These days, it's not uncommon to see an 18-year-old racing in the NASCAR Nationwide or Camping World Truck Series. That is the minimum age limit for the those divisions, along with the elite Sprint Cup Series, and teams and sponsors often want to throw the kid into the fire just as soon as possible. Usually, that driver has already spent plenty of time driving stock cars on lower-tier circuits, usually dominating in cars much-better funded than those they're competing against. They progress to the top of the racing ladder by age 20, can't get the job done, and usually fade into obscurity as just another racing bust. Is that fair? Not exactly, but it is the way things work in contemporary stock car racing.
Like those youngsters, Chesapeake, Virginia's Ricky Rudd made his first NASCAR start at the age of 18. That debut didn't come after an adolescence behind the wheel of full-bodied race cars, however, nor did it come in a lower-tier division. Rudd, after beginning his career on two wheels, hadn't raced a stock car until driving in the premier Winston Cup Series - as it was then known - at Rockingham in 1975.
He adapted well, finishing 11th - albeit nearly 60 laps down to winner and NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough - after starting 26th in a field that featured such racing luminaries as Richard Petty, David Pearson, Benny Parsons, Darrell Waltrip, Buddy Baker, Bobby Isaac, and Donnie Allison. Parsons, Waltrip, Baker, Isaac, and Allison all finished behind the kid in a battle of attrition that saw only 18 of the 31 starters complete the final lap.
That was the beginning of a career of 906 starts, second all-time to only The King. It was also the beginning of a career that saw Rudd start a record 788-consecutive events, beginning with the 1981 season-opener in Riverside and concluding with the 2005 finale at Homestead.
That "Iron Man" streak, one that won't be broken anytime soon (Jeff Gordon is closest but over 120 races away from the mark) is perhaps Rudd's most famous achievement for newer NASCAR fans, but he also had plenty of other great accomplishments.
When he scored his first Cup win at Riverside in 1983 - making him, not Dale Earnhardt, the first to win a race for Richard Childress Racing - he started a string of 16-straight seasons in which he won at least one race, a modern-era record he shares with longtime nemesis and Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace (more on that later). That is another record that isn't in immediate jeopardy, as Tony Stewart needs a win the next two years to even tie Rudd's mark.
His 23 wins, which rank 23rd on the all-time list, include triumphs at a variety of circuits. A master of the road courses, Rudd won two races each at Riverside, Watkins Glen, and Sonoma, site of this weekend's Toyota/Save Mart 350.
Perhaps he should have three wins at Sonoma, depending on who you ask. He was black-flagged as he crossed the finish line in 1991 after spinning Davey Allison on the penultimate lap, while Allison was shown the checkered flag and declared the winner. Seeing as Allison was my favorite driver at the time, if you're asking me, Rudd is a fine two-time Sonoma champ. His two wins there were milestones, as he won the very first Cup race held there in 1989 and then scored his final win at the track in 2002.
He also was a force at Dover, where he won a career-high four races but is perhaps better known for a pair of incidents with Wallace (again, more on that later).
Though Rudd won more than one race in a season only five times and never had more than two triumphs in a given campaign, his ability to string together so many years with trips to victory lane is especially impressive when considering that he did it for five different car owners: Childress, Hall of Famer Bud Moore, NHRA drag racing legend Kenny Bernstein, Rick Hendrick (claiming four of Hendrick's 203 wins to date), and Rudd himself.
He is arguably the best of the owner-drivers from the 1990s, though Alan Kulwicki won a championship before his life was cut short in 1993. Rudd started his team in 1994 and ran it for six years, claiming six wins in that span (one more than Kulwicki's total from 1988-92 and two more than Geoff Bodine won from 1994-1996 after purchasing Kulwicki's team from his estate).
He finished fifth in the standings in '94, then ninth and sixth the next two years. Though he fell to 17th in 1997, thanks to seven DNFs, he won twice. The second win came in the fourth-annual Brickyard 400, easily the richest race in the '97 schedule, and is a moment that epitomizes the little guy making good over the juggernauts on the big stage.
The last win for Rudd's team - and the cap on his streak - came at Martinsville the following year and is probably his career's defining moment. It was blistering hot in Virginia that day, but things got even hotter for Rudd early when his cooling system froze up early in the race. Making matters worse, in their attempt to cool their driver off on a pit stop, the team unwittingly doused him with water from a garden hose that had been lying in the hot sun and reached scalding temperatures.
In a display of his trademark toughness - he ran the 1984 Daytona 500 with his eyelids taped open after a violent crash in the Busch Clash (now Bud Shootout) a week earlier - Rudd stuck it out and battled with Sterling Marlin and John Andretti for much of the race. When Marlin and Andretti fell by the wayside, Rudd was left to hold off eventual champ Jeff Gordon (in the midst of a 13-win season). He did - though those of us at home nearly missed it because ESPN cut to Busch Stadium to cover Mark McGwire's 70th home run and only made it back to the race for the final couple laps - and took one of the gutsiest wins of all time. So drained after the race that he needed to be lifted from the car, Rudd did his winner's interview laying on the ground while he was administered oxygen.
Because of Rudd's toughness and his friendly demeanor, he was one of NASCAR's most popular drivers during his career. Folks rallied around him when he was involved in a pit road accident at the Atlanta Motor Speedway that fatally injured Bill Elliott's tire changer Mike Ritch, and his career resurgence with Robert Yates Racing in 2001 - when he won twice and contended for the title for much of the year - was one of the feel-good stories of a dark year.
He was not universally loved, however, thanks to incidents with two of NASCAR's biggest names.
In 1989 at North Wilkesboro, he was battling Dale Earnhardt for the victory when they collided and spun on the last lap. Geoff Bodine scooted by to win while Rudd and Earnhardt fell to ninth and tenth. Livid, The Intimidator called Rudd an SOB (only he went all nine yards) on ESPN's national telecast after the race. Ultimately, the incident would play a large role in Earnhardt losing the title to Wallace.
Ironically, it would be Wallace who drew the ire of both Rudd and Earnhardt in the fall of 1993 at Dover. A lap down after having to pit for a flat tire under green, Wallace's dominant Pontiac was stuck on the inside lane on a restart. Hut Stricklin missed a shift ahead of him and Wallace bumped him from behind, turning him into - who else? - Rudd and Earnhardt. Rudd was blistering mad, nominating Wallace for "the Rubberhead of the Race" and calling him a "dumb SOB" (and actually using the acronym this time).
The Rudd/Wallace feud was rekindled in the late summer of 2001. Rudd bumped Wallace out of the way off the last corner to grab fourth position at Bristol in August. Wallace drove full-speed into the first turn after the checkered flag and spun Rudd out. Four weeks later, again at Dover (in the first race after 9/11), Rudd was dominant before being spun by Wallace as he was putting him a lap down. The pair had a heated confrontation in the garage afterwards, and their renewed rivalry actually inspired a popular ad for Visa the following year.
When all is said and done, Rudd will most likely find himself alongside Earnhardt and Wallace in NASCAR's Hall of Fame. Though he never won a championship, his 23 victories, the winning streak, the consecutive races mark, and all of his other accomplishments over nearly 323,000 miles of racing present a strong case for enshrinement.