Johnny Rutherford is a three-time winner at the Indianapolis 500, but he got there by way of NASCAR, as the Kansas-born, Texas-domiciled Indy car legend explains to RACER editor David Malsher.
I raced the fair circuit for three or four years and started developing a name for myself in sprint cars and in the winter of '62/'63, I got a call from a car dealer friend of mine in Dallas, who asked me if I'd ever thought about running the Daytona 500. I said, “Well, yeah, I'd like to do that,” and he said, “I've got a friend building a new car for the race and he wants to talk to you.” So we went to Dallas and sat down in his office and called this guy, and he said down the phone, “Yeah, he's right here,” handed me the phone and said, “Here, talk to Smokey Yunick.” I could hardly talk! He asked me when I could go down to his place, and I said, “I'll be there tomorrow!”
So I went to Daytona...but I'd never driven anything bigger than a mile or anything other than on dirt, so a 2.5-mile high-banked superspeedway was something a little different. However, my tutors for that race were Glenn Fireball Roberts and Joe Weatherley. Little Joe was busy trying to get his car sorted out, but Fireball helped me quite a bit, and I went out to qualify. I set a new track record for Daytona and a new world record for stock cars on a closed course, and I won one of the 100-mile qualifying races. Today, that makes me one of six drivers in history to win their first-ever NASCAR race.
I'm not saying that to boast, though. My point is that it put my stock way up among some major players in the racing world and I got a call from a car owner in Indianapolis to take a test at the Speedway. So I jumped on that. Smokey asked me if I wanted to stay in NASCAR, but I told him that my heart lay in Indianapolis, and he understood that because he was a big fan of Indy. Committing to USAC meant you could no longer do the “outlaw” racing like the Fair circuit anymore, and you had to run three races without incident on your temporary permit and then you had a full-time license.
BELOW: Lone Star JR's years at Indy took him from the Watson roadster
of his rookie year to the ground-effect Chaparral in which he won his third "500" in 1980.
o I went to the Speedway and got my driver's test in, but probably the biggest thing to happen to me that year was that I met my wife Betty and we were married that year. It was the last phase of my driver's test and we rolled out on pit lane and down to the North end to get ready for my first run. There was this cute little blonde standing up next to the fence, and I winked at her – I recall she winked back, she says she waved back, but be that as it may…
I then rolled out and started my test and had a problem with the car, but [chief steward] Harlan Fengler said I could complete it the next day. So I was walking back to the garage area past a first aid station and I didn't know that Betty was a registered nurse at Methodist Hospital but there she was, standing there talking to friends who were working there and my first words to her were, “Haven't I seen you some place before?” Real clever…
Anyway, I got through my driver's test, and you're then allowed to pull the three rookie stripes off the tail of the car. But we had struggled to get up to speed in that car, which was run by George Walther. It just didn't sit right or feel right, and of course I was a rookie so I didn't know much other than to go out there and stand on the gas – or try to. That's how I discovered the car really didn't want to work.
Back then, you could only use the lower half of the track for your first three phases of your rookie test, but then you could use the whole track for your fourth phase. So I completed all that, and went out onto the track to start working on speed, and I'm out there thinking everything is wonderful, and coming off Turn 2 to start down the backstretch, suddenly Rodger Ward came past me like I was painted on the fence! It then struck me, “What the hell am I doing here?!”
The car just wouldn't do it, and so on the third day of qualifying, my chief mechanic Buster Warke, said: “Why don't you walk down the line and see if you can find something else to drive and get yourself a comparison?” So I did that and found an ex-Leader Card Watson roadster run by Eddie Kastanek, whose rookie driver was struggling to find speed.
So I got in the car, ran six laps and pitted. As I got out of the car, they immediately started rolling it away. I guessed I hadn't done too good so I asked, “Eddie, where are they going?” and he said, “They've gone to put more fuel in it: you're going to qualify this thing!” Turns out I had already run quick enough to get it in the field, and after just a total of 13 laps, I was on the grid for the Indianapolis 500.
I found out later that the Walther car I had been using had been crashed the previous year at Milwaukee and since then, they hadn't gotten the right combination of ride-height and weight balance – they could only get one right at any one time.
That qualifying session was the high point, though: After 42 laps of the race, an oil plug came out and flooded the clutch and it slipped, so that was it.
I don't think there's a way of blanking out the sheer scale of the Indianapolis 500. You feel it most strongly as a rookie, of course, but you never get used to it through the years. On race day, the track looks narrower because of the tunnel effect of all the packed grandstands, and it changes the complexion of the track altogether. So although you have your dreams and you have your wishes, just to be able to run the great Indianapolis 500 means so much. The fact that I got the chance to not only win it but win it three times is something out of this world. That feeling will never get old, even if I myself am!
• David Malsher's interview with Johnny Rutherford expands on our celebration of Indy 500 heroes in the June issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe now at a special discount rate!