Racer2Racer has been one of the most popular features of RACER magazine since its inception in 2008. It's where Indy car race-winner Bryan Herta sits down with past and present stars of the sport and turns journalist. Magazines being finite, though, space often precludes us from including all of it.
In the December issue of RACER, Johnny Rutherford is Herta's latest “victim” and, given Rutherford's stunning power of recall, the surfeit of material was inevitable. You can read their exchanges on various racing topics by subscribing to RACER. While you wait for your December issue to arrive, however, here are some tasters that didn't make the cut. -Ed.
On making a living in the early days…
BH: In the course of your 30-year career, it's amazing to think how many races you did, how many different drivers you raced against and how many tracks you raced on. I think a lot of people must have become Johnny Rutherford fans because they had a chance to see you at their local track. I think that leaves more of an impression than just seeing their guy they see on TV.
JR: Yes, there was a lot of racing. When you joined USAC, you were through with all other organizations, but still you had midgets, sprint cars, champ cars, Indy cars – open-wheel on dirt and pavement. Years ago, we ran both to determine the Indy car championship years ago. So, yes, we got plenty of racing.
I've had people ask, “Did you ever think you wanted to go to Formula 1?” Well, I was too busy doing everything else here in the United States and there wasn't time to go to Formula 1. The opportunities were there. And I was asked if I wanted to go and run Le Mans and I never did…the timing wasn't right. I always had something else here to do, but I've enjoyed my career and it is something I cherish.
The last year I ran IMCA sprint cars on the fair circuit and that was a tremendous learning curve, because there was every kind of dirt track imaginable. Even Parnelli will tell you he was scared to death most of the time. The fair circuit was held during the summer months. Throughout the Midwest, there are the county fairs and state fairs – the Minnesota State Fair is one of the biggest, and so is the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. Anyway, all these county fairs, state fairs and free fairs of all types…If they had a half-mile dirt track that's capable of running sprint cars, they put on a race during the fair. Before I quit and joined USAC in 1962, I was leading the points, and I had run 73 races that summer…
BH: Just that summer?! So you were racing three or four nights a week?
JR: Yes, four nights a week – and it was tough. Some of those sprint cars out on the fair circuit were 20 years old. I have raced against cars with wire wheels on them, and with Ranger aircraft engines in them. Of course, I drove Offenhausers and Chevrolets. It gave a driver a chance to be around Indianapolis during the month of May and then you go off to run, maybe on Memorial Day, somewhere up in Iowa or Ohio or Illinois. Yup, that fair circuit was something. There were all kinds of conditions…mud that deep sometimes, and they'd have to get a grader out and grade you a path. In that situation, you put on a “hip show” – that's hippodrome, by the way – where everybody just goes out and races a little bit, makes a lot of noise, slips and slides around and you pass if you can do it easily, but you don't commit to anything really critical because everybody gets paid the same. You made $250 for running in the feature.
But it was a great period in my career and a big learning curve. I ran three years in IMCA and had a go for one of the premier owners in IMCA, Diz Wilson from Mitchell, Ind. Diz had two cars that he ran all the time. Remember seeing pictures of the Clancy 6-wheeler at the Indianapolis Speedway? It had tandem wheels in the back and it was a really beautifully shaped racecar. Well, they took the tandem wheels off and rearranged things and they made a sprint car out of it and it won Springfield one year with Jim Davies in '51 or '52. It made it through the years and Diz bought it from a guy in Florida, he shortened it up a little more and that's what I raced in IMCA in my 1961 season: The old Clancy 6-wheeler but as a sprint car with a 270 Offy in it.
Diz gave me a Ford Ranchero pick-up, a trailer, my racecar, and I could pile the tires we were going to use at the next race and the fuel cans and stuff in the back. I would take off and head for the track, maybe Des Moines or Spencer or Cedar Rapids, Iowa… or maybe Lakeside Stadium in Kansas City. But, anyway, I towed my car and I worked on it too. I'd get back from the races and Diz would point out the tires we were going to use at the next race. I had a big old toadstool tire buster and so I'd mount my own tires on the wheels we were going to use, and I'd take the body off of the car and spray it down and clean it up. It was just a lot of fun.
