Rudd The Iron Man

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CONCORD, N.C. – There’s a lot to be said about longevity.

Some say, in jest, that the only thing longevity says about an athlete is that he’s old. Cal Ripken said it when he broke Lou Gherig’s long-standing mark of consecutive games played in Major League baseball a few years back. Ripken played a couple of more seasons, then retired and is waiting on a sure first-ballot election to the MLB Hall of Fame.

Ricky Rudd is also among the first to fire off that joke when talking about his impending breaking of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series “Iron Man” mark for the most consecutive starts. He’ll set the record (he’s currently tied with Terry Labonte at 655) on Sunday evening when he takes the green flag at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in the Coca-Cola 600.

“All it means is that you’re just getting up there in age,” the 45-year-old driver of Robert Yates’ No. 28 Havoline Ford said. “You do something like that, and people say, ‘wow, he must be old.’ It is a wonderful honor, though, and it does say that you’re dedicated to what you’re doing.

“To be mentioned in the same company with somebody like Terry Labonte is tremendous because he’s a champion. And what can you say about being mentioned in the same breath as Richard Petty. That speaks for itself.”

A 15-minute video was shown during a recent press conference at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, during which several people, including Bobby Labonte, recanted the illustrious careers of both Rudd and Terry Labonte. Major League Baseball’s “Iron Man,” Cal Ripken, also spoke during the video, praising both drivers’ dedication to their sport.

“To be able to do what they’ve done, you need a lot of longevity, good health, dedication, and probably a little luck, too,” said Ripken, who played almost 20 years for the Baltimore Orioles. “I admire them for what they’ve done because it is a big deal to their
sport, like I guess my deal was to mine.”

From 1983 to 1998, Ripken started 2,632 consecutive games for the Orioles.

“It shows determination and, obviously, dedication, but to compare it to baseball and Cal Ripken’s record is unbelievable with all those consecutive games,” Rudd said. “I think you have to put it into that context. I don’t think you can get into comparing sports, but you have to admire him for what he’s done for baseball and what he’s been able to do.

“Racing, I guess our form of the ‘Iron Man’ is running all these Winston Cup starts from 1981, but as far as being work to do that, it comes natural. I don’t feel like I’ve done anything out of the ordinary that most guys wouldn’t have done.”


Just to put Rudd’s streak in perspective: Jim Marshall holds the record for most consecutive NFL games played at 232 (from 1960 to 1979); Doug Jarvis holds the NHL record for most consecutive games played at 964; and A.C. Green holds the NBA mark at 1,192 games (from 1986 to 2000).

Indeed, to be able to accomplish what Rudd has in such a dangerous sport, without being seriously injured for a long period of time, is a big deal. Rudd’s streak began 21 years ago at the now-defunct Riverside International Speedway in California, where he started third and finished 19th. It was his 87th career start, dating back to 1975.

Since 1981, through the Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond two weeks ago, Rudd has run a total of 193,181 laps, which translates into 235,097 miles. That’s the equivalent of 78 three thousand-mile Havoline Oil checkups; 95 trips between Los Angeles and New York; 9 ½ trips around the earth’s equator; and almost a one-way trip to the moon (238,900 miles).

Rudd has been through seven Winston Cup team owners, including himself and current owner Robert Yates. He has competed at 28 different Winston Cup tracks around the country.

Rudd recalls two instances that might have put his “Iron Man” streak in jeopardy. One was the week of the 1984 Daytona 500, when he flipped violently during the Busch Clash. He came back the next week to finish seventh in the Daytona 500 while having to have his eyelids propped open with tape.

The second one was in 1988, when he wrecked while competing in The Winston.

“Really, at Daytona, there was never a question of not racing the next weekend,” Rudd said. “It had taken me my whole career to get to a point to get to a team like Bud Moore’s, and I wasn’t about to let somebody else have that steering wheel that weekend because I might not have gotten a chance to get it back after that. So, that was one time.

