Ricky Rudd, driver of the No. 88 Snickers Ford Fusion, was a guest during the lunch break in the Daytona International Speedway infield media center to discuss his return to full-time NASCAR Nextel Cup Series racing. His comments follow:
RICKY RUDD Ė No. 88 Snickers Ford Fusion Ė
"Weíre looking forward to it. Weíre having a good test so far and itís good to be back. I had a nice little vacation and Iím kind of refreshed a little bit. The burnout factor was setting in a little bit too much and I just took some time off Ė took a year off Ė and just sort of cleared my head and figured out what I wanted to do. I was fortunate enough that, first of all, the risk that I knew I was taking when I did that was if I decided I wanted to come back, there might not be an opportunity for me because all the seats would already have been filled.
As the way things turned out, it worked out really good that Robert Yates was looking for someone to fill the seat in the 88 and the Mars Candy Company and Snickers was good enough to step up and sponsor the car and Iím really looking forward to it and thatís where we sit. Weíre down here at Daytona for about the 900th time I think and we out there testing trying to figure out what it takes to go fast here."
YOUR THOUGHTS ON BOBBY HAMILTON?
"Bobby is just a super guy. Heís a racer and a competitor. He came up back when nobody was making any money in this sport. He was here because he loved this sport. He worked hard to build his race team, but even before that as a competitor he was very good. He was very aggressive when he needed to be. He was very smart. He was a real good setup guy Ė really good on getting his cars to be dialed in and set up.
I think thatís what sort of what separated Bobby and made him different than a lot of the competitors because he was very good at setting his own cars up. Iím not really sure what happened. The Cup deal is kind of crazy because if youíre in the wrong car at the wrong time, all of a sudden your career can sort of be over and Iím not really sure what happened to Bobby, but he went over to the Truck Series and started his own team. Everybody knows he did very well over there, but Bobby was a great guy and a great competitor and heíll be missed in this garage area for sure."
HE WON A TRUCK CHAMPIONSHIP.
"Yeah, Bobby worked for that. He put a lot into it. He put a lot of time and effort into it. He put a lot of his own money. He could have walked away and taken all his money and saved it somewhere, but he sort of put it out there for risk and invested heavily in that truck team and it paid off dividends. Hopefully, financially it made sense for him and his family is taken care of because these things will eat large amounts of money, but I have a lot of respect for Bobby, not only as a driver but as a car owner and a set up guy."
WHAT WAS IT LIKE THE FIRST TIME YOU WATCHED A RACE ON TV AND WHEN DID THE ITCH TO RACE COME BACK?
"I donít think the itch to race ever really left. I tried to keep it in check and tried not to watch too many broadcasts or listen to it on the radio. We did a lot of things. On Sundays there wasnít a whole lot of free Sundays to sit around and watch the TV even if we wanted to, but occasionally it worked out where I could see the race. Iíll say Iíd just watch the start of the race and usually that was the case, but sometimes if the race was really good Iíd sit there and watch the whole thing, but not too many times did that happen. We were off busy doing other things. We were busy and working hard at playing and catching up and visiting people that I hadnít seen in many years, and doing a lot of maintenance unfortunately.
That wasnít necessarily the pretty thing about sitting by the wayside there. Back when you race youíve got enough money to do all of your maintenance stuff. When you quit, youíve got to start doing your own stuff.
Thatís probably the biggest reality check, but I was always good about trying to keep that in perspective because I knew the day would be coming someday where we wouldnít always be spoiled like we are today and youíd have to go out and cut your own grass and do all that, so I never really got too far away from that because I knew that day would be coming."
WHAT LED TO THE BURNOUT FACTOR AND DO YOU HAVE A DIFFERENT FRAME OF MIND NOW?
"The burnout factor, I think itís probably not too hard to figure out. Thirty-one years of non-stop Ė they call it an off season right now Ė but as you can see itís not much of an off-season. Itís really just one season rolls into the next and the next one rolls into the next and before you know it, you look around and 10-15 years have gone by. The biggest thing for me was to really sit back. My father passed away last year. He was 81 years old and lived a full life and Iím sitting there thinking, ĎMan, how did he get to be 81?í
I donít think itís no different than anything else you do in life, whether you have your own business and you put heart and soul into it, time does have a way of getting by and flying away from us, but I think that was sort of a reality check for me. ĎGosh, heís 81. How did he get to be that age?í And Iím looking at my son and heís coming along and before I know it heís 12 years old and I donít feel like we got a chance to spend the time together that I would have liked to have had. He goes to school when itís dark and he comes home when itís dark, so you donít see him during the week.
