BH Do you think those years of jumping in and out of different cars helped you become more adaptable to the huge changes you experienced in IndyCar? You don't see guys adapt very well nowadays. Guys and girls in open-wheel try to go to NASCAR, and vice versa, and it's a tough transition.
JR Well, I started in straight-axle, front-engine cars, obviously – the rear-engine fad hadn't hit the U.S. yet – and the stock cars weren't as technical. But the launch of my professional career was getting hired by Smokey Yunick to drive his stock car at Daytona in '63. I was overwhelmed by the fact that someone of Smokey's reputation had called me.
When I got to the track, he said, “You'll need somebody to answer questions for you about getting around here.” He went away and came back in five minutes with two guys in tow and said, “Here: I want you to meet Fireball Roberts and Joe Weatherly.” They were my tutors for my first Daytona 500 in '63. Fireball was very helpful