been, singular. Every driver has voiced or acted upon his frustrations.

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Simply put, Rudd was a fierce competitor. What made him a tough one was made explicitly clear in 1984.

Rudd was driving for Bud Moore when, during the Busch Light Clash at Daytona International Speedway, he became involved in a terrifying single-car accident. His No. 15 Ford rolled into the infield in the fourth turn, got airborne and spun nose-down like a top. Dirt and metal flew everywhere before the car slammed to the ground. It was all but crushed.

Rudd suffered extensive injuries that were so severe many thought he might be sidelined for months.

Not so. Rudd drove in the Daytona 500 a week later. He wore a heavy-duty flak jacket to protect his damaged ribs. His eyes surrounded by black, bruised, swollen skin, were taped open. He was in pain.

He finished seventh, one lap down.

One week later at Richmond Raceway, Rudd was scheduled to drive again. He looked the same as he did at Daytona – like a boxer who came out on the short end of a 15-round slugfest.

He won the race.

It was one of the most emotional and popular victories in NASCAR history. The crowd of 30,000 cheered and roared with approval. Fellow competitors offered their congratulations. Rudd’s family members in the garage area cried.

Yes, Rudd may have looked like a kid. But that is not who he was. He was a gritty, tough race driver whose achievements have earned him his place among NASCAR’s best.

About the author

Steve Waid

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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Kevin in SoCal

Hell yes Ricky Rudd has earned his spot in the Hall of Fame. Congrats to him, and thank you Steve for your history lessons!

Tony

No stat sheet will ever show how Rudd could be as aggressive as Dale Earnhardt or as smooth and calculating as Terry Labonte, depending on the situation.

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