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Where are they now? Catching up with Ricky Rudd

Richard Lee “Ricky” Rudd was only 12 years old when he decided what his life’s work would be.

While taking a fan bus tour around the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Rudd, who was in Indiana’s capital city to compete in the national go-kart championship, was in awe of the 300,000-plus seat temple of auto racing.

“I made up my mind right then and there,” Rudd said, prophesizing he’d one day return to IMS as a star race car driver and win there.

In an Indy car, that is.

“Turns out it was in a stock car,” the now 64-year-old Rudd laughed in a recent interview with NASCAR.com. “When you’re used to open wheels like go-karts, I guess the natural migration is to Indy cars. I knew about Indy cars, I knew about Formula One, but I didn’t know anything about stock car racing.”

RELATED: Ricky Rudd career stats

Although raised in NASCAR country — Rudd hails from Chesapeake, Virginia, the son of a local auto parts store owner — he didn’t start thinking about racing stock cars until he was nearly 18 years old. From the age of 4, he had been all about go-kart and motocross racing.

But from the day Rudd made his Cup debut in 1975 at North Carolina Speedway — finished a respectable 11th, albeit 56 laps down — it was all NASCAR, all the time from that point on for the next 32 years.

Indy car racing’s loss was NASCAR’s big gain. Rudd would go on to win 23 Cup races in his career, finished in the top 10 in all but two seasons from 1979 through 1996, and was named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998.

Oh yeah, and he fulfilled his prophecy of one day winning at IMS, capturing the 1997 Brickyard 400. But for those who think NASCAR racing is all about glamour and big parties after big wins, Rudd threw cold water on that image.

“After winning the Brickyard, we were sitting in a Steak-and-Shake, eating a hamburger and getting ready to drive up to Michigan for a test the next day,” he chuckled. “So you don’t get a chance to sort of smell the roses along the way. And so in that respect, time just sort of flies by. That’s the thing I didn’t like about racing that I’m able to enjoy now.”

The 1977 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year is living a life now totally opposite to what he lived for more than three decades of racing. For the last 13-plus years, he’s been on no one’s schedule but his own, doesn’t have to run from one appearance or meeting or race to another, and smelling the roses includes enjoying some of the simplest things in life — like daily morning coffee with Linda, his wife of 45 years.

“It probably took me a good 10 years to sort of get racing out of my system,” Rudd said. “It just is something that’s there. It was there when I was four years old. I remember getting in a go-kart on an old abandoned runway and just going like crazy fast then and it’s never left.

“You sort of learn how to deal with it. Parts of it I miss, some of it I don’t miss. What I probably do today I enjoy the most is just having an easy day, starting the day off just Linda and I, we go grab a cup of coffee and just sit down. She’s got her day going and I got mine going and we sort of meet back up. My days are mine these days.”

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Many of those days are spent with a steering wheel of a different sort in his hands.

“I got back into flying about six years ago,” Rudd said. “I got my pilot’s license when I was pretty young, back in the ’80s. Then I got instrument rated, multi-engine instrument rated, and got my seaplane rating a couple years ago, which I always wanted to do.”

And in much the same fearless way he piloted a race car around Daytona or Talladega at 200 mph, Rudd has somewhat of a daredevil streak still within.

“Right now, I enjoy doing mountain flying, trying bush pilot type stuff, getting in and out of these small runways in the mountains,” he said. “That sort of gets my attention because you have to have 100 percent focus like racing was. You have to pay very close attention and the picture’s changing all the time when you’re going into a small mountain airport. You don’t have time for a second chance, you’ve got to get it right the first time. That sort of holds my interest now.”

Rudd went back to his love of go-kart racing back in 2014 and competed for several years, including finishing third in the points in 2015 in the top-level class against tough competition including former NASCAR driver Lake Speed, current driver Justin Marks (who owns the track near Charlotte) and IndyCar racer Will Power.

Rudd backed off karting the last couple years, but admits he misses the competition and camaraderie. “It may be time to revisit that,” he laughed. “It’s kind of crazy. I’ll go back and revisit things I did three or four years ago, and pick it right back up, saying, ‘Man, this was fun. I forgot how much fun I was having doing it.’ ”

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Rudd made 906 career starts in the NASCAR Cup Series, earning the nickname of “NASCAR’s Iron Man” for a record 788 consecutive starts from 1981 through the 2005 season (since broken in 2015 by Jeff Gordon). He likely would have extended that streak had he not sat out the entire 2006 season by choice (with the exception of one race, replacing the injured Tony Stewart).

“I think it was just born into me, the character, my family, dedication and just not giving up, learning how to never give up,” Rudd said of his iron man persona. “That’s the only way I can explain it.

“I think you live off the motivation of remembering those days. … It just sort of gets programmed in you, that there’s a big reward at the end of the day if I can get to Victory Lane.”

At the age of 51, the final race of Rudd’s career — the 2007 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway — also marked the final time he’d ever physically be in a NASCAR paddock.

He’s stayed away ever since, by choice.

“No, I’ve not been back to a single one (NASCAR track or race),” he said. “The only race tracks I’ve been to are some go-kart tracks. What would I do if I went back? Nobody would know me.

