As we await next month’s announcement of the 2018 Hall of Fame class, voters will be considering their selection of 5 new members from a list of 20 nominees.
We have seen with recent classes that a combination of a series championship and a sizeable race win total will likely make a premier series driver a lock for Hall of Fame enshrinement. However, with Mark Martin’s election to the Hall of Fame last year, voters established the precedent that a championship is not necessarily a requirement for a premier series driver to gain election.
This opens up the possibility of other worthy contenders and will no doubt create debate over those who should be considered worthy for NASCAR’s highest honour. One such case is Ricky Rudd, who like Martin, failed to win a premier series championship, but was one of the best drivers of his generation. In his 33 seasons in NASCAR, Rudd recorded 23 race victories, including the 1997 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Rudd was NASCAR’s Iron Man until his consecutive race starts record was broken by Jeff Gordon in 2015. He also won at least one race on the NASCAR calendar each year for 16 seasons (1983-1998), trailing only David Pearson (17) and Richard Petty (18). These wins were on circuits as diverse as road courses, short tracks and some of the largest super speedways.
Rudd may not have won an overall points championship, but he came close. He was a perennial contender and finished top 5 in the final driver standings 5 times, and in the top 10, 18 times. While driving for Rick Hendrick he was runner-up in the championship to Dale Earnhardt in 1991.
Regrettably, Rudd followed a trend of drivers and competed with his own team from 1994-1999. Although he was relatively competitive in the beginning, his results suffered as the series began to be dominated by multi-car teams. However, Rudd enjoyed a resurgence in the early 2000s with Robert Yates Racing. In his three seasons at Yates in the early 2000s, Rudd was on par with 1999 series champion Dale Jarrett, leaving us to consider what might have been had Rudd spent more of his prime years with better equipment.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame seeks to honour drivers that have demonstrated exceptional driving ability and for decades Rudd did just that. He has the race wins and statistics necessary for Hall of Fame consideration, although it was his grit and determination that made him exceptional.
In 1984 he famously competed in the Daytona 500 despite a violent accident in a preliminary race just days before. Concussed and suffering from facial swelling, Rudd taped his eyes open for the duration of the 500 mile race, finishing an impressive 7th.
Similarly, September 27, 1998 was an exceptionally hot day at Martinsville Speedway, exacerbated by a cooling system failure which meant unbearable temperatures inside Rudd’s racecar. Desperate to cool their driver, the team attempted to hose him with water during a pitstop, but the temperatures were such that the water began to boil.
Rudd suffered second degree burns and after the race he was immediately treated by medical professionals who administered IV fluids, oxygen and ice packs, but did so in victory lane. Despite the unbearable conditions, Rudd did more than survive to the finish. He dominated the race and extended his consecutive win streak another season.
It was an extraordinary feat for an exceptional driver, one who deserves a place in NASCAR’s most exclusive club.