On that day, Ricky Rudd drove through the pain of a beaten and bruised body to win the Miller High Life 400. He sustained his injuries in a frightening crash in the Busch Clash at Daytona two weeks earlier.
Given his injuries Rudd should have never raced at Richmond. Fact is, if the race had been held today, NASCAR would not have let him.
But that he did compete, and won, brought Rudd immeasurable respect from fans, fellow competitors and media alike.
It’s not that Rudd hadn’t earned respect beforehand.
When he first broke into NASCAR Winston Cup competition in 1975, Rudd was an 18-year-old, curly-haired, baby-faced kid from Chesapeake, Va. For folks to see a driver like him was highly unusual over three decades ago. It’s pretty much commonplace now.
Rudd raced for his family-owned team, which, as you might suspect, wasn’t on solid financial ground.
After a couple of seasons, Rudd’s racing efforts dwindled and reached a point where they would cease altogether if funding could not be found.
Rudd caught a break, if briefly. Fellow Virginian Junie Donlavey, a long-time team owner from Richmond, hired Rudd to drive for him in 1979.
The association lasted only a year and Rudd was back on a part-time schedule in 1980.
In 1981, Rudd was hired by DiGard Racing Co. to be Darrell Waltrip’s replacement.
Waltrip hadn’t been happy with his association with DiGard for some time but could not break his contract. He finally bought it out so he could race for Junior Johnson.
Rudd was also caught in the iron web that was a contract, created by DiGard’s president, Bill Gardner.
Rudd toughed it out for two years. He didn’t win a race, but did capture three pole positions.
Then in 1982, Rudd again caught a break, this one more significant. He became Richard Childress’ driver and the man who replaced Dale Earnhardt.
In 1981, Earnhardt left Rod Osterlund’s team after Osterlund sold out to J.D. Stacy. Earnhardt wanted no part of Stacy. He, and sponsor Wrangler, thus joined Childress for the latter part of the season.
At the end of the season, Childress knew that he didn’t quite have the tools to enable Earnhardt to win – and told the driver so.
Earnhardt and Wrangler moved to Bud Moore’s Ford team.
To stay in existence Childress had to find a competent driver and a sponsor. He got both in Rudd and Piedmont Airlines.
Over two seasons, 1982-1983, Rudd and Childress won two races, had13 finishes among the top five and 27 among the top 10. They also won six pole positions.
History has since recorded that those two seasons were turning points in both Childress’ and Rudd’s careers.
Then, in 1984, something happened that hadn’t happened before or since.
Wrangler agreed to shift its sponsorship back to Childress, with whom Earnhardt would reunite.
At the same time, Wrangler agreed to retain its backing of the Moore team, for which Rudd would drive.
At the start of 1984, Wrangler sponsored two teams. The drivers had simply switched rides.
Now, that was darn unusual, to say the least.
The Busch Clash at Daytona – a race reserved for pole winners only – was held on Feb. 12, a week before the Daytona 500. It was the first race for Rudd in the Moore Ford.
Rudd completed just 15 laps before he slid along the short chute coming out of the fourth turn.
Plowing through the grass his car caught an air pocket and flipped violently seven times.
Not long after the incident it was reported that Rudd was bruised but otherwise not badly hurt.
That was not the case.
He had suffered a concussion and severely injured ribs. His eyes were so swollen they had to be taped open in order for him to race in the Daytona 500.
Which, remarkably, he did – and finished seventh.
That would not have happened today. NASCAR would not have allowed Rudd to compete. In 1984, however, it had no idea of the extent of Rudd’s injuries – or at least it took the word from “officials” that the driver was OK.
Rudd showed up at Richmond with blackened, bloodshot eyes. He had been provided with a flak jacket to protect his ribs. Given he had sustained a concussion, he probably had a bad headache.
But there was no doubt he was going to race.
Rudd bided his time for most of the event. But in the closing stages he charged forward to pass Waltrip with 20 laps to go. Rudd won by 3.2 seconds.
Fans cheered Rudd’s astonishing achievement loudly. There were 28,000 of them – nearly a full house at Richmond at the time.
It proved Rudd might be diminutive in size, but he was huge in courage and determination.
He went on to have a very successful career that ended in 2007.
Later in 1984, after NASCAR belatedly received all the details about Rudd’s injuries, the sanctioning body instituted a policy to medically examine all drivers involved in wrecks to assure they would be ready to race the next week.
It’s been refined, of course, but the policy stands to this day.