Johnny Rutherford (IndyCar Photo)
INDIANAPOLIS – In a career that began with the 1962 Hoosier Hundred driving a USAC Champ Car owned by Fred Sclavi, until his retirement in tears on a day of training for the 1994 Indianapolis 500 behind the wheel From an AJ Foyt Racing entry, Johnny Rutherford remains a legend.
The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner with wins in 1974, ”76 and ’80 won 27 combined races in both USAC and CART and a National IndyCar Championship in 1980. He also drove a Chevrolet Smokey Yunick to victory in a NASCAR Cup Series race at Daytona Int’l Speedway in 1963, when qualifying races counted as official Cup Series victories. He has also won countless midget and sprint car races during his career.
The man from Coffeyville, Kansas would later move to Fort Worth, Texas, and become “Lone Star JR”. What made Rutherford’s career so impressive was that he faced some of the greatest drivers in Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar history.
Here are Rutherford’s thoughts on the great drivers he actually competed against, as well as two of today’s most accomplished drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series.
SPORT SPORT: We have to start with your mate AJ Foyt. Many people consider him to be the greatest of all time. What does Johnny Rutherford think of him?
Johnny Rutherford: “I think the same. AJ was very good. He knew when and when not to do it. He had his time, and we all did back then. He crashed in Michigan and could have been. lose his arm, but they saved him with the terrible cut. AJ was very good. He was always good to me. We talked a lot and he had a few cars that I drove for him during that time.
“He’s just a dear friend. We still talk a lot. He was “the best”.
SPEED SPORT: Mario Andretti
Rutherford: “Mario Andretti, of course, his record represents him. He was a very good driver. At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Mario Andretti could have been a five-time winner of the Indy 500. He was still leading and running well. But he drove the car into the ground. That’s the only thing you noticed, he just didn’t want to back up and save the car. I learned this from Herb Porter. Herb said that when you run outside you have to take care of your car. If you can give the engine a bit of a blow in the corners, and do things to try to save it, I learned that a long time ago and always thought that of Mario.
“That doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great pilot.”
SPEED SPORT: Al Unser
Rutherford: “Al Unser has always been one of the best. I always said if I owned a car and wanted a driver, I would hire Al Unser. Al was good. He was good on the dirt, which surprised everyone that he was able to handle the dirt as well as the pavement, but he was good. He was a quadruple Indianapolis 500 winner who knew when and when not to do it.
SPEED SPORT: Bobby Unser
Rutherford: “Bobby Unser was very good, bless his heart. He and I met at Speedway in 1963. He was a rookie, and I was a rookie. In the second or third lap, he crashed in the first corner. But he was good.
“It’s pretty funny, after the 1975 race I was interviewed and said if it hadn’t rained I would have won the race. Oh, Bobby was upset about that. He was mad. He let it be known.
“The next year we were at a Goodyear party and Bobby was there and he talked and said he was happy to win and so on. I got up and I said, ‘Next year , five, 10 and 20, if you look at the record books he will say Bobby Unser is the winner. It was like that. We walked down the pit lane and I felt that hand on my shoulder . He looked at me and smiled at me and shook me and that was it. We were good friends again.
SPEED SPORT: Rick mears
Rutherford: “Rick Mears is a good driver. Coming from where he did in off-road racing and getting in Indy cars and performing like he did as a quadruple winner of the Indy 500. He’s another of the good guys. He was very precise. He knew when and when not to do it. He was good. Very well. We’re still good friends and see each other at and around the Speedway. He’s the guy who won it four times and had a great ride.
SPEED SPORT: Gordon johncock
Rutherford: “Gordy was very good. He drove like no one else I know in that he pushed so hard. He has won the Indianapolis 500 twice. He had problems in other places. He was driving for McLaren when they hired me. Pat Patrick wanted him to drive for himself as a Michigan driver. Gordy went over there, and I went to drive for McLaren.
“Gordy is a good guy. He has a logging business in Michigan. It is fun to be around. He’s a happy guy. I don’t think he realized he had won the race twice. He was good. It was as good as they come. When you had to run with Gordon Johncock, you had better be ready to run.
