Until this year, it was a dubious honor to be named NASCAR's Rookie of the Year. Because a stock-car driver is all but guaranteed to lose thousands of dollars in his first season—more like his first few seasons—Rookie of the Year often meant little more than that the winner entered more races and thus lost more money than any other rookie. But this year Citicorp Travelers Checks has bankrolled a program that pays $10,000 to the top rookie, plus $500 to the highest finisher in each race, plus $1,000 a race next season. Thus, in one stroke of the pen that signs the checks, Rookie of the Year has become a distinction worth racing for.
This stroke of good fortune affects NASCAR as well as the rookies. Aside from the fact that motor racing always needs more money, NASCAR, in particular, needs fresh faces, and the Citicorp money has drawn them. The three most conspicuous new faces bring more than freshness to NASCAR; they add youth, femininity and reserve, qualities not often found among stock-car drivers. Ricky Rudd (21 years old), Janet Guthrie (female) and Sam Sommers (soft-spoken) have all raced hard for Rookie of the Year, and after last Sunday's Dixie 500 at Atlanta, Rudd, who finished eighth behind winner Darell Waltrip, and Sommers, who was 28th, stand only seven points apart. Guthrie, who finished 16th and is the best-financed of the three, now can no longer win the points race.
So with only the Ontario 500 on Nov. 20 left on the NASCAR schedule, it is down to Rudd vs. Sommers, youth vs. experience—one of the classic sporting face-offs. But the circumstances make it unusual: 1) 21-year-olds like Rudd almost never succeed at stock-car racing; 2) 38-year-olds like Sommers are almost never rookies.
This is Sommers' first season on the Grand National circuit after 11 years of racing Late Model Sportsman cars, the stock-car equivalent of baseball's AAA leagues. Which explains the paradox of Sommers' being an experienced rookie.
There are other contrasts between Sommers and Rudd besides age and experience. Sommers is tall, laconic and not in the least outspoken. Rudd is short and intense. He also is not outspoken, but this is by design, not nature. "It didn't take me long to learn how things work," Rudd says. "When it comes down to making it in NASCAR, racing is only half the game; the other 50% is how you handle yourself off the track."
Quite obviously, Rudd has figured out the nuances of becoming Rookie of the Year. Points awarded for finishing position count most in determining the winner, but attitude also is taken into account. According to the rules, a four-man panel votes "subjectively on three criteria: 1) each rookie's conduct with the technical inspectors in the garage area and the pits and with other NASCAR officials; 2) conduct and awareness on the racetrack; and 3) personal appearance and relationship with the media."
Last year rookie Terry Bivins scored more points from race results than Skip Manning, but NASCAR awarded Manning Rookie of the Year. Observes Rudd, "Terry had a way of running his mouth too much in public. If he could have toned down a little bit, he wouldn't have had any trouble."
Says Lin Kuchler, executive vice-president of NASCAR and chairman of the judging panel, "You've got to have some leeway in the system because a situation might arise sometime where it's in the best interest of everyone to select someone other than the rookie point champion. But in my opinion, knowing the competitors involved this year, the man who wins it on racing points will definitely win Rookie of the Year." In other words, in the chairman's opinion, on attitude it's a tie.
But what if it's a tie on racing points? Pit-row whispers favor Rudd because his face is fresher.
Rudd began racing stock cars in the Grand National division, which puts him in a very exclusive club, about the only other member of which is Richard Petty. Most other drivers work their way up from Hobby Class to Late Models to Grand National cars; Rudd made the move directly into Grand National cars from motocross bikes. Ricky is financed by his father Al, who has been sponsoring his youngest son's racing (he has four other children) for 13 years, or since Ricky was eight and driving go-karts. Al Rudd likes to describe himself as "just a hardworking junkman." His business is Al Rudd Auto Parts in Chesapeake, Va., an eight-acre prairie of wrecks. His approach toward business and life is simple and old-fashioned: work hard, pay cash. He is in the junkyard office six days a week; both his house and business are paid for.