Rudd looks to get back on track after sobering pit stop with tragedy Countdown to Daytona

February 12, 1991|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Evening Sun Staff

Ricky Rudd is a soft-spoken race car driver. Despite the rugged business he is in, gentle is a word commonly used to describe Rudd's friendly, boyish disposition, his easy smile, his friendly hello.

But four months ago, he came down pit road at Atlanta International Raceway for a pit stop and the boy in him was lost forever.

The brakes on his car locked, spinning the 3,500-pound Chevrolet 180 degrees. The car slammed into the right side of Bill Elliott's race car, crushing one of Elliott's crewmen, who was changing a rear tire.

Mike Rich lost his life that November afternoon, and Ricky Rudd lost his youth. One is gone forever, while the other is left to deal with the loss for the rest of his life.

Sunday in the 33rd annual Daytona 500, Rudd will drive down pit road in a Winston Cup race for the first time since that accident.

"It will definitely be on my mind," Rudd said quietly. "I thought about it when I was coming down pit road testing. I think the testing helped me. I found I enjoyed getting back in the race car. I think when we get caught up in the season, it will help put things behind me, though I don't think I'll ever forget it."

Ricky Rudd still aches inside. It is evident in his voice, in his body language. In New York, at the Winston Cup awards banquet in December, he could not talk about the accident. When it was mentioned, tears welled in his eyes.

Now, he does talk about it, but his voice takes on an emotional gruffness.

"I still have to deal with this day-to-day," said the 34-year-old. "I wouldn't feel very good about myself if I could say it was behind me. I'm not that kind of person. I've had some veteran drivers who have been in a similar situation tell me it happened to them 30 years ago and there isn't a day that goes by that they don't think about it.

"It's something I'll deal with the rest of my life . . . The concern for that family keeps popping up in my mind."

Rudd has gone over all the options, right down to what it would mean if he didn't race anymore.

"Sure, it would do away with the chances of it happening again," he said. "The unfortunate thing is that it is part of our sport. I hope and pray it would never happen again. But I don't think I would accomplish anything by not coming back."

He talked to Mike Rich's family shortly after the accident.

"I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy," he said. "I don't have the answers for it. Only The Man Upstairs knows. Why me? Why them? You can't figure it out. You go crazy trying. You just hope it will be a safer situation in the future."

Pit road has always been a no-man's land of lawlessness. There are no speed limits, no rules. It's every man for himself along pit road, as cars whip by at nearly full throttle.

After Atlanta, many drivers, crews and car owners were brought up short. Ricky Rudd is recognized as one of the smoothest drivers on the circuit. If a tragedy like this could happen to a car he was driving, it could happen to anyone.

With that in mind, NASCAR has passed rules governing pit road that go into effect for the first time this week.

In the past, cars have been able to pit virtually any time they choose for any adjustment, tire change, fuel refill or work under the hood.

Under the new plan, there will be two pace cars in caution situations. One will stay on the track, as it always has. The other will lead cars down pit road on every lap of caution.

During cautions, teams can put fuel in the racers and make minor adjustments on the left side of the car. Crews will not be allowed to work on the right side.

Every car will be designated odd or even by virtue of its starting position. After a caution period, all of the cars must complete one full lap of green flag racing before the odd cars are allowed to pit for tires. The even cars then will be allowed to pit on the next lap and, after that, the pits will remain open for anyone until the next caution flag.

The even-odd designation is intended to ensure every car will have empty pits both in front and in back of it, giving the crew plenty of room.

"We had more incidents on pit road last season than we have in the past and we think we have taken a step in the right direction," said NASCAR president Bill France Jr.

France seems to be one of few who believes the plan will work. Almost everyone involved in the sport has a different perspective. Some believe the rules are too complicated and might cause even more dangerous situations.

As for Rudd, he believes the new pit road rules are a step in the right direction.

"NASCAR had to start somewhere," he said. "They didn't ask for my input. I might have made different suggestions. But it's a starting place. On the positive side, the crews won't be able to leave the wall until the car stops, but there will be cars coming in hot and there will be cars leaving. It's going to be confusing.

"Hopefully, it will all work out. I don't know if there is a total answer."

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