Drivers are off some weekdays, but to spend time with your kids and your family Ė the weekend is what we do and heís not particularly a huge race fan so he doesnít go to the races and I was not seeing much of him. It was just a chance to get to know everybody again and take a little time off and really figure out what I wanted to do.
Since I was a kid, this is all I wanted to do. You work and you work and you work to try to get to the top of your sport and, again, time gets by, but is that really what I wanted to do. Iím 50 years old now. Is this really what I want to do and how much longer can I really do it? It really was just sort of thoughts on life on what you want to do, I guess, when you grow up. It was good for me. I got a chance to come back and clear my head. I found out what I really wanted to do was I wanted to race and wanted to be in competitive cars and the opportunity sort of presented itself.
There was some great opportunities early on Ė like February and March Ė with some of the start-up teams that you have that are gonna be pretty darn good out of the box, but I interviewed for a couple of those and talked to a couple of those owners and, really, I wasnít ready to make that commitment.
To be fair to myself and to be fair to the teams, I wasnít able and wasnít ready to commit to a full-time schedule at that time, so that was February/March. Those guys need to move forward with their race teams and they need to start putting plans together to know who their driver is Ė even as early as February of last year or March.
So, anyway, the opportunity with Robert Yates Racing came along. I hated to see the downfall of that team and how far the performance had gotten off in a fairly short period of time, but thereís many different reasons for that and Robert is bound and determined to try to build this thing back up to where it was. Heís there every morning opening the doors to the shop and Iím working with a great guy in Butch Hylton as the crew chief. Itís got a lot of the right chemistry that can come along and we can be good. David Gilliland, Iíve never had an opportunity to really work with a driver before.
When I was in the multi-car teams it was years ago and they really werenít successful at that time. They worked harder to beat each other than they did the competition and thatís changed drastically. David is a great guy. Heís gonna be good to work with. Heís my size. We can get in and out of each otherís cars, so, anyway, there were many good things that I could see in that team and sometimes the public can look and say, ĎAw, look at the performance of the team. Itís in the tank.í Iím not gonna fix it by myself obviously, but I feel like I can bring some tools to the team that can help benefit them that necessarily a young guy canít really bring.
He doesnít have that tremendous amount of background experience on all these race tracks like I do and thereís no question these guys can drive. David Gilliland can drive as good as anybody out there, but he hasnít seen these race tracks. Some of them heís never been to before, so I can help him a little bit on that. So, anyway, there are many positives there and I was kind of excited about the challenge so Iím back."
WHAT ARE YOUR IMPRESSIONS OF GILLILAND? "I havenít seen him in race conditions. Iíve seen him in a race car. We rolled into Rockingham, North Carolina and heíd never seen the place before. The same thing with Greenville, South Carolina, a place we tested. Right off the truck Iím impressed. Right off the truck heís right up to speed. It wasnít like he had to work at going fast. Heís able to go fast and thatís a good thing. I know heís had a couple of accidents and a couple of wrecks along the way, but that comes with time.
To me, thatís the right ingredient. Itís easier to take a guy that can run fast just by nature and work at slowing him down and getting him to be smart and knowing when to run, than it is to take a guy thatís not up to speed and trying to get him to go fast. That sometimes can be an impossible task, where you can work with a guy that can go fast.
He needs to learn how to race a 500-mile race and Iím sure heís come a long way since he first hopped in that car about the middle of the season and heís got some ways to go, but I think there are some mental things that you go through as a driver to put a 500-mile race together and I think heís definitely gonna come into his own this coming season."
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON JIMMIE JOHNSONíS SUCCESS AND IS THE SPECULATION FAIR ABOUT HIM BEING THIS GOOD JUST BECAUSE HEíS IN A GOOD SITUATION? "I guess people are always gonna compare todayís racers to yesterdayís racers. Thatís probably gonna always go on. Jimmie is great. Heís proven himself. Heís a champion. Heís won races by being smart. His team has been very good. It takes the whole thing. Right now that operation is 450-500 employees and itís a little different deal.
