Rudd Knocks on Wood
by Pete McCole

August 21, 2002

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Rudd leaves Robert Yates racing for a three year deal with the Wood Brothers and Ford.
Photo: Ford

The on-going saga “As The Rudd Turns” has finally come to end, for now.

Ending months of speculation and rumors concerning his future, Ricky Rudd finally has firmed up his plans for 2003 and beyond, signing a three-year deal with the Wood Brothers to drive the #21 Motorcraft Ford Taurus.

The deal, announced yesterday, was the result of last minute negotiations after the Wood Brothers and Motorcraft signed a three-year extension on their current sponsorship of the #21 Ford through the 2005 season.

“Unbelievable.  Incredible.  I don't know what else to say,” said team owner Eddie Wood. “Two weeks ago, I wouldn't have bet you a nickel on our chances to sign Ricky.  The Motorcraft deal came together within the last two days.  (Motorcraft) said 'If you can get Ricky, we're committed.  You go do it.'  I got on the phone at that moment and called Ricky Rudd and I said, 'We can do it, you just tell me how.'  And that's how it started.”

Rudd obviously has impressed the brass at Ford, as once the decision was made to go after Rudd, the deal was sealed quickly. So fast, in fact, the rumor that Rudd may go to the Wood Brothers never even materialized in the press.

For Rudd, 45, a native of Chesapeake, Va., the chance to drive for fellow Virginian’s Len and Eddie Wood seemed a perfect fit after it was announced earlier this year he was ending his three year-old tenure as driver of the #28 Robert Yates Racing Texaco/Havoline Ford.

“This came together very, very quickly.” Rudd said, “It's a little scary how quickly and easily all of this has come together. The bottom line, I guess, is that I trust Eddie and Len Wood, and I trust the people at Motorcraft.  We're speaking the same language.”

“To have the chance to drive for the Wood Brothers was sort of a dream of mine when I was a kid just getting started,” said Rudd.   I grew up in Virginia watching David Pearson win a lot of races as a kid I noticed it was a family team that I always wanted to be a part of.”

“It was a tough decision, but after sorting through it and looking at all the opportunities and looking inside and out at all these teams, my number one priority was to get with a race team that could win races right of the box, that could challenge for a championship, and these guys do it every week.”

Rudd, currently sixth in the Winston Cup points standings, has 23 victories in 754 starts, the most recent coming in July at Sears Point.

Winston Cup’s current “Iron Man” with 667 consecutive starts, Rudd brings over 27 years of experience to the Wood Brothers team, which has been in operation since 1953. Many NASCAR legends have driven for the Wood Brothers, such as David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Neil Bonnett; and more recently Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and Michael Waltrip.

Wood acknowledged that Rudd was always his first choice as a replacement for current driver Elliott Sadler, who asked for his release from the #21 earlier this year. Sadler, ironically, has been singed to join Robert Yates organization next year driving the #38 M&M’s Ford.

“I gave the same answer from day one,” said Wood. “I said, 'Until Ricky Rudd is in a seat, we're not gonna do anything. When Ricky became available, that's where we wanted to go.”

“Everything about Ricky fits us. Every race track we go to Ricky is capable of being a dominant factor, if we do our job and we've got to do our job.   We're gonna do that.  For us, he's just a natural fit.  It's a dream come true for us to have Ricky in our seat.”

Before the team could go after Rudd, they first had to hammer out a new deal with sponsor Motorcraft.

Rudd drove Bud Moore's Motorcraft Thunderbird from 1985 to 1987.
Photo: Ford (1986)

“We had one year of sponsorship left, and just not enough to offer him,” said Wood.  “Motorcraft came down to see us last week.  They told us they wanted to extend our deal, and asked us what we thought it would take to get Ricky.  We laid it out and they said, 'Let's go get him.’”

"I never really had a plan B. We weren't gonna give up on Ricky until the very end, so that persistence, I guess, prevailed.  Like my grandmother used to say, 'Good things come to those who wait,' so, here we are.”

The signing ends months of speculation about where Rudd might end up in 2003. After considering retirement at the end of last season, he opted to stay with Robert Yates Racing. His relationship with Yates began to sour earlier this year after he and Yates reportedly couldn’t come to terms on a new deal.

Up until last week, Rudd was reportedly a lock to sign on with Chip Ganassi, bringing his sponsor Havoline with him to a Ganassi Dodge. Havoline even scheduled, then cancelled, a press conference last Tuesday that many thought was to announce a new deal involving Rudd and Ganassi for 2003 which never materialized. Where yesterday’s announcement leaves Havoline is unclear.

As for Rudd, he admits talking to Ganassi, as well as other teams, but never finalized a deal with any of them.

“Chip and I had talked -- not only Chip, but I talked to many different teams.” Rudd said, “Chip and I simply couldn't come to final terms and, believe me, we tried.  There was a couple of weeks of negotiations that went on and, contrary to what you might believe, it wasn't over money. We just simply could not agree on terms.”

“It wasn't over money.  There were other teams I could have signed with. All along, I said, 'Pay me market value for my driver services -- a top 10 driver,' and we never had an issue with any of these teams over money.”

“I had a tremendous number of opportunities presented to me by a lot of great car owners in this sport and it was one of the toughest decisions I've ever had to make in my life.”

This will be Rudd’s second time driving under the Motorcraft banner. He spent three years, from 1985-87, driving a Motorcraft Ford for Bud Moore.

The author can be contacted nascar@autoracing1.com

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