My Greatest Race: Johnny Rutherford

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Indianapolis 500, 1974

He’d tried ten times and not once even finished the Indy 500 but in 1974 nothing, not even a super-determined AJ Foyt, was going to keep Johnny Rutherford from victory lane.

The Indy 500 I enjoyed the most was my first win in 1974. That was also the first year I ran the full distance. It was my eleventh 500, and I’d never even finished until I won it.

I went to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time in 1963. I qualified 26th, and dropped out with a broken transmission after 43 laps. The following year I was caught in the crash that killed Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald. Because of an accident I missed the ’66 Indianapolis race and the rest of the season. In ’69 I sprung an oil leak after 24 laps. And so it went on; I was starting to think I was jinxed.

It got better in 1973, when I went to Team McLaren. Teddy Mayer stayed in Europe and ran the Formula One team, and Tyler Alexander ran the Stateside operation, while Teddy would come over for the big races. We had a lot of fun and a lot of good times.

In ’73 we set a new track record and started on pole, but again we had some problems that kept us from winning. That was the year of the rain, three false starts, and the bad accidents. By the time we ran the race everybody wanted to be done with it.

The next year we came back, and the car was perfect. It’s so good when you have a good car and everything happens right. However, that year the energy crunch was on in the US, and people were saving fuel. So they condensed the two weekends of qualifying into one. The first half of Saturday counted as Pole Day, and the second half counted as the second day, and so on.

Unfortunately we blew an engine in final practice on the Saturday morning, right before qualifying. The guys went back to the garage to change the engine; usually that would not have been a problem. Harlan Fengler, the chief steward, always said that as long as you were there when your turn came up to go through the tech inspection and go out and qualify, it was OK.

However, that year a new chief steward, Tom Binford, replaced Harlan. His interpretation was that when practice was over, you got in line for qualifying right then at 11am, or you lost your place and went to the back.

Well, we didn’t know, that. After we changed the engine we came out with the car to put it in line. Because of Tom’s ruling, we wound up going to the end of the line, and got stuck in the third day of qualifying. So we didn’t even get a shot at pole.

We got really upset about that, because AJ Foyt and I should have been racing for pole. I eventually did the second quickest time in the whole field, but because we were counted as third day qualifiers, we could only start 25th! We didn’t even try hard. Our effort was just to make it into the race; if we had hopped it up and done the usual things to extend it a little bit, we could have been quicker than AJ. Al Unser had blown an engine as well, and he was in the same boat, so he started beside me in 26th spot.

On race day the car was just so good, and very quick through the turns. They dropped the green and I just started passing cars and drove right up through the field to third on the 12th lap. It was just a matter of passing them when I came to them. I raced everybody all day, and didn’t have a challenge until I reached AJ.

We raced hard in the middle stages of the race. both taking turns in the lead. He had the Ford V8 overhead cam, and his car was a little faster down the straightaways than mine. But I was all over him through the turns. He could be half way through the turn when I was just entering it, but then I’d be on his tail going across the short chute that followed.

It was frustrating when a car like that has just enough torque or strength to get down the straightaway a little quicker than you, but I knew if I kept the pressure on him I would either run him out of right rear tyre, or engine. I stayed right there and tried to pass, then I’d drop back and wait a little bit, and try again.

Finally his engine started leaking, and it just covered my car with oil. I had to back off about 50 yards or so just to get out of the spray, and I was watching the track just to make sure I didn’t hit any solid oil that would make me spin.

Eventually they black-flagged him, and when he pitted I went into the lead. He came out and ran a couple of laps, and it was smoking. He came in again and turned left into Gasoline Alley, and that was it.

You never know you’ve got it won until you crossed the line, but I knew we pretty much had it unless the car broke. You hear the stories about how guys start hearing noises, notice things they haven’t noticed before, and look for problems. Well, you do! You look at the gauges and think is that higher than it was a while ago? You just try to keep it straight, keep out of trouble, and watch for oil on the track which might give you problems.

The finish was great. It doesn’t sink in right away because you’re still busy in the car. Coming into the pitlane you’re shifting gears and slowing down while waving to the crowd, because they’re going crazy. But you’ve also got to look for Victory Lane when you haven’t been there before. It was in front of the scoring tower, and you had to turn up the ramps onto the platform, which had a chequered flag carpet.

When the celebration was over, they moved my car. AJ had sprayed all that oil onto it and while I was racing it was glued there by the air pressure. When I stopped it all poured off, so there was a perfect outline of my McLaren on the carpet – the wing, the nose and everything! Ever since the 500 became a 33-car affair in 1934, only one man had started further back and won the race. That was Lou Meyer in 1936, who started 28th. It was everything I ever hoped it would be; to get your image on that Borg Warner trophy means a great deal.

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