“The other one was during The Winston, I guess, in the late 80’s back during the tire war. We blew a right-front tire and hit the fence pretty hard and tore the ligaments in my left leg. Even then, there really wasn’t consideration about whether I was gonna start the race or not, it was just how can the crew work and adapt the car because I couldn’t use the clutch anymore. They had to rig up a hand clutch.

“But again, I don’t feel like I’ve done anything special that any other Winston Cup driver wouldn’t have done at the time. You do what you have to do to go out there and race, and not just race but go out there and try to compete and win a race.”

Labonte’s streak began in January of 1979 and ran until August of 2000. An accident in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona messed up Labonte’s equilibrium, but he still participated in a couple of races following Daytona. Labonte’s “problem” got so bad, however, that it forced him to miss the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis and the road course race at Watkins Glen.

That was one of the toughest seasons of Labonte’s illustrious career as he went winless for the first time in seven seasons, and it left the door open for Rudd to continue his streak until this point.

“I don’t regret the decision to get out of the car, it had to happen sometime down the line,” Labonte said. “You get in the car, you get out of the car. It is just part of the sport. I was pretty fortunate myself to have been able to run 655 straight races, and Ricky’s just been able to take that a little bit further.

“I’m proud of the fact that I was able to drive that many races in a row, and I’m proud of Ricky for how he’s been able to stick around and do what he’s done. It’s an honor to pass the torch over to someone like him.”

Rudd might not even be in a position to take over the “Iron Man” mark for Labonte if not for the February, 2001 death of Dale Earnhardt. “The Intimidator” fashioned a streak of 648 consecutive races before he was killed on the last lap of last year’s Daytona 500.

Rusty Wallace, who, like Rudd, is 45 years old, is next in line with 565 consecutive starts, so it’s unlikely Wallace will ever catch Rudd. Ken Schrader currently has 535 straight starts.

Rudd began his Winston Cup career in 1975 with team owner Jim Gardner, but has raced for the likes of Richard Childress, Bud Moore, Kenny Bernstein, Rick Hendrick and Yates, along with a six-year stint in which he owned his own car.

He made 117 starts for Hendrick, winning four poles and four races. He won six races for Moore, two for Childress, two for Bernstein, six for himself, and has won two races for Yates in 81 starts.

Rudd left Hendrick Motorsports after the 1993 season to begin Rudd Motorsports.

“That was a decision that Ricky felt like he had to make, but we really didn’t want to see him leave,” Hendrick said. “We had him for a while, and we still believe that we could have won a championship with him.

“Really, it was just an honor to have him as one of our drivers. We’ve had a lot of great drivers, including Terry, that have made us very proud. It was great just to be associated with Ricky in that way.”

Retirement has been a word that has been associated with Rudd over the past few weeks. He’s hinted about the possibility of giving it up as early as next year, but that’s not likely. It is likely that he will retire within 50 years, before he reaches the age of 50. So, his “Iron Man” streak will be halted sometime in the near future.

Rudd said he’s going to take it year-by-year and that he won’t sign a multi-year contract with Robert Yates Racing. Whether that means Yates wants to move forward with a different driver remains to be seen, but don’t expect that to happen until perhaps Rudd himself wants to get out of the No. 28 Ford.

Rudd is still without a Winston Cup championship during his storied career, and he would love dearly to win one before it’s all over with.

“Right now, I’m coming off one of the best years I’ve had in my career (2001),” Rudd said. “We contended for the championship most of the year and ending up finishing fourth and won a couple of races, so I had a good season. This season didn’t get off to a good start, but we’re starting to come around.

“We’ve got a good chance of finishing up well and you can’t rule out a championship either, but somewhere along the line – if you go until you’re 60 or 70 – performance is going to start falling off. I’m just taking it a year at a time, and as long as my abilities haven’t deteriorated, I’ll be out here another year.

“It could be a year, it could be two years or it could be three years, but it won’t be longer than five. The motivation we all have to come back is us challenging for a championship and race wins. That’s the biggest motivational factor you can have.”

That’s good enough for Rudd, and good enough for him to keep coming back week after week…after week after week.

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