Ricky Rudd was born in Norfolk County, Virginia, now Chesapeake, the son of Margaret (née McMannen) and Alvin R. Rudd, Sr., the president of Al Rudd Auto Parts. He began racing as a teenager in karting and motocross, but did not attempt stock car racing until he was eighteen years old, when he made his NASCAR debut at North Carolina Speedway in 1975, driving the No. 10 Ford for family friend Bill Champion.
Qualifying twenty-sixth, he finished in eleventh place despite running fifty-six laps down. He ran an additional three races for Champion, his best finish being a tenth at Bristol Motor Speedway. He drove another four races in 1976 for his father, posting another tenth finish at the Firecracker 400. He went full-time in 1977, again driving the No. 22 for his father. He had ten top-ten finishes and was named Rookie of the Year.Rudd was forced to run part-time the following season after picking up only limited funding from 1st National City Travelers Checks. Despite the abbreviated schedule, he earned four top-tens and finished 31st in points. In 1979, he signed with Junie Donlavey to pilot the No. 90 Truxmore car, garnering four top-fives and a ninth place points run.
He did not return to Donlavey in 1980, and started out in a part-time run for his dad and D K Ulrich. He would end the season in the No. 7 Sanyo car for Nelson Malloch, for whom he had one tenth-place run.
In 1981, Rudd signed with DiGard Motorsports to drive the No. 88 car. Although he had no victories, he won his first three pole positions, and began his lengthy streak of consecutive race starts. In 1982 Rudd stepped into the No. 3 Pontiac for Richard Childress Racing. Rudd had six Top 5's but dropped down to 9th in the points standings. He was able to get his first 2 career wins in 1983 at Riverside and Martinsville respectively, but he again finished 9th in points. He also ran the only 3 Busch Series races of his career that season, winning in his debut event at Dover Downs.
In 1984, Rudd and Dale Earnhardt swapped rides, with Rudd moving over to the No. 15 Ford for Bud Moore. Rudd was involved in a horrific crash in the Busch Clash at Daytona, in which his car went airborne (in a crash that Ned Jarrett described as something like a "bucking horse") before suffering a concussion. His eyes were swollen so badly he taped his eyes open to be able to race in the Daytona 500. After learning of this long after the fact, NASCAR instituted the policy of examining all drivers involved in wrecks to ensure that they will be able to race safely the next week. He won his first race for this team in only his second start at Richmond and improved to seventh in points. He moved up one spot in points in the following season, and then a career-best 5th-place finish in 1986. Despite an additional 2 victories in 1987, Rudd left Moore Engineering at the end of the season.