RICHMOND, Va. - The car tumbled along, turning over and over. Ten, 11 - 15 times. The man inside lost count. The fans held their collective breath. It was 1984 and Ricky Rudd was just a few years into a streak - an Iron Man streak - he didn't even realize he was working on.
It might have all ended right there at Daytona International Speedway. But the next weekend at what was then called The Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway, Rudd showed up with two black eyes and an aching body. That weekend, he became one of the first drivers to use a flak jacket to protect his body during a race. And one of the first to benefit from specialized medical attention: a college trainer rubbed in the proper ointments to relieve his pain, and a specialist or two from the Medical College of Virginia helped him overcome some equilibrium problems.
"I remember that race," said driver Terry Labonte. "Most guys probably would have been in the hospital. Ricky not only showed up, he won the race."
It is one of Rudd's two victories here. Tonight, he will follow pole-sitter Ward Burton to the start of the Pontiac Excitement 400 on the track now called Richmond International Raceway. And when his Havoline Ford takes the green flag from its 12th-place spot, Rudd will tie Labonte's Iron Man record of 655 straight Winston Cup starts.
Not just anyone gets to be an Iron Man. It takes an incredible work ethic, a huge amount of desire, a large pain threshold, a very wide streak of determination that some would probably call stubbornness and no small share of luck.
Retired Oriole Cal Ripken seemed to do the impossible in baseball, never giving in to fatigue or sitting out because of an injury over 17 years and 2,632 games. And when it was over, he said he was just doing his job, like any other guy who carries a lunch pail to work.
In Winston Cup racing, Labonte worked 21 years without missing a race until a head injury finally sidelined him prior to the Brickyard 400 in August 2000.
"It was hard not to run," said Labonte, who was emotional the day his streak ended. "But it was the right decision. I'd been lucky a long time. ... Ricky is a lot like me. We started close to the same time and we've both gone a long time without calling in sick. I've always admired Ricky. If anyone has to tie it or break it, I'm happy it's him."
Rudd, a 45-year-old Virginian, began his streak in 1981. Since then, he has completed 192,873 laps, which equal 234,866 miles. That would fall just 4,000 miles short of a trip to the moon and represents 9.5 trips around the Earth's equator.
"It's not a record you think about as you're going through your career," said Rudd, who has won 22 times and earned $23.7 million. "You don't think you're going to your 600th straight race or something. You think of it as going to Charlotte next week or of coming here this weekend."
But now, tying the record is one wave of a flag away, he is a little stunned by it. He could so easily have missed a race along the way. He remembers that 1984 Daytona race, for instance, and a race at Charlotte, where he tore the medial collateral ligament in his left leg. The doctor in Charlotte wanted to operate and put him out of action for six weeks.
"But my car owner at the time, Kenny Bernstein, had me go see the doctor at Indianapolis, Dr. Trammel. He was used to seeing bad leg injuries and had a different philosophy. He had a special brace made and I was in the car driving the next weekend."
Now, there are all kinds of sports medicine specialists, but in the early 1980s, they were rare.
"I was pretty fortunate," said Rudd.
This will not be the only Winston Cup record Rudd owns or shares. He set the mark for consecutive seasons with at least one victory (16), a mark he now shares with Rusty Wallace.
He thinks those two records go together.
"The Iron Man is a neat deal," he said. "But if you never won any races, it wouldn't mean anything."