I was over there back in the late eighties and early nineties and it was just a different era. They were just getting going and just being able to take advantage of all the resources they had back then, but theyíre smart. If you look in these organizations and you look at one versus the other, there is smart personnel within all the organizations, but you really start looking at the depth of the organization.
Thatís when you look at a Hendrick and you look at how much depth they have. Some of the organizations, when theyíre at the race track theyíve got a lot of their key people at the race track, so sometimes back at the shop maybe theyíre spread a little thin or maybe their R&D side of it is a little weak.
Thereís not time for the R&D because theyíre full-time racing, when an organization like Hendrick has definitely figured out how to make that R&D side continue to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A lot of organizations are probably trying to model themselves and copy that, but it really gets back to the depth of the people theyíve got working for them and the leadership abilities they have within the team are second to none.
Certainly Jimmie Johnson, what driver wouldnít like to step into an organization thatís a fine-tuned machine. Thatís not to take anything away from him, but you could take Jimmie out and plug anyone of 15-20 guys in there and they would do the same job."
DO YOU HAVE ANY FAVORITE BENNY PARSONS STORIES? "Hopefully he is gonna rebound from this thing heís got going on. It looks like heís got the cancer whipped, but I guess heís got some injuries due to the nature of the aggressiveness that I guess they treated him with. Benny is a class-act guy. Heís been around a long time. Heís won races. Heís won a championship. Heís well-respected in the garage for sure.
If you watch Benny, Iíve never heard him say anything negative about anybody. Sometimes he might elect to maybe not mention certain people, but thatís not always a bad thing. What do they say? If you canít say something good about somebody, donít say anything at all. I think thatís kind of the philosophy that Bennyís gone by. I donít know of anybody that will say Benny Parsons is their enemy because heís had that strategy all the way through his broadcast career. Iím not gonna say too much more because I donít want to think about the negative.
I think Benny is gonna be back because heís a tough guy."
IS ROBERTíS ENTHUSIASM BACK? "Actually, that had a lot to do with my decision to come back. Robert and I started talking on the telephone and from an outsider looking in Iím sitting there saying, ĎGosh, theyíve probably got the most successful motor program in this business. Why would Robert want the headaches? Heís not 20 years old. Why would he want the headaches of trying to keep this organization going.
Why would he want to rebuild?í Itís not easy to rebuild. Itís a tough job. Itís a lot of staying awake at night and thinking about different situations, different management, different people. Iím thinking, ĎWhy would Robert at this stage of his life, why not go out and enjoy himself a little bit?í I thought maybe Robert might go the other way. I knew he was gonna go one way of the other.
I knew he was either gonna step back, sort of retire and let Doug run the motor shop but be involved with that, or he was gonna say, ĎIím tired of being embarrassed. Iím gonna come back and make this thing bigger and better than ever,í and thatís the Robert that I saw when I went and met with him. It wasnít the Robert that was tired and wore out and ĎI donít know what to do.í He had a plan. Heís got a plan and heís got some really key people that are helping to put this thing back together, but it doesnít happen overnight.
The encouraging thing for me that I saw is I watched and listened to the Homestead race. I saw the performance of the 38. It came off the truck fast, qualified fast and ran fast the entire race until about three-fourths through the race. Iím not sure exactly what happened, whether David made a mistake or something broke, he didnít finish the race and got wrecked. But I think the key is the car was competitive on a mile-and-a-half track on a track that is difficult to get a hold of. I saw that car run very well. Understand I didnít know this because I knew DJ didnít run very well, but I didnít find out until after meeting with these guys that I guess they built a couple of cars and DJís got wrecked shortly off the truck Ė didnít get a chance to show what he had.
He had been running the cars heíd been running all season and one ran good and one didnít, so thatís pretty optimistic knowing you can go through the winter and youíve got a model now to clone to get ready for the downforce tracks next year. Thatís a big positive right there that went on, so these guys have been busy building cars like the ones that ran well at Homestead."
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE DALE JR. ABOUT OWNING A TEAM?
"I guess I wouldnít totally discourage him. Itís really a personal commitment. To me, when I did it and the way Bill Elliott and everyone else to that point, you sort of put your heart and soul and everything youíve got into that thing and being very hands-on. Thatís the way I ran our deal. We had some success, but you learn a lot too. You learn a lot about business. You learn a lot about people. I think before itís over with you probably have a psychology degree in dealing with people because thatís what itís about. If he does do that, he definitely needs to surround himself with great people and he needs to delegate. He canít do it himself. If he tries to do it all himself, his racing performance is gonna suffer and his business performance.
