The junkyard has been extremely good to Al Rudd financially, but it hasn't changed his life-style. Nor has becoming the owner-sponsor of a race team. He still stays home and relaxes on Sundays. "I'm just in the way at the races," he says. "They don't need an old guy like me around. They need me back here making the money so they can go on."
Sommers, too, knows what it's like to scratch. For 11 of his 12 racing years he worked as a sheet-metal fabricator. This year he is finally being paid a weekly salary to race. His sponsor-car owner is M. C. Anderson, head of a Savannah construction company employing about 140 people. "There is no budget on our team," said Anderson. "They get what they need and they charge it and I pay the bills. I'll spend whatever it takes to win."
By "win" Anderson means first place, not first-place rookie or Rookie of the Year. Therefore when a rumor that Buddy Baker would replace Sommers next season was confirmed at Atlanta, Sommers reacted as you might expect a driver to who has had to scratch for sponsorship money most of his career. In his next-to-last ride for Anderson, Sommers qualified on the pole for the first time all season.
Compared to what Sommers has been through, losing a ride ranks as a setback, not a disaster. Sommers knows the difference. From his Late Model Sportsman days he carries a steel plate in his forehead, the result of a postrace assault by a wrench-wielding crewman from a competing team. The incident occurred early in the 1970s, a period in which Sommers won Georgia State Late Model Sportsman championships five times. Sommers has had several operations on his skull.
Says Sommers of the assault, "If it hadn't happened, I probably would have been in Grand National racing three years earlier."
When Sommers and Rudd are on the track together and both their Chevys are right, Sommers is faster. Rudd's engines are more reliable, however. They are built by his older brother Al Jr. in a small shop behind the junkyard. Al builds the engines by intuition—the shop lacks a dynamometer and other equipment most engine builders consider absolutely necessary. In the Talladega 500, Rudd's last engine blew during practice, so he bought a fresh, dynamometer-tested engine from Waltrip's team. With the extra horsepower, he came in fourth, the best finish of his career.
"Ricky's racing good," says Sommers, "but he still lacks experience. I don't care who you are, you don't jump in a Grand National car and be experienced overnight. It takes time to get it." Pause. "Ricky's getting it, though."
"I wish I had the money those guys on Sommers' team have," Rudd says.
So now it is down to the last race of the year, not only for Rookie of the Year, but also quite possibly for who will have a ride next season. Despite his father's help, Rudd is looking for a sponsor to pick up his bills. Now Sommers finds himself in the same situation. Sommers has it pegged. "It's do or die now, ain't it?" he says.