RIVERSIDE — Joe Ruttman is coming home this weekend as stock car racing's designated driver.
Ruttman, who drove in relief for Richard Petty when the NASCAR troupe was here in June, will fill in Sunday for the injured Neil Bonnett in the Winston Western 500 at Riverside International Raceway.
"Have helmet, will drive," Ruttman said, laughing, when asked about his current status. "I'll have my own team next year, but in the meantime I'm thrilled to be able to help out other teams."
Ruttman brought Petty's Pontiac from last place to seventh in the June race and that caught the attention of Butch Mock and Bob Rahilly, co-owners of the Rahmoc Enterprises Pontiac that Ruttman will drive Sunday.
"Joe knows his way around Riverside," Mock said. "The fact that he put Petty's car in seventh place, despite some bad luck, shows he hasn't forgotten how to drive the course."
Ruttman had to start last after Petty had driven the pace lap. By the second lap around Riverside's 2.6-mile road course, Ruttman had passed 15 cars. He had worked his way up to fifth when a car ahead of him blew an engine, covering Ruttman's windshield with a thick coat of oil.
Barely able to see toward the end of the race, Ruttman still managed to finish seventh.
Ruttman, who grew up a few miles west of here among the vineyards of Upland, left Southern California a couple of years ago to become a full-time member of the Winston Cup circuit.
Besides racing, he also runs a public relations and marketing business in Franklin, Tenn.
"Most of the time I'm getting my new T-Bird ready for next season," Ruttman said. "I always owned and operated my own car before I moved to the South and now I'm going to do it myself again."
After losing his ride with drag racer Kenny Bernstein's team at the end of 1986, Ruttman started this season without a team.
"The one thing I decided at the start of the year was that I wouldn't take a ride that wasn't competitive," Ruttman said. "I kept sharp driving in Bruce Patrom's dirt track races and when Petty and Bonnett were unable to drive, I felt honored to be chosen to fill in for them.
"For Neil's sake, I'm sorry that I have to take over in these circumstances, with him laid up and all. He's been so strong in points that I know the car is strong."
Ruttman finished 10th in his first ride in the car Oct. 25 at North Carolina Motor Speedway, two laps behind winner Bill Elliott.
"I can't remember ever driving so hard, with no problems, and finishing so poorly," Ruttman said. "On paper, 10th place doesn't look so good, but we were a lot better than that."
Sunday's 500-kilometer race will be only Ruttman's fifth in 28 events on the NASCAR schedule.
Besides two races for Petty--he also subbed for him at Pocono and finished 29th--and one for Bonnett, Ruttman drove for car owner Ralph Bell in the Winston 500 at Talladega, Ala. He finished 36th there.
On two other occasions, he was on hand to serve as a relief driver, but mechanical problems sidelined both cars before Ruttman could take over.
Driving for the Rahmoc team is nothing new to Ruttman, who was the team's primary driver in 1982. He had six finishes in the top 10 that year, including a fourth in Charlotte's National 500.
Although he didn't start racing full-time in NASCAR until 1981, Ruttman drove his first Winston Cup race back in 1963 at Riverside.
"Somehow I finished 10th in that first race," he recalled. "Ever since then, I've had pretty good luck every time I've raced there. I've won a couple of races there, but never a Winston Cup.
"I've always felt Riverside was my home track. If that gives me an edge, then I'll take it."
In 1981 he finished second in the Winston Western 500, two car lengths behind Bobby Allison.
That was his best finish, but not his biggest moment in racing.
That occurred in the 1983 Daytona 500, when he challenged Cale Yarborough for the lead on the final lap. At the time, Ruttman was running third behind Buddy Baker and Yarborough.
"I knew what Cale had in mind all the time," Ruttman recalled. "I knew he was planning to pass Baker going down the backstretch and my plan was to help him."
When Yarborough pulled out to slingshot past Baker, Ruttman moved with him, but Baker dropped down and forced Ruttman to back off.
"We were going into the high banking on the final turn when suddenly I was running out of banking and had to momentarily back off. When you back off at those speeds, even for the slightest instance, you can't get back up to speed in time."
So, instead of finishing second or perhaps first, Ruttman settled for fourth, behind Yarborough, Bill Elliott and Baker.
"You never know if you'll get another chance to win the Daytona 500, so you've got to go for the win," he said. "I wasn't going 499 1/2 miles and not take a shot at it. I don't have any regrets at all."
In 1980, before he moved up to NASCAR, Ruttman won the United States Auto Club stock car championship.