Thereís no way you can step in and understand all of the business aspects as big as these things are today. If he can get the right people to surround himself with, heck, go for it. He can get it done. If he doesnít and doesnít get the right people Ė and getting the right people is one thing, keeping the right people thatís the toughest part about this business. Thatís the toughest part about this business and thatís the mistake I made.
I figured, ĎOK, Iím gonna be really smart. Iím gonna recruit all these guys, bring them together and weíll have a nice happy little team, but as you start having more and more success, people come in and raid your organization and take your key people, so youíre constantly rebuilding. Itís not like, ĎIím gonna go out and hire these people once.í Itís a constant struggle to keep good people.í As long as heís up for those headaches and understands that, and he knows what the challenges are and is gonna sit his personal life on the side, then I think he could do it. But a lot of sacrifices have to be made to do that."
DO WE MAKE TOO MUCH OF THE AGE OF DRIVERS LIKE YOU, JARRETT, MARTIN AND MARLIN?
"Iíll be honest, I came up in this sport and Iíve been on both sides of the spectrum. Iíve been the young guy. I was 18 years old when I stepped into the Cup garage for the first time. At that time, the guys to beat were in their forties Ė 45 years old. Those guys were strong. Fifty years old wasnít an impossibility. You had guys like Petty, Baker, Pearson Ė a lot of these guys.
I remember the first time, I was 18 years old. I was racing motorcycles professionally Ė motorcross, which I was in the best shape you could ever be in Ė coming into this sport of Cup racing. I remember going through the garage area and looking at these old men and Iím thinking, ĎGosh, thereís no way these guys can compete.
Theyíre not in shape. Thereís no way.í I can remember running Rockingham, North Carolina when it was a 500-mile race and I think that day Donnie Allison, he had to be 45 or 50 at that time, he lapped me for probably the tenth time that day and I remember Donnie going by. Itís halfway through the race and Iím dead. Iím ready to give out. Physically, thereís no question I was in the best shape of anybody in the garage area at the time after coming off the motorcycle circuit, but here comes Donnie Allison halfway through the race.
Iím running with my tongue hanging out, donít know if I can make it another lap, and heís driving with one hand and heís waving to me as I let him go by. Iím sitting there just white-knuckled up on that steering wheel and Iím thinking, ĎIím missing something here.
What am I missing?í So, to answer that question, if we were talking about going out and playing in the Super Bowl and your starting lineup was a choice of guys that were in their fifties or their twenties, thereís no question Iíd line myself up with guys in their twenties because you just have the physical beating that your body would take. Race cars arenít like that. A lot of this stuff is mental. To make a long story, short, the big trend really changed when television came into this really big.
When everything went national television, the big bush for the young guys came on board. Can they get the job done? No question about it. Can the old guys get the job done Ė the right ones? Thereís no question about it. Anyway, to sort of sum that up, I donít think itís age as much as it is ability. Thereís a lot of young guys and there are some old guys.
Thereís a lot of young talent. Now the world is not looking for 45 and 50-year-old experienced drivers. Are they out there? I donít know if you could take a 45 or 50-year-old guy from another form of racing, put him in a Cup car and expect him to go good today. I donít think that would happen, whereas the young guys can be brought in and can be trained.
Thatís probably the biggest difference is that the young guys that are stepping in are trainable and they better get it done. Theyíve got the pressure too because if they donít get it done, there are 10 young guys standing behind them ready for that seat to open up."
HOW DO YOU THINK YOU CAN DO THIS YEAR?
"To be honest, Iíve never been very good at putting Ė everyone likes to set their goals high this year. If you talk to everybody, everybody is gonna win every race in the season and theyíre gonna make the chase and theyíre gonna win the championship and theyíre gonna win a bunch of poles. Thatís just the nature of everybody this time of year. Theyíre putting a fresh outlook on everything.
I look at it as though I donít really know. There are some big challenges in front of us. I certainly see good things happening. How quickly will it happen? I really donít know yet. I would not have taken this job if I thought we were gonna go out there to run 10th or 15th or 25th every week. I would not have taken this job. Iím very optimistic. I see no reason that if we donít beat ourselves, the top 10 is getting to be a tough deal now to make at the end of the year.
