I love talking to the guys who raced Indy cars from the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. Personally, I'm always curious about the technical innovation and changes to the cars that happened through that period. Several drivers raced through the front-engine, then rear-engine eras, and into the advent of wings and eventually full ground effects cars.
The effects of these advances and changes over this time is more evident at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway than anywhere, as the qualifying records were systematically not only broken, but shattered year after year. A big part of me loves the idea of innovation and track records falling, and I wonder if we will hear again those words made immortal by Tom Carnegie, “A new track record!”
Johnny Rutherford is the perfect guy to put some of the history of these advances in context. Along with peers such as Mario Andretti, he not only had to relearn his driving style as the cars changed, but he did it better than almost anyone. Johnny is the epitome of the Texas gentleman. Humble and proud at the same time, it was fascinating to spend some time talking about the different cars and eras that his career spanned. Hopping from one car or series to the next was not just something he did for fun (although as you'll read, they had plenty of fun back in the day); it was also the only way to earn enough to make a living as a professional racecar driver.
I have always felt a special connection to Johnny, not just because he has been great with giving me advice over my time as a driver in the IZOD IndyCar Series, but he actually ran his last ever lap at Indy in the exact same car I drove my first ever lap there. I wish again that we had the space to print the full conversation, because Johnny lights up when he shares his memories of his legendary career and there is so much more we could have talked about…
BH This is great. We'll get the chance to show some cool shots of cool cars!
JR Yeah, but we don't want that one
with me 20 feet over the back stretch guardrail at Eldora with both arms hanging out of the car.
BH I've seen that shot!
JR It made a page in Life magazine and then it appeared in papers everywhere. But I want to find the writer who captioned it, Rutherford waves to the crowd as he leaves the circuit. I'll show him a wave!
BH That's probably a good place to start. Back then, you guys had to race every week in whatever you could find to earn a living. It wasn't a case of getting your IndyCar ride and not touching anything else because it was in your contract. Talk about the mindset then versus now; you must have witnessed the change as drivers became more specialized.
JR Yes, once you joined the United States Auto Club to race, you couldn't be an outlaw and go back to IMCA or any of the other organizations. You made a commitment to that because you wanted to go to the Indianapolis 500. That was the place to go for a young, open-wheel racer back in the '50s and '60s. Some of us didn't make it through that period of sprint cars, midgets, stock cars and sports cars.
Now it has become so centered around sponsorship that you can't run NASCAR unless you run everything. You can't say, “Oh, I've got an IndyCar race this weekend,” or, “I'm going to run a sprint car” like we used to. I'm sure these guys are having fun in their pasture, but it's not as much fun as running everything. Tony Kanaan once asked me how we stayed in shape back in those days and I told him we raced three or four nights a week. If you ran midgets, sprint cars and champ cars on the dirt or on the pavement, you stayed in pretty good shape.
BH You guys would literally show up at a local track, drive a car you'd never seen and face off against the local hotshots. It's hard to imagine Dario turning up at a sprint car race and hopping in.
JR That's how it was. The first sprint car I ever drove, I walked into the racetrack at La Crosse, Wis., it was an afternoon and an evening show in front of the grandstands. I asked the registrar if there were any cars open and he said, “Yeah, there's a couple that don't have drivers listed,” and he gave me the numbers and names of the people. So I signed up and went and looked at both cars and picked the one I thought looked the best. There was an old gentleman getting it ready,so I went over, introduced myself and said, “I understand you don't have a driver.” He said, “Well, I might but I'm not sure.” So, I said, “Well, if he doesn't turn up, can I drive your car today?” He said, “You ever run one of these before?” I replied, “Oh, sure.” I'd never been in a sprint car in my life, but anyway, I warmed it up.
I had just enough money in my pocket to buy a bus ticket from La Crosse, or wherever my buddy Jimmy McElreath from Arlington, Texas, had dropped me off, and I could get on a bus and go back home to Texas and look for a job. But I finished fairly well in the afternoon race, and better in the night race and made $180. In 1960, that wasn't too bad. I thought, “How long has this been going on?!”
The gentleman who owned the car, Merle Heath, hired me to finish the season and that was it…I was on my way to the big time. I started my racing career in 1959 and made it to Indianapolis in '63. So, I had a good run. I look back on it as a great period in my career, a great learning curve. That was the way you did it then: Parnelli did it, A.J. [Foyt] did it, Mario did it…and Roger McCluskey, Rodger Ward, Troy Ruttman, Jim Rathmann… That's the way we all came up.