:Johnny found himself in a shallow creek bed with both arms pulverised from the effects of three wailing end-over-ends’
JOHNNY RUTHERFORD CHEATED DEATH TWICE. BUT HIS SUCCESSES IN THE INDY 500 OWED LITTLE TO LUCK: HE WAS SIMPLY SCINTILLATING WHEN IT MATTERED MOST JOE SCALZO PROFILES A TEXAN WHO CONQUERED THE BRICKYARD THREE TIMES SPECTATORS AT THE 47m INDIANAPOLIS
500 back in 1974 had the choice of watching the front runners A J Foyt, Mario Andretti, Bobby and Al Unser, and Gordon Johncock or else watching the rear as Johnny Rutherford, ‘driving like a USAC sprint car driver’, brought his Team McLaren up from 25th. Rutherford had recorded the second-fastest time trial but had done so on the second day and therefore had to start at the back. The knowledgeable chose Rutherford.
After fighting past seven cars into 18th place on the first lap, he was 14th at five miles, ninth at 10, sixth at 12, fourth at 25, second at 57, and around Foyt and into the lead at 162. Only A J offered much of a fight, and when he blew up at 355 miles, Johnny was the winner in a rout: he led for 300 of the 500 miles. ‘Driving like a USAC sprint car driver’ indeed. Born in Kansas, raised in Texas, he saw his first midget race at 10, became a hot rod club member in his teens, and way before he was 21 was part of the Dallas blue-collar mob who kicked the
windows out of their Ford flatheads and manhandled them as econo-class &dicks at Devil’s Bowl Speedway.
Johnny’s education in violent opencockpit, open-wheel V8 sprint cars began on the battlefields of the IMCA cornstalk tour. In 1962 he looked like the hot ticket to win the International Motor Contest Association’s seasonal title until he interrupted his operations to make his bow as a USAC gladiator at the Hoosier 100. He successfully qualified — he was uncompetitive in the Hoosier 100 itself but for him the beauty was that the seat in a Watson roadster for the 1963 Indy 500 went with the deal.
Then Smokey Yunick, wizard of taxicab NASCAR, unexpectedly telephoned. Another planet heard from. Needing somebody fresh to chauffeur his ‘backdoor’ factory Chevrolet in Daytona Beach’s stock-car 500, Smokey wondered ifJohnny harboured any prejudices against door-simmers. Johnny did not even though the open-cockpit midget, sprint and dirt car varsity classified stock car racing as something you did when you retired from s ?
real racing. Johnny went to Daytona, climbed up on big D’s high banking to qnalify at 165.181 mph a track record then won a preliminary 100-miler. He was smack in the middle of the fight in the 500, too, until he had to spin himself out of a tank-slapper and lost two laps in the pits having Smokey cut off a splattered right-rear quarter panel.
May’s Indy 500 was a comedown in speed of almost 20mph, but snagging a starting place in the 500 was Johnny’s mega moment. He was part of a generation to whom Indy was everything. And this despite the fact that he was on row nine and had had to go through two tired roadsters to get there. With 362 miles still to come, he was already done with a ruptured transmission. The following year he was right in the centre of the MacDonald/Sachs collision which laid down a wall of exploding gasoline. Unable to stop, Johnny blasted underneath the flailing tail of Sachs’ car he collected a tyre print across his own roadster’s nose then went high around MacDonald, straight into the holocaust. As he burst
out of the flames and smoke, Bobby Unser’s four-wheel-drive Novi, with its own steering gone, smacked Johnny’s roadster in its hind quarters. This split open its full fuel tank without setting it alight despite all the fire around it.