I know there are a lot of people out there predicting that we wonít make the top 30 or whatever it is, but Iíve always enjoyed the challenge and like proving people theyíre wrong. So everything within my control, Iím gonna go out and do the very best we can and settle for what we can get. Hopefully there will be some good things and some good finishes along the way and I wouldnít rule out anything."
DO YOU THINK ROBERT WAS CLOSE TO SHUTTING DOWN?
"Really, when I came on board in 2000 over at Robertís, you had the 88 that won a championship and the 28, performance wasnít there. Kenny Irwin tried his hardest and had a lot of talent, but that was a good example where he wasnít probably truly ready for that Cup ride when it came to him.
Thereís no question that he had as much talent as anybody in this garage area, but it just never clicked. Youíve got to remember, when he stepped into that, yeah, there was a two-car operation, but at that time not only Robertís, but the Hendrick camp hadnít totally gelled yet.
They were coming along, but at that time in history you had the 28 in a separate, rented building over by Charlotte Motor Speedway and then you had the 88 that, at that time they had the big budget behind them. Robert being the owner, he didnít take the money out of one organization and put it in the other, he kept them separate.
So the 88 sort of outgrew the 28. When I came on board, Robert didnít know what he was gonna do with the 28 then. He seriously thought about possibly shutting the operation down. He wasnít getting results and it wasnít where it used to be. I came in and it started clicking, but I brought a lot of people with me when I came at that time. They were weak on personnel.
They had good personnel, but they didnít have enough of it so I was able to bring some guys with me to shore that program up. Suddenly, Robert now had two teams that were fairly equal to one another. The 28 performed with the 88 pretty much week in and week out and a lot of days it outperformed it. So, anyway, I saw Robert in a very similar situation this time as I did at that time.
The only difference being is that both teams were not performing the way he wanted them to be. Again, and in all fairness to what Robert had going on, heís trying to figure out how to expand to a third team, fourth team and all that. So he had to step back a little bit to look at how to create a plan of adding more teams and such, but he steps back, he hires general managers, he hires crew chiefs, he hires people that are well-respected in the sport, but it just didnít click. It didnít gel. So hereís Robert handing the keys over to somebody else and it didnít click, it didnít happen Ė the team goes down in the hole.
Robert could have bailed out. That would have been the easy way out, but he chose to come back and try to fight and build it back up again, and thatís the fight I saw in Robert when I met him. Thatís why Iím here. I see the same thing I saw when he was trying to get that 28 going again. I donít think it will be a question of if it will rebound, itís just a question of when."
HOW DO YOU RECONCILE THE TIME AWAY FROM HOME NOW?
"The really good thing I have going, and this is part of me coming back, is weíve got a sponsor in the Snickers candy people that are very accommodating. Thereís a lot of demand on drivers, not just their personal appearances. You see them here and you see them there. There are a lot of things that go on behind the scenes Ė a lot of corporate functions and things of that nature that drivers attend and thatís great. You talk about separating the young guys from the old guys, I think itís more about the married guys with families.
Being married without any children is one thing. Being single without any responsibilities or anything, thatís the big difference. Thatís what sort of separates things. Whatís the best way to say this? I guess I cherish that time enough and the sponsor recognizes that, so any day that I can steal, instead of being at some function shaking a few hands Ė donít get me wrong, I understand the importance of that Ė but, to me, I weighed the two and thatís one reason I stepped aside.
Now I have a sponsor thatís willing to give me a few days here and there to spend some home time that I would not have gotten in the past, thatís a big plus for me and thatís one of the reasons that Iím here today Ė having a sponsor thatís been very accommodating in that area. Itís not gonna be the same as being home every day, seven days a week, but itís a lot better than it used to be."
HOW DID YOU AND ROBERT PATCH THINGS UP?
"We had two-and-a-half years at Yates that was a great situation. Everybody got along great. Then when it turned sour and there were many different reasons it turned sour. We wonít get into all of those, but I was letting Robert know that he sort of needs to have a heads up.
ĎWeíre not gonna be here forever,í and he has no youth in the organization to take over either DJís job or my job. We needed to bring somebody along. It sort of snowballed and sort of got out of control. The next thing I know, instead of this thing being held together, now itís just trying to blow apart. The last half of the year wasn 't.
- Ford -