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!