Johnny Rutherford: 'I knew we'd accomplish great things'

Johnny Rutherford was sure his drives at McLaren and with Jim Hall would garner success. They did – with three Indy 500 wins
By Gordon Kirby

One of Indycar racing’s greatest stars of the 1970s and ’80s was Johnny Rutherford, who made his name in the early ’60s on dirt tracks and won the Indianapolis 500 twice with McLaren in 1974 and ’76, and once in Jim Hall’s Chaparral in 1980. Rutherford cut his teeth in the late ’50s aboard fire-breathing Modifieds at the legendary Devil’s Bowl Speedway dirt track in Texas before building his reputation in sprint cars, winning USAC’s national sprint car championship in 1965 when that form of racing was at its zenith.

“Today people say sprint cars won’t get you to Indianapolis anymore,” says Rutherford. “But they do teach you how to race. That was what I got from them – how to race and how to read various situations.”

Rutherford made his Indy 500 debut in 1963 aboard a classic Watson-Offenhauser roadster. He was involved in the multi-car accident on the opening lap of the ’64 race which resulted in the deaths of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald. Johnny’s car brushed Sachs’s burning machine and briefly caught fire itself, but Rutherford got back to the pits where he abandoned the damaged Watson roadster.

In 1966 Rutherford broke both arms in a sprint car race at the Eldora dirt track in Ohio. A rock struck him square in the face, knocking him out and causing a huge shunt that left Johnny sidelined for 12 months. He badly burned both hands in another accident in an Indycar at Phoenix in 1968, yet he was back in action at Indy the following month.

Rutherford began to make his mark in Indycars after joining oilman Pat Patrick’s team in 1969, and then in 1973 Teddy Mayer hired him to drive McLaren’s lone entry in the USAC Championship. Peter Revson partnered Johnny in a second works car for the three 500-mile races. After 10 years in Indycars, the 35-year-old Rutherford’s career had finally taken off. Over the next seven years he would win two Indy 500s, 16 more races and finish second in USAC from 1974-76.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my tenure with McLaren,” says Rutherford. “Tyler Alexander was a tremendous team manager. There’s no question in my mind that working with the team setting up the car for an event is what I miss most about racing.

“It was a great era. The drivers and chief mechanics were the guys who figured out what to change. It was a little more dangerous, a little more heartbreak when somebody would get killed. But nobody pointed a gun to our heads and said go out there and take your chances. We did it because we loved it.”

It was engine builder Herb Porter who convinced Mayer to sign Rutherford. “Herb was my benefactor,” says Johnny. “I credit Herb for a lot of my thinking about racing Indy or Championship cars. He set his cars up to run hard and fast, and I got in trouble a couple of times because I didn’t do that.

“Herb was patient with me. He was the guy who told me that at Milwaukee you need to run the outside groove, so that halfway through the race when the track rubbers-in you could start working the outside and passing [cars], and it worked!

“With McLaren, and later with Jim Hall, I did a lot of tyre testing for Goodyear, and you learn a mountain about race cars and the different feel of tyre constructions and compounds. Those things make you a better driver and I was blessed with that at McLaren for seven years and Jim Hall for three years.”

Rutherford recalls how quickly he bonded with Alexander and the McLaren team: “My first race was at Trenton. In practice I banged the fence pretty hard. I thought, ‘There goes your big chance!’ I came back to the pits and apologised to the crew. Tyler put a hand on my shoulder and said, ‘John, if you don’t keep score, we won’t either.’ And that was the basis of our relationship. I knew then that we would accomplish some great things.”

Alexander meanwhile has great admiration for Johnny’s bravery and commitment. “Rutherford had balls as big as an elephant!” he says. “It took us a long time to get him to use his balls, but when he did he was very good. Everybody liked Johnny and when the chips were down the guy was quick. He was in some ways a bit like Andretti. Once you got it right for him he really paid you back.”

Those were days of huge horsepower in Indycar racing as turbocharging blossomed. There was also plenty of downforce from big rear wings, and lap times skyrocketed through the early ’70s. Into the ’80s more and more restrictions were placed on turbo boost, wings and aerodynamics in general, ultimately resulting in today’s much-reduced Indycar.

Rutherford was impressive to watch aboard the turbo Offy-powered McLaren M16C/D/Es of 1973-76. Putting his cojones and sprint car experience to good use, he was boldly able to attack the high groove like few others. “The M16 was a forgiving car that was well-balanced,” he recalls. “Gordon Coppuck designed a really good race car and Tyler and Denis Daviss, who was my chief mechanic, knew how to dial it in.

“The first year we ran the M16 the rear wing was huge. It overpowered the front of the car. We went to Indianapolis for a tyre test. It was the first time I’d driven the McLaren and we couldn’t get it to stop pushing the front end. It just understeered and we worked and worked and nothing much happened.”

