"All I can say is, as the driver, they didn't get me cheap." --Ricky Rudd
Ricky Rudd went looking for a multi-million dollar deal and ended up finding one in the parking lot of a discount store.
One of the most awaited sagas of the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup season centered on Rudd's plans for the upcoming year. From early May until August, the racing world wondered what team Rudd would sign with, or whether the 46-year-old veteran would walk away from the sport and retire.
For all the months of legal haggling and rumors, it came down to a brief meeting with Wood Brothers Racing--not inside a posh boardroom, but inside a Ford Taurus parked outside an Indianapolis Sam's Club.
Rudd receives congratulations from Eddie Wood after signing a three-year deal to drive the
"Eddie (Wood) and his brother Len were in the front seat, and I sat in the back and we just talked about what it would take to make things work between us," Rudd says. "We talked about the little nut-and-bolt things like the personal appearances, and they let me know a couple of projects they had going on. After we got finished talking, Eddie told me he was going to go work on it and he ended up making it happen."
Within a few weeks, a news conference was called and Rudd signed on the dotted line. He'll drive the No. 21 Motorcraft Ford for three years, starting with the 2003 season. Sources say Rudd will earn more than $3 million per season. While Rudd's odyssey ended, his deal helped settle some questions about where various other drivers would be in 2003. With the marquee name finally inked, other teams could focus their efforts on other available talent.
Rudd's future became an issue back in the spring, when he grumbled about all the attention focused on the sport's young drivers, and indicated that he might retire at the end of the 2002 season. Later, Rudd caught wind that Elliott Sadler, who now drives for the Wood brothers, would be moving to Rudd's home turf at Robert Yates Racing. That spelled the beginning of the end for Rudd's tenure with Robert Yates, as he and the car owner exchanged barbs and everything but a contract extension.
Speculation then focused on Rudd taking the No. 28 and Havoline sponsorship somewhere else, possibly a third team to be fielded by Chip Ganassi.
The Wood brothers, knowing that Sadler was leaving their team at the end of the season, threw their name in the hat in mid-July, after a day of testing for the Brickyard 400. In typical low-key, Wood Brothers Racing style, Eddie Wood arranged a meeting for inside his Taurus.
"It was as simple a conversation as I'm having with you right now. It was a conversation among friends," Eddie Wood says. "Everything was thrown out on the table as far as what the team and driver wanted from each other. We sat and talked to see if something could be worked out. It really was rather simple. Then things cooled down when the talks of Ricky driving for Ganassi came back again. At that point we thought it just wasn't going to work out for us. Then all of a sudden, things started to fall back into place. It was like the stars lined up for us all. It was a long summer, but it has all worked out."
Rudd says the parking lot meeting made sense, given the circumstances and all the attention focused on his future.
"It's just very, very hard to maintain privacy in this sport," Rudd says. "It's not like we were trying to keep this secret from the world, but if any information got out at the wrong time it could have killed the potential deal. It's the one thing in racing I don't like. It's a necessary way to conduct business, but it's not the way I prefer to do things. The bottom line was I wanted to make sure I ended up with the right team."
The deal boiled down to a situation in which Rudd and Sadler simply traded race teams.