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Published: Saturday, 2/15/2003

Hardly anyone knows who Rudd is ... and that's the way he likes it

BY DAVE WOOLFORD
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Ricky Rudd is a bit on the small side at 5-8, 160 pounds, maybe his growth stunted because he grew up working under a race car.

He's a race car driver from the ground up, but where's up?

It's not in the limelight, where Rudd has set records for dodging television cameramen.

It's not among those drivers who are considered the leading men in NASCAR Winston Cup racing.

It's not among the fans, who appreciate him as a good driver, but not a great driver, just a guy who has been around a long time and has paid his dues.

Rudd, 46, couldn't be happier about those circumstances as he prepares for tomorrow's Daytona 500 with maybe his best chance ever of winning the “Great American Race” for the first time.

Rudd was fastest in a practice session this week in his Motorcraft Ford and will start fifth on the 43-car grid.

“A lot of the guys, like Darrell Waltrip, would run to find that camera. I'll run the other way and that probably hasn't helped,” the amiable Rudd admits. “You look at my record and that's pretty impressive, but a lot of people probably still don't know who Ricky Rudd is. That doesn't hurt my feelings.

“I cut my own grass until five years ago, when people started to stop [by the house] and you couldn't get it done. I've worked hard to not get burned out in this sport, and you can do that. It's not the on-track things that do it. It's all of the side activities you've got going.”

NASCAR released its “All-Time Top 10” driver poll here Wednesday, with Richard Petty easily leading the way. There was the late Dale Earnhardt and Waltrip, the three combining for a total of 17 Winston Cup titles. But no David Pearson (154 wins), Cale Yarborough (83 wins) or Jeff Gordon (61 wins).

There was, however, Rudd in third place with no titles and 23 career victories. The poll was built on top-10 finishes in the Winston Cup points championships. Rudd has finished in the series' top-10 19 times during his 26 years as a full-time racer on the circuit. Consistency pays, too.

Some of the more high-profile names in the sport won more races but didn't run for the championship nearly as many times as Rudd.

Rudd is the neighbor you talk to over the backyard fence. But don't take his quiet, down-home charisma to mean he isn't unyielding when behind the steering wheel of his race car.

There was the Busch Clash here in 1984 when Rudd was involved in a horrific wreck. As he was spinning through the air, all he could think about was trying to stay conscious, because he felt the car would catch on fire. It didn't and he didn't - stay conscious that is.

He was taken to the hospital, but was going to leave when his wife, Linda, said, “Get out of bed, walk over to the mirror and then tell me if you want to go home.”

Ricky dragged himself in front of the mirror, and said, “Maybe I'll just spend one night.”

Two days later he was back in his race car, practicing here, when everything went dark as he motored into the first turn. “I thought, `Man, I've got some kind of serious brain injury or something because I can't see,'” Rudd recalled. “I thought my career was over.”

He looked in the rear-view mirror and saw that his eyes had almost swollen shut. He drove around to the pits, got some duct tape and taped his eyelids to his forehead in the open position. He put his helmet back on so that no one on his crew saw what he did and returned to the track.

Rudd's rise to obscurity started in 1975, when he was 18 and participated in his initial Winston Cup race at Rockingham.

“I knew I had everyone beat in that first race. I was 18 and everyone else was 30 to 35,” Rudd related Thursday with a smile. “Everybody was walking through the garage area with cowboy boots and hats on. I said, `These are cowboys, they can't drive race cars.' I learned real quick that I had a long educational process in front of me.”

One of those “cowboys” was Richard Petty, who was in the process of winning an unprecedented 200 NASCAR Winston Cup races.

Rudd says he's now “just a nuts and bolt guy. I just keep working and trying to do the best I can with the equipment we've got to work with. I've been in and out of a lot of teams and I think, probably, my career might have been bigger if I had just stayed in one spot.”

Rudd is now with the famed Wood Brothers, his 10th team. He had his own team for six years (1994-1999) before the multi-team concept left him in its dust.



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