“I remember late in my career, I was sitting in the back of the truck in the garage and in came Bud Moore, David Pearson and somebody else. They were walking around the garage area. They came up, spent some time with me in the truck. They were looking for someone who would talk to them. I guess I was one of the few who remembered them and we just had a heck of a good conversation, really enjoyed speaking with those guys.

“As soon as they left, two or three crew members on our team come up said, ‘Hey, Ricky, who are those guys? Were they in racing at one time?’ I’m thinking, ‘Man, how sad that is, that the people in a sport don’t really remember or recognize someone that was in front of them. What would I do at a race track? I probably would stay away just for that reason. I would be so lost. I wouldn’t know anybody to talk to so what do you do?

“Sometimes it seems like maybe did I really ever live that life, did I do that for 30 some years, because it seems like it’s been so long. And then you adapt and move into another lifestyle change and you adapt to that. In a lot of ways it almost seems like that (I) was a different character back then. It was such a rat race, I mean, the years just flew by.”

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Even though it’s at a distance, Rudd still remains a NASCAR fan.

“It’s not that you don’t probably enjoy watching it, but you sort of step aside and you put that lifestyle behind you,” he said.

“I know Bobby Labonte’s having a great time running modified cars, but to me, that is the farthest thing from my mind. You know, I feel like if I couldn’t get the things I wanted to accomplish done in 30 years of racing, then an old guy like me, I’m certainly not going to be able to do it now. So, you sort of refocus your interests.”

But Rudd admits he misses one thing in particular from his racing days.

“The thing I miss the most are the people,” he said. “I really miss them.”

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Rudd never won a Cup championship, but did finish second in 1991, behind Dale Earnhardt, who earned the fifth of his eventual seven Cup championships.

Overall, in his 32 years on the Cup circuit, Rudd had five top-five season finishes and 18 top-10 final showings.

He also drove for some of the most iconic team owners in NASCAR history, including Richard Childress, Junie Donlavey, Bud Moore, Rick Hendrick, Robert Yates and the Wood Brothers.

RELATED: What if Ricky Rudd stayed at Richard Childress Racing?

While his Brickyard 400 win remains his top single race memory, winning the 1992 IROC championship will always be No. 1 on Rudd’s own personal career highlight film.

“It was one of my fondest memories, beating guys from other series and divisions like IndyCar drivers Al Unser Jr. and Arie Luyendyk,” Rudd said. “The last race of that season, I had to beat Earnhardt. If he beat me, he won the championship. If I beat him, I won it.

“It came down to about four or five laps to go. I was just sort of playing with him at the end of the race. It’s actually probably the most thrill I ever got at a race, in the late stages of a race and having to move by him without getting wrecked and getting by and winning and beating him for the championship.”

As one might expect from having such an illustrious career, Rudd has received a number of accolades for his racing exploits. He was 2006 Virginian of the Year, was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 2007, the Hampton Roads Sports Hall of Fame in 2010 and the Daytona Beach Stock Car Hall of Fame in 2014.

He even was featured as himself in 2013 in the second season of the revival TV show Dallas, in scenes filmed at Texas Motor Speedway.

But one distinction continues to elude him: being named to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He’s been nominated each of the last two years but has come up short both times.

“It just hasn’t gone my way,” Rudd said. “I’ve just never sort of made the final cut.”

But he has hopes his time will come soon, a fitting recognition for a career well done.

“I’m getting now where my credentials are stacking up pretty good with the guys that got in last time,” he said. “We’ll see, who knows? I mean, is it the end of the world? No. I mean, basically, I’ve sort of moved on but I would still love to be honored in that way.”

Then, Rudd added a coda of how he’d describe his career and how he’d like to be remembered:

“Hey, I had my day and it was a lot of fun. It’s more than a job, people don’t quite understand that it’s less of a job and more of a lifestyle. I enjoyed that lifestyle. But you know, I can enjoy my lifestyle now, too. So just a lot of good friends and memories that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”

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The Ricky Rudd file:

* Age: 64

* Hometown: Chesapeake, Va. Has lived in suburban Charlotte for more than four decades.

* 1977 Winston Cup Series Rookie of the Year

* NASCAR Cup career: 906 starts (including a then-record of 788 consecutive starts), 23 wins, 194 top-five and 374 top-10 finishes. Also 29 poles.

* Best NASCAR season finish: 1991 (finished second in the standings with 29 starts, 1 win, 9 top-five, 17 top-10 finishes)

* Best overall NASCAR season statistically: 2001 (2 wins, 14 top-five and 22 top-10 finishes; finished fourth in the standings)

* Biggest career wins: 1997 Brickyard 400 and 1992 IROC championship

* IROC career: 17 starts, 0 wins, 10 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes; won championship in his first year in the series (1992)

Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski is writing a number of Where Are They Now? stories this year for NASCAR.com. Check out stories he’s already done on Darrell Waltrip, Mark Martin, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya. Also, follow Jerry on Twitter @JerryBonkowski, his @TheRacingBeat podcasts and his email newsletter, TheRacingBeat.substack.com.