When it comes to racing at Martinsville, the flat half-mile bullring in southern Virginia as about as demanding as it comes on both drivers and equipment. Add in scorching hot temperatures and things get even more difficult for all parties involved.
In this week’s “Throwback Thursday Theater,” we’ll look back at the 1998 NAPA Autocare 500 at Martinsville and a gutsy performance by one of the toughest drivers on the circuit, Ricky Rudd.
The late October race, which normally saw seasonal fall temperatures greet the drivers and teams, was instead inundated by temperatures in the low to mid-nineties, making the air conditioning equipment in each car all the more important to keep the drivers cool and to allow them to make it through the grueling event.
For Rudd, a driver’s worst fears came true just five laps into the race as his cooling unit stopped working, which caused the temperature in the car and in his helmet to skyrocket. Despite the rising temperatures inside of his No. 10 Ford Taurus, Rudd took over the lead for the first time at lap 15, which would become a familiar place for him as the day went along.
While Rudd continued to lead, the heat inside of his car was starting to get to him and the team had Hut Stricklin standing by as a relief driver in case the heat became too unbearable and Rudd decided he needed to get out of the car at some point. That call for Stricklin to replace Rudd in the driver’s seat never came.
The team gave Rudd ice packs during pit stops to help him out, but the blistering from the heat was getting worse and he needed more relief. The team elected to pipe in some water from one of their cool down units during pit stops to help Rudd, but the first go around, things went exactly the opposite way that they were intended as scalding hot water poured in instead of cold water as a result of the hose laying in the sun. On subsequent pit stops, the water from the cool down unit was enough to help with some of the pain, but it was all up to Rudd to tough it out.
And tough it out he did, leading on four separate occasions for 198 laps, which included the final 96 laps of the race. When the checkered flag flew, Rudd had a solid .533 second advantage over Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Rich Bickle, and Jeff Burton to round out the top-five. The finishing order was also Ford heavy as the only Chevrolet to finish in the top-five belonged to Gordon.
Rudd was able to get his car to victory lane, but the heat that he had suffered through as the afternoon went along had taken its toll. Instead of climbing out of his car to celebrate, Rudd laid down on the ground beside his car and was attended to by medical personnel right there in victory lane. Even while lying down, Rudd still had enough left in the tank to give an interview to Dr. Jerry Punch of ESPN.
“I’ll tell you; these guys had a heck of a race car underneath of me. I was in trouble from about lap five. My helmet wasn’t working, it was really hot in the car, and I got blisters on my back and my butt and everywhere you can think of, but Bill Ingle kept me going. I said I sure am going to enjoy if we can get this win, I’ll enjoy Monday in a hospital room somewhere recovering. We had a heck of a race car and it was a good deal to win this thing,” said Rudd.
“The only thing that kept me in the car was that I knew I had a winning car. I knew it was a top-two car and you know, it had been a long time since I had a car that ran like that. Man, it was a tough thing and I knew I should have handed the car over to somebody, but on the other side, it just felt so good to be up front again. I knew I had a shot at winning and I didn’t want to give that win to somebody else.”