Despite trailing this fuel flood, and despite the ruptured injector horns off MacDonald’s car plugged in its undercarriage (along with the trademark lemon-on-a-string Sachs like to suck on), and despite its rubber-smeared nose and blackened windshield, and despite a neck roasted to the second degree, Johnny and his car marched onward. They had travelled around the first and second corners and the length of the back straight before Rutherford thought to stop to see if he was burning. When told no by a fireman, he notched low gear and travelled a little further before at last parking above a spreading ocean of methanol. Johnny had better fortune in 1965. At an Indycar meet on the Atlanta superspeedway, he did the impossible and won in ajittery rear-engined A J Watson car. As a comparable accomplishment,
he won the seasonal sprint car title of USAC, possibly the most competitive series in racing, the opposition including Foyt, Pamelli Jones, Mario Andretti Roger McCluskey, Bobby Llnser, Don Branson and Jud Larson — a galaxy of heavyweights.
Trying to repeat as champion in 1966 brought disaster. Early in the season, everyone was at Eldora Speedway in Ohio where the dirt surface was in ruin and Johnny was seeking tutelage from his car owner, volatile Wally Meskowski, about whether to run high or low. Wally responded to his question with the ‘move higher’ sign.
Johnny moved. To his annoyance, all he discovered was more broken ruts; as he bucked through them, Mario Andretti shot past him on the inside. Now steering with one hand, J R vigorously waved the middle finger of the other at Wally, after which he raised his face shield for a better view of the track. What he got instead was a rock the size of a baseball thrown up by Mario’s tyre. It caught him full in the face. Upon awakening sometime afterward, Johnny
found himself outside Eldora in a shallow creek bed, his car right side up but with both arms pulverised from the effects of three wailing end-over-ends. He was out for the rest of the season.
His recuperation was long and painful and included bums in a big wreck at Phoenix. But just when he seemed to have slipped out of the first rank came an amazing drive in qualifying for the 1970 Indy 500. Al Unser in his Johnny Lightning Special had the pole position locked up with a speed of 170.220mph, and Foyt in his Sheraton-Thompson was next to him on the front row at 170.004. Rutherford’s elderly Patrick Petroleum Eagle had figured in nobody’s prognostications. But Johnny did the 10 miles at 170.213 to grid second. It was the closest pole battle in Indy’s history.
His equipment broke down in 1971 and ’72, but then in ’73, as a member of Team McLaren, he at last won pole at 198.413 mph. The usual Indy gremlins struck and he finished only ninth, but he won at Ontario and Michigan. Then in 1974, he had his blazing run from 25th to the front and victory. if+
He recalls: “That car was so good that in 12 laps I was third. Foyt had a fourcam Ford V8 which could out-torque me off the corners, but I had all four corners going for me. He finally retired with an oil leak, and that was about the best way it could have been scripted, to win from 25th andto have duelled with A J.”
He also won at Pocono, thus becoming the first driver to win two 500s in a season. Rutherford and the McLaren remained formidable: second in ’75 and first again in ’76: “A J had a straightaway on me, when all of a sudden he had a handling problem and I passed. Just past 250 miles, it started raining and the race got stopped. At 4.30 they were getting ready to restart things when the skies opened up again and I got to walk into the winner’s circle.”
Came 1980, he was the new driver of the Pennzoil Chaparral and put up an Indy 500 win even more dominant than ’74, leading for 285 of the 500 miles: “That was more fatiguing than my other two because that Chaparral had additional ground effect and speed. You had to drive it very precisely, no slipping.”
He also won in Ontario, Mid-Ohio, Michigan and Milwaukee that year. The CART title was his.
He won the Michigan 500 in 1986 and continued racing on into 1988. Today he is one of the major domos of the Indianapolis Racing League. Of the 27 Indycar races he won in his career, he has no doubts over his favourite.
“The most fun race I ever had was up at Michigan in 1978 with Danny Ongais. There’d been a yellow flag, and the green came out with 20 laps to go. Danny and I took off together, wheelto-wheel, side-by-side. And we raced that way until he ran out of fuel.
“The team was celebrating and I saw Danny walking across the track towards us. I ran over to him and we bear-hugged and laughed. It had been a race in a million — so hard and clean.”
If that was the best of times, the worst of times could be readily brought to mind too. But Rutherford isn’t like that. “My motto is, ‘Everything happens for a reason’,” he says. “And even though I nearly got put out of business a couple of times, I still believe that.” IM