SPEED SPORT: Tom sneva
Rutherford: “Tom Sneva is a good driver. He learned in different kinds of races and he won the Indianapolis 500 in 1983 after suffering horrible crashes and things and getting there. I used to say it was always fun to follow him to Phoenix and watch him because he chased the wheels off whatever he drove. He was a good pilot and when he had the right equipment he could show everyone what he could do.
SPEED SPORT: Lloyd Ruby
Rutherford: “Lloyd Ruby was a dear friend. We were spending Christmas with Lloyd and his family and Ebb Rose and his family at Ebb in West Texas. Lloyd was a smart, heady driver. He was successful in sports cars, Indy cars. I don’t think he drove a lot of Sprint Cars, but he was good. He helped me get into my first Indy 500. He told me about the car he had tested and what worked. Right before I qualified in that car, Lloyd came over and said, ‘Rutherford, don’t let us down the Texans. Get out there, do what you can, and get it done.
SPEED SPORT: Dan Gurney
Rutherford: “Dan was something. He was an engineer and designed and built the Eagle, which was one of the best cars at the time on the Speedway. The first time I met Dan was at this little restaurant in Tower Terrace as you step out onto the trail. I walked in and was behind him in line. Someone introduced me to Dan and we shook hands. Dan was looking for something to eat and found a piece of apple pie.
“I’ll never forget; he ate that piece of apple pie in two bites. He brought the dish to the lady and charged her for it. It was my earliest memory of Dan Gurney.
“In 1978 when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway kicked us out because of the difference between CART and USAC, we were in the courtroom for the chance to tell our story. Dan and I were seated together. We have learned to speak without moving our mouths. He would ask, “What do you think is going on? without moving the lips. I said, ‘I don’t know, Dan.’
“We were reinstated and every time Dan and I got together we spoke with our mouths shut. We often have.
SPEED SPORT: Parnelli jones
Rutherford: “If you had to line them up and say pick the top three, it would be AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones and Mario Andretti. Parnelli was really good in the sprint cars. I raced a lot with him in sprint cars. He was the first to travel 150 miles an hour on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a Roadster. He was very talented. Whatever he drove, he drove ten / tenths. He was really very good and a very dear friend.
SPEED SPORT: Al Unser Jr.
Rutherford: “Al is a good pilot. He’s had problems during his career and that’s how it was during this period of our career. It is good. He settled down and I think the world of him. The Unsers were like brothers to me. He’s a good guy. I really like Al Jr.
SPORT SPORT: Don Branson
Rutherford: “Don was a dear friend. We spent time with our families. We went fishing. He was a very good driver, especially for sprint cars and Indy cars. We ran together in St. Paul, Minnesota on the paved fairground halftime track. It was 1965. I won both and Don ran me so hard. He came up to me after the second one and said, “I’m not going to show you anymore because you already know too much.” It pleased me to see Don Branson say this about you.
“Don was the guy who when he qualified on the mile everyone dropped their tools and stood up on something to watch because he was really standing on the gas.
“It was sad when he was killed at Ascot Speedway in Calif. I always wondered what happened because it wasn’t Don who pushed him around the corner, straight into the wall, not to spin, crash and die.
SPEED SPORT: Helio Castroneves
Rutherford: “Helio is a great, great young man. He wanted so badly to get that fourth, he had to keep trying. I am so happy when he did. I met him right away in the middle of the frontline as he made his way to Victory Lane. He raised his arms and we kissed. I asked, ‘Are you going to talk to us again? You are a quadruple.
“He laughed and said, ‘You can count on it.’ He’s a good driver. He drives sports cars. He drives everything and is doing well. He deserves to win that fourth Indy 500, that’s for sure.
SPEED SPORT: Scott Dixon
RUTHERFORD: “Scott is one of those guys who does the right thing when it’s time to do it and he wins. He is very good. It does not push the effort at the start of the race and it is calculated. He knows what he’s going to do and he does it. He proved it with his victories and his championships.
“He’s one of the best in the bunch now and where he’s from.”