The four-cylinder Offy turbos were a beast to drive as the power came on crudely with a great wallop. “Roger Bailey built us an engine for qualifying in ’73 and it was a fire-breather,” says Rutherford. “It was over 1000bhp, for sure, but I’ve been told it was a lot more than that. Back then we weren’t limited on the boost. We used 120-inch manifold pressure in qualifying. The gauge was pegged and bending the needle!

“With what I’d learned from Herb and the strength of the engine we were able to overcome the understeer problem. In ’73 we turned four laps in practice at over 200mph with that car. It was a treat.”

Rutherford remembers exploring the outer limits with the M16C: “That car had a funny characteristic on shorter tracks. I could run it up to a point and try to get a little more out of it, and it would wind up like a watch spring and spin. It would do a 360 and I’d keep going. Every time that happened it would be right in front of my old buddy, AJ. We’d go to the pits and Foyt would come sauntering back with a big grin on his face. ‘I don’t know how you do that,’ he’d say. ‘Every time I spin one of these things, I hit something.’

“Well, after the third or fourth time, we were at Michigan and it wasn’t the car’s fault. Al Unser had dropped some oil on the track and I looped it on the oil and once again AJ was behind me. We went to the pits and AJ comes up to me, grinning again. I said, ‘AJ, that’s the last time I’m gonna show you how to do it. Now you’re on your own.’ It’s been a joke between us since then.”

Rutherford finally scored his first victory for McLaren that season at the Ontario Motor Speedway in California. He won again on the high-banked Michigan oval. “We won a race or two in 1973, and in ’74 it started clicking.”

At Indianapolis in 1974 Johnny blew an engine and missed his first qualifying attempt. He turned in the second-fastest run but was deemed a third-day qualifier and had to start from 25th on the grid. Through the opening laps Rutherford put on a stunning display as he passed car after car around the outside. “We knew we could’ve been on pole. After 12 laps I was third and I just kept on charging through, the car was that good.”

After passing Bobby Unser’s works AAR Eagle, Rutherford engaged in a battle for more than half the race with Foyt. But with 150 miles to go Foyt retired with an oil leak. “AJ and I had a hammer and tongs battle but his car gave up and I went on to win my first 500. It was a great thrill.

“Team McLaren weren’t ones for big celebrations. I learned from them that we went there to win. That’s what we did and now it was ‘let’s get ready for Milwaukee’. And we went there and won, and then we went to Pocono and won again!”

Rutherford was a serious contender at Indy again in 1975 but, with 26 laps to go, heavy rain brought the red flag out and he had to settle for second behind Bobby Unser. In ’76 Rutherford qualified on pole and won the race a second time after another battle with Foyt.

A new McLaren arrived for 1977 as well as new chief mechanic Steve Roby. The F1-based M24 was powered by a turbo Cosworth DFX V8, built by McLaren following development over two years by the Vel’s Parnelli Jones team. Rutherford won four races that year and scored two victories in both 1978 and ’79. His wins in ’79 came on the high-banked, 1.5-mile Atlanta oval, where he had scored his first Indycar win in 1965 in a Watson-Offy roadster.

“Rick Mears and I owned that place,” he says. “What I didn’t win, he won. I liked high-banked racing and flat one-mile tracks like Milwaukee. They were fun, but high-banked tracks were my cup of tea. I won sprint car races on the high-banked tracks at Winchester and Salem.”

Near the end of 1979 Mayer and Alexander made the tough decision to close down McLaren’s Indycar team and focus on the struggling F1 effort. Despite CART taking over from USAC funding was short, while F1 was on an upswing thanks to Bernie Ecclestone.

“The funding Teddy and Tyler had was for the F1 effort, so they went back to England, ” says Rutherford. “That left me adrift but Tyler called Jim Hall and said he needed to think about hiring Rutherford if Al [Unser] was quitting. So Jim and I hammered out a deal.

“Driving for Jim and the Chaparral team after McLaren was more of the same. Jim had won in Can-Am and raced in F1, so it was easy to drive for him. You’d come in and say the car is doing this and this, and he’d get that ‘looking at the horizon’ stare in his eyes. He’d tell the guys what to change and I’d go out and it would be better.”

Aboard Hall’s Chaparral 2K, Rutherford won both the Indy 500 and the CART title in 1980. He drove for Hall until 1982 before his career went into decline as he struggled with a series of lesser teams. “It was wonderful to work with Jim and be involved with the development of ground-effects, and McLaren was one of the great teams,” he says.

“I’m just tickled to death that I lived through that era. There was a great sense of accomplishment in working with a team that appreciated everything and afforded me the opportunity to win. It’s not easy, but it’s not that hard either if you’ve got the right ingredients.”

Like Mario Andretti, Foyt, Bobby and Al Unser, Rutherford’s career lasted many years – 34, in fact, from his start at Devil’s Bowl in 1958 until his retirement at Indy in 1992. Today, he is the IRL’s pace car driver and a coach for young Indycar drivers. Johnny joins multiple Indy winners Rick Mears and Al Unser Jr in bringing an incomparable wealth of experience and knowledge to his job.