Breaking Up Is Hard To Do Matt Mclaughlin

As this column is written, an official announcement hasn’t been made Ricky Rudd won’t be back in the Robert Yates Racing 28 car next year. All indications are its just a matter of time before that fact is put to paper with the usual platitudes about how all parties involved wish the other parties continued success and they go their separate ways as friends. But the talk lately has been anything but friendly and the gloves aren’t even completely off yet either. Call it the way business is done, call it life in the high pressure, high buck, current climate of Winston Cup racing, but I just call it sad.

Recall prior to landing the 28 ride Ricky Rudd’s racing future was very much in doubt. He’d inadvertently sabotaged his own career deciding to leave Hendrick Racing to become an owner-driver which was the trend in that era, though now only Brett Bodine owns and drives his own car as part of a single car operation. Rudd hadn’t been winning or finishing particularly well most weekends, and his sponsor Tide announced their intention to leave Rudd’s team to sign on with Cal Wells’ outfit. And in a lot of peoples’ minds Rudd had become like Darrell Waltrip, a once great driver that had stayed too long at the fair. But signing on with the 28 team landed Rudd back in quality equipment and rejuvenated his career.

Recall also the once proud 28 team was in a bit of disarray when Rudd accepted the ride. Ernie Irvan, who’d almost lost his life in a Michigan crash in the 28, had been replaced by Kenny Irwin, as the team’s sponsor wanted a younger driver in the mold of Jeff Gordon. In retrospect now tinged with tragedy, it’s evident that Kenny was thrust into the Winston Cup series well before he was ready based on some good performances driving in the Craftsman Truck series. Well Mike Skinner won a lot of truck races as well, and a series championship to boot, but he’d hardly set the world on fire in Winston Cup. Prior to Rudd’s breakthrough win at Pocono last year, the 28 team hadn’t visited Victory Lane since June 1997 at Michigan when Ernie Irvan won at the track that had almost claimed his life. Rudd would go on to win at Richmond as well, was a serious championship contender most of the season, and finished fourth in the points. If it can be said that that his association with Yates rejuvenated Rudd’s career, it’s also true that Rudd has re-ignited the 28 team into an outfit that’s a threat to win almost every weekend.

Robert Yates didn’t make his fortune in the new car business or some other business outside of racing. He got involved in racing as an engine builder and enjoyed a lot of success. In 1988 he was working for Harry Ranier’s team with rising star Davey Allison, but the team was in sore financial straits. Allison was able to convince his friend Yates together the two of them could make a go of things. Robert mortgaged everything he owned to purchase the team, which began competing under the “Robert Yates Racing” banner in 1989. Success was not immediate, but not too far down the road current FOX broadcaster Larry McReynolds joined the 28 team and a new super-team was born. In 1992 Davey Allison driving Yates car made a serious bid at the title coming up just short in the final race of the season. Then in 1993 with no warning Davey was taken from us. Ernie Irvan took Davey’s place and was also contending for a championship in 1994 until that savage practice wreck at Michigan ended his season. It was the driver tapped to fill in until Irvan could return that finally gave Robert Yates a championship though it was in the 88 car, not the 28.

Then of course you have Michael “Fatback” McSwain whose stock has risen exponentially in the eyes of the racing community over the last couple years. McSwain wasn’t a hot property in 1999, drifting from one under-funded team to another with limited success. One of those teams was Rudd’s and when Rudd made the move to Robert Yates racing he insisted McSwain be part of the package.

So up until this point it reads like a fairy tale right? The team owner who’d gambled everything to get into the game hires the down and out driver and together, with the help of a badly underrated crew chief, they turn the once proud team back around and everyone prospers. That’s a wrap. Cut, it, print it, and send the script to Britney Spears. But there’s no happy ending here.

Rudd now says when he signed with Yates he accepted “rookie pay” to get in a good car. Maybe it’s more fair to say he accepted “potentially washed up old-timer pay” to get into the 28 car. Whatever the case, Rudd has clearly shown himself among the elite drivers of the sport and wants to be compensated as such. (The number being tossed around but never officially confirmed is three million dollars a year as base pay.) Yates says he simply can’t afford to pay Rudd the sort of money he admits he’s worth because while high-profile, the Texaco sponsorship is not as lucrative as many other deals in the garage. Rudd’s contention is Robert already has a high dollar sponsor, UPS, and the money from both sponsors ought to be pooled and split evenly between the two teams. (Again no one will talk on record but the dollar amount of the UPS sponsorship is said to be in the sixteen million dollar a year range, while Texaco/Chevron pony up about ten million a year according to garage gossip.)

And the situation gets messier from there. Rudd may have made a tactical blunder in announcing he was considering retirement before making up his mind. That got Yates preparing for all contingencies and into talks with Elliott Sadler. Then rumors began leaking that Mars (M and M candies) wanted to sponsor a car out of the Robert Yates stable and that the deal was better financially than what Texaco was offering. Some envisioned a three car team but the last time I talked to Yates, he was emphatic he had no desire to field three teams. “No. No way. I’m not falling into that trap.” A quick look at the fortunes of Richard Childress Racing this season is instructive as to just how hard it is to expand from two to three cars.

Now if both Robert and Ricky were to reverse course and Rudd decided to stay and Robert to run a third team, perhaps with Doug Yates running the show, it has already been confirmed McSwain would no longer be the crew chief for the 28. McSwain says he’s got two more years on his contract with Yates and he’ll go to whichever team Robert assigns him. Rudd is worried that the more experienced (and thus higher paid) members of the 28 team would be shifted to the new team and he’d be left with the weak sister outfit in the three car operation.

No, all this intrigue isn’t unusual in the garage area, it just usually goes on lower down in the food chain where less people are keenly interested in how the cards sort out. Rudd is currently 7th in the points, and not eliminated from a potential championship based on math or performance, though uncertainty about the future could derail the outfit in short order to everyone’s loss. It would be nice if everyone could shake hands, buckle down and win Rudd and the 28 team their respective first titles this year as a going away present, but right now it seems more likely by the end of the season, no one will even be on speaking terms any longer, and what started with a roar will go out with a whimper. Turn out the lights, I don’t want to see anymore.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2002

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