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Loud and Clear

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joe Ruttman could always drive a race car. His problem has been keeping his mouth shut. Or, at least, not insulting people.

In 1986, after being fired by Winston Cup car owner Kenny Bernstein midway through the year and not finding any other owner who would hire him, Ruttman called owners “a bunch of dumbbells” and set out to prove himself right.

After spending about half a million dollars to form his own team, he found out that he was the one who had been a dumbbell. The money was gone and so were his racing prospects.

Earlier, after winning the U.S. Auto Club stock car championship in 1980, Ruttman said he couldn’t get a ride in NASCAR because “If you aren’t from Dixie you don’t get a chance. . . . It’s just that if you don’t talk with a drawl, you don’t make it.”

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Even his wife at the time told him, “Joe, you just cut your throat; you’ll never drive a good car again.”

He was fortunate that time; he did get a good Winston Cup ride but never made the most of it. He drove eight full seasons and parts of a number of others without winning a race. His best finishes were thirds in the Daytona 500 in 1982 and 1991.

“You know, I had no one to blame but myself for not winning,” Ruttman said from his home in Brentwood, Tenn., as he prepared to leave for Fontana and Saturday’s Craftsman Truck series race at California Speedway.

“I had an outstanding opportunity with one of the most powerful teams at the time, with Dale Inman as my crew chief, but I had no idea what I had. I made tactical errors and before I was through, I’d knocked down all the dominoes.

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“Pretty soon I was just a part-time racer and they don’t get winning rides. It was like going to the Kentucky Derby riding a mule. I probably told some of my owners that.

“I almost did it again when I got my first chance at the trucks. Mark Reno, who had been my crew chief when I won a modified race at Ontario Motor Speedway, called me one day and told me that the Simo brothers, Mark and Brian, were starting up a truck team in NASCAR and would I like to drive. I almost said, ‘What would I want to drive a truck for, it’s got to be the worst handling vehicle you could possibly drive.’

“But this time I waited 30 seconds. I was still reeling from losing all that money. I remembered I was unemployed, so I thought, even if it’s dumb, I’ll do it.”

Ruttman’s decision was the start of a second--or maybe third, if you count the four or five years between Winston Cup and the trucks when he ran a marketing company--career for the outspoken former resident of Upland.

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Even though he was 50 at the time, the 6-foot, 205-pound Ruttman proved an instant success in the trucks. In 1995, the year NASCAR introduced the series, he won twice, finished on the lead lap in all 19 races and was runner-up to Mike Skinner for the championship.

“Ernie Irvan was part owner of the team with the Simo boys and, in the end, he undermined my winning. I am absolutely sure of it. When he decided to make a comeback from that terrible crash [at Michigan], he asked me if I would test with him to find out if he could drive with only one eye.

“We went up to North Wilkesboro [N.C.] and I spent two days there racing with Ernie. I’d lead, and he’d lead and I drove every which way to check him out. He had to know if he could do it with one eye. He seemed as good as ever, as near as I could tell.

“A couple of days later, he was talking to a friend of mine and Ernie surprised him by saying he wasn’t ready. My friend said, ‘Are you sure? Why not?’ And Ernie said, ‘Hell, I must not be ready, I can’t even beat Ruttman.’ ”

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But Irvan was ready. He drove his first race later that year at North Wilkesboro and continued to improve until he was back full time on Robert Yates’ Winston Cup team.

“What ruined my chances were that when Ernie came back, he took all of Yates’ best engines and the front-line trucks. I can’t blame him, of course, because it was part his team, but I feel like he sabotaged my winning the championship.”

At the end of the year, Ruttman was out of a ride again. His feelings toward Irvan were not a secret around the Craftsman Truck pits, so he and the Simos parted company.

“I heard that Jack Roush was thinking of starting a team in ’96, but I also heard he had two or three other guys in mind. I guess he ran out of options, so he called me. I’m learning, I’m still with him.”

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Ruttman won five races last year in Roush’s Ford and was third in points, only one behind runner-up Rich Bickle. Jack Sprague, the defending champion, is also leading this year, despite crashing on the final lap last Sunday at Nazareth, Pa.

Ruttman also was involved in the Nazareth incident, crashing once on the last lap and again after crossing the finish line.

“I was coming off Turn 2 on the last lap when Sprague blew a tire or something and hit the wall pretty good,” Ruttman said. “There was a lot of dust, and I didn’t know if he was still running. I got greedy. I wanted to be sure I’d finish ahead of him, so I drove down hard and got caught in his oil and hit the wall myself.

“It was funny, I was confident I’d got through everything when I felt this giant thud. My spotter kept yelling, ‘go, go, go,’ so I dropped it in third gear and held it wide open. It was only a hundred yards or so to the finish line. I was going about 85 or 90 [mph] on three wheels when I crossed the line, but when I tried to stop my brakes were gone and I crashed again. This one was worse than the other one.”

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In the melee, Ruttman lost two positions, finishing fifth. After 11 races, Sprague has 1,769 points, followed by Ron Hornaday Jr., the Nazareth winner, with 1,743. Ruttman is third, 110 behind Sprague, with 1,659 and earnings of $207,405. Sprague and Hornaday drive Chevrolets.

Three Winston Cup drivers, Irvan, Michael Waltrip and Bobby Hamilton, have also entered Saturday’s No Fear Challenge 200.

“I’d like to win the championship this year, but there’s one thing missing in my racing portfolio, that’s winning a Winston Cup race,” said Ruttman, who will be 54 on Oct. 28. “Before I throw in the towel, I’d like to win one. I feel like I’d have a chance if I had a strong car, like one of Roush’s.

“Maybe it’ll never happen, but I’d sure like to get one more chance. I’ve won on everything else, go-karts, motorcycles, snowmobiles, trucks, modifieds, USAC stock cars.”

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Roush has a stable of Winston Cup cars and drivers, including Jeff Burton and Mark Martin, who finished one-two in last Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Speedway.

“I mentioned my dream to Jack one day, and he said, ‘Ruttman, I’ve got trucks with your name on them, but not one damn car with your name on it.’ ”

For once in his life, Ruttman didn’t say anything more.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Triple Header

WHAT: NASCAR Winston West, Craftsman Trucks and Busch Grand National races at California Speedway, Fontana

WHEN: Thursday through Sunday

SCHEDULE

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* Thursday: Winston West practice, 1:30 p.m., qualifying, 5 p.m.

* Friday: Winston West practice, 9:30 a.m.; Craftsman Truck practice, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.; Busch Grand National practice, 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.; Craftsman Truck qualifying, 3:30 p.m., followed by Busch Grand National qualifying.

* Saturday: Busch Grand National practice, 8:30 a.m.; No Fear Challenge 200 (100 laps) for Craftsman Trucks, followed by Winston West race.

* Sunday: Kenwood Home and Car Audio 300 (150 laps) for Busch Grand National cars, 1 p.m.

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TICKETS: Thursday--no public sale. Friday--reserved $15, general admission $10. Saturday--reserved $40, general admission $30. Sunday--reserved $45, general admission $35. Recreational vehicles for weekends, $50 to $150.


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