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By Dan Zacharias
Ford Racing Public Relations

At one point during the three-hour rain delay at Bristol Motor Speedway a couple of weeks ago, I glanced up at the bank of television sets in the media center and happened to catch part of a highlight package documenting some of the most memorable post-race fights in NASCAR history.

One of those involved Ricky Rudd and Kevin Harvick at Richmond in 2003, and that got me thinking about Rudd and how he was one of the toughest drivers to ever climb through the window of a stock car. If you don't believe me, I invite you to scour the internet for video and pictures of when he raced in the 1984 Daytona 500 with his eyes taped open. An accident only a couple of days earlier in which his Bud Moore Thunderbird flipped multiple times at the end of the Busch Clash resulted in such swelling that it was the only thing he could do to see during the race. It worked as he somehow managed to finish seventh and then, even more impressively, won the following week in Richmond.

And while I wasn't there to see that happen in person, I was on hand in the fall of 1998 at Martinsville Speedway when Rudd put on the most courageous in-car performance I've ever seen a driver display.

It was a scorching hot day for the NAPA Autocare 500 that saw temperatures in the low to mid-nineties, but it felt much hotter. You know that saying about it being so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk? Well, that was the prevailing feeling as the drivers buckled in for a 500-lap race at Martinsville that under ideal conditions takes more than three hours to complete.

All the worst fears a driver could have must have come true for Rudd on that day because five laps into the race he let crew chief Bill Ingle know that his cooling unit was not working. As the day moved on and the cockpit got hotter he asked to have a relief driver standing by, so the team found Hut Stricklin and had him standing by in the pit box just in case the final call came. It never did.

Ice packs that were given to him during pit stops helped for a few laps, but his back and bottom were blistering up and he needed more relief. The team decided to try spraying him with water from one of their cool down tanks, but the first time they did it the water ended up being hot as a result of the hose lying in the sun. That method worked better on subsequent stops as the cold water alleviated some of the pain, but in the end it was simply about Rudd toughing it out.

He led four times for 198 laps, including the final 96 when there was no chance of him getting out of the car. He took the checkered flag extending his streak to 16 straight seasons with at least one victory and added a signature chapter to his standout career.

While he drove to victory lane, I opted to run to pit road because that's where NASCAR stops the top-five finishers. It was a big day because besides Rudd winning, we had Mark Martin, Rich Bickle and Jeff Burton finish third, fourth and fifth, respectively. I knew it would be a while before Rudd was ready to talk and figured I could interview those three and still get to victory lane in time to talk with him.

My plan went perfectly as I got comments from all three drivers and then sprinted to victory lane, but as I waded my way through the mass of people who had packed the area, I couldn't see Rudd. Did they take him straight to the infield care center? I didn't see him. The car was there. The crew was celebrating. Where did he go?

Then I saw Dr. Jerry Punch of ESPN and Jim Phillips of the Motor Racing Network in front of Rudd's No. 10 Tide Taurus, along with some medical personnel and figured out what was happening. When I worked my way over there, I saw Rudd laying down with an oxygen mask on his face and a Tide hat on his head. I decided to stay clear and while I knew he had to be in a lot of pain, I couldn't help but start laughing at the sight of him conducting victory lane interviews flat on his back.

Over the course of 32 years on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series circuit, Rudd won 23 times and set the mark for consecutive starts with 788 before retiring after the 2007 season. His victory in the 1997 Brickyard 400 may go down as the most high-profile win of his career, but there's no denying that winning at Martinsville was his toughest.

Dan Zacharias is a member for the Ford Racing Public Relations staff.
  • 16 years on the NASCAR beat for Ford Racing
  • Faster than a speeding bullet when it comes to transcribing driver interviews
  • Able to leap pit wall in a single bound during post-race mayhem

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