On multiple Indy 500 wins…
BH: It really speaks to the power of the Indianapolis 500 that, in all the things you've achieved in your career, you're still introduced as “three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford.” Is that the racing accomplishment you're most proud of?
JR: Yes. That is the crowning effort, to win the Indy 500 but it comes in plateaus. First, you're introduced as you've raced in the Indianapolis 500 this year, and people say, “Oh, really? I bet that was exciting.” Then it's, “He won the Indy 500 this year,” and people say, “Oh, wow that must have been something.” Then, “He won the Speedway again this year – he's a two-time winner.” “Two-time winner? Wow!” Then it's, “Three-time winner Johnny Rutherford…” and they say, “Wow, I've watched you since I was a little kid.” [laughter]
BH: See, that's what I was going to open with!
JR: I can only imagine what four times would be like. A.J. and I have been friends for a long time, you know, Texas buddies. And, of course, Al Sr. was three years after I started at the Speedway, but we're all in that same group. And then there's Rick Mears, a tremendous race driver: he's smart, he thinks and he's very smooth. He did it anywhere he raced, and I don't know why he hasn't had the same recognition as Unser and A.J. He's a four-time winner, but Rick's stayed kind of in the shadows of his accomplishments and I've always wondered why. He's got a great personality, and he's a super guy to be around and work with.
On aerodynamic development at the Speedway…
JR: Al Unser's Lola that won in '70 and '71, the Johnny Lightning car, was kind of flat on top and it started guys thinking about that. So, we designed one, the Patrick Petroleum car (BELOW), which was a Dan Gurney-built Eagle chassis. We had flat, flat bodywork with sidepods that were flat and it had a turbo Offy in it. We got to the Speedway with it in '70 and went out and started running and, by Thursday in the first week of practice, we were down at 161mph; I just could not get it to stop pushing. It pushed like a pig.
Mike Evan was my crew chief and he went away and thought about it a little bit and came back and took some aluminum and made a chin spoiler for the front of the car, right on the bottom of the nose. By the end of the day Friday, Parnelli, who had been timing everybody and seen that we were just a tick faster than they were, came down to us and was looking at the car. He said, “Hey, what are you guys doing?”
So, anyway, we had qualifying and that was the closest run for pole position in the history of the Speedway and it still stands: one one-thousandth of a mile an hour difference between Al and I! They plotted it and said if we had started our four-lap runs at the start-finish line together and gone for four laps, the nose of Al's car would have been two and a half feet ahead of mine at the finish line. So that boosted my stock, at least, because this was 1970, and since I'd gotten those broken arms at Eldora in '66, I had lost a lot of that period getting back into shape and recovering fully. It was hard getting owners to say, “OK, we'll hire you for this one.” So to get on the front row and only miss pole by the narrowest of margins was a thrill.
And then the wings started coming along. Basically, the cars were made sleek and then you'd just put a wing on the back. I can remember in '73 at McLaren when I set the track record, we had a wing on the back as big as that door there – I'm not kidding you! When I went to test the McLaren for the first time at the Speedway, we again just couldn't get it to stop pushing, just flat-out with that big rear wing pulling the front end away from the apex. But Roger Bailey built us an engine – he was a McLaren engine builder – and he says to this day that he hasn't figured out how much horsepower it put out, but it was well over 1000 and it became a treat to drive. I set a new track record at Indianapolis and started on the pole in ‘73, my first year with McLaren.
Then in '74, USAC said, “Oh, you guys are going too fast” so they made the rear wing a little bit smaller and now the balance was perfect for us. The car became so good. We did a lot of Goodyear tire testing at that time, and had picked the tire for the 500, and that, too, was perfect. And then my race with A.J., in the middle of the race we had a hammer-and-tong duel, he had the Ford and I had the Offy, and I could just get up to him and then I'd have to back out. But I kept doing it and kept doing it, and stayed right in his rear-view mirror and even the pit stops, we went in and out together. I knew that if I kept the pressure on him, I'd run him out of right-rear tire or engine and in the end, I ran him out of engine. It started blowing smoke and oil all over me and I had to back off, so then they black-flagged him and I went on for the win.
During that period of change there were pretty graphic leaps in speed. That's what kept USAC on its toes trying to cut back on horsepower or cut back on aerodynamics to keep the cars from going ballistic. But it was a futile effort; it was going to happen, period.
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