Roanoke Times Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: SATURDAY, December 18, 1993 TAG: 9312180123 SECTION: SPORTS PAGE: C1 EDITION: METRO SOURCE: BOB ZELLER STAFF WRITER DATELINE: MOORESVILLE, N.C. LENGTH: Long
Rudd reserves his greatest admiration for old-time fighter pilots, which is not surprising, given his line of work and the fact that he displays the same steely control and quiet determination that have come to be known as "the right stuff."
So one is not going to hear a lot of self-doubt from the latest Winston Cup driver to step to the edge of the cliff of commitment, stare into the abyss of owning one's own racing team, and jump.
"To say it doesn't make you nervous would be wrong, obviously, because large amounts of money are going out and, really, nothing is coming back in yet," the 37-year-old driver from Chesapeake said in a recent interview at the shop. "But it's basically a challenge I've enjoyed since day one. What it amounts to is you can control your own destiny."
And as he sits in his office with a lap-top computer, an adding machine and a pile of papers - and with more than $1 million of his own money already spent - Rudd is looking more and more comfortable as a car owner.
After six months, things finally are beginning to gain some momentum with the new No. 10 Tide Ford Thunderbird team. The 1993 season is over and Rudd can really get to work. One car is built and more are on the way. He'll have a crew chief in a few days. He had a good first test at Charlotte in November. Workers have laid the cement slab for his permanent shop a short distance away.
And he is settled into his temporary shop, even though, at the size of a small airplane hangar, it is mostly empty.
Rudd earned more than $1 million during the 1993 racing season. But life at the top of the Winston Cup circuit had its problems and frustrations, prompting Rudd and his wife, Linda, to take a big chunk of their fortune and gamble it on themselves.
The genesis of this move started before the season, his fourth with car owner Rick Hendrick.
Rudd had signed with Hendrick for 1990 after driving and winning races for a number of teams that didn't quite measure up to the best - either for lack of money, a shortage of experienced team members, or bad luck.
But with the move to Hendrick, it appeared Rudd finally would get everything he needed. And that's how things seemed to be going when, in his second year in 1991, he was the runner-up to Dale Earnhardt for the Winston Cup championship.
But then his team was completely revamped for 1992 and, predictably, had a slow start. Rudd finished seventh in points.
And what Rudd saw heading into 1993 bothered him even more.
"Basically, we went to the Daytona 500 with only one tested race car," he said. "The addition of Jeff Gordon [to the Hendrick stable] put a burden on our team. But what kind of was the icing on the cake - when I saw we were in serious trouble - was as we're looking at building for a championship season, they all of a sudden wanted [Indy-car driver] Al Unser Jr. in the Daytona 500.
"All of a sudden I'm starting to think, `This is no way to run a championship team. We're being put in a hole right from the start.' I didn't care if he [Hendrick] ran 10 or 15 teams, as long as it didn't affect ours. But it did."
After six races, Rudd had one top 10 finish.
In those dark days of spring, he began doing some rather un-Rudd-like things. One weekend he talked of retirement. Another weekend he took a swing at mild-mannered Brett Bodine for a racing incident that was two weeks old.
Here was Ricky Rudd, 19 years into a Winston Cup career and still looking at his own unfulfilled potential, even though he had done a lot of things right and not many wrong.
He had won for car owner Richard Childress when Childress was winless. He won the first races for owner Kenny Bernstein and crew chief Larry McReynolds.
In the past two years, Rudd was the only Hendrick driver to visit victory lane. Since 1983, Rudd has won at least one race a year. But he has never won more than two.
In the wake of Alan Kulwicki's death in April, something unusual happened. Though he was only mildly interested, Rudd was rumored to be a potential buyer of the 1992 Winston Cup champion's team.
"All of a sudden, I had talented people in the sport calling me, inside and outside the team and on the sponsorship side, too, saying, `Hey, if you're interested in doing this, we'd like to be a part of it,' " he said.
Rudd was surprised that so many people were ready to line up behind him on the basis of a rumor. He had no tools, no equipment, no shop and no stated desire to be a car owner. And yet there were people - good people - who believed in him and were ready to pitch in.
So, after much helpful advice from others, especially Darrell Waltrip, the Rudds decided to take the plunge.
After Davey Allison's death in July, Rudd had the opportunity to change his mind and join Robert Yates' No. 28 Ford Thunderbird team - a proven winner.
"One of the things offered was they would buy everything I had bought at that point," he said.
But the timing was wrong. He and Linda were getting more and more wrapped up in the challenge.
"Had those opportunities been available earlier, I probably wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now," he said.
When the time came to order a race-car hauler, they thoroughly investigated every option.
The design of their new shop is their own, gleaned from numerous visits to other shops in the area to learn what worked and what didn't.
Whenever Ricky talks of all that must be done, Linda reminds him of all that already has been done.
"You can maybe choke yourself," he said. "I've thought about that. Here I've got the ball. I'm running with it. But I could drop the ball."
Rudd is now confronting his biggest challenge: assembling a championship team. Will he be a good judge of talent - a leader who can motivate his troops?
"I guess we'll find out next year, won't we?" he said. "But that's why I'm here every day.
"The big test has yet to come, but it should be very competitive right out of the box. We should win races in year one, if you get the right blend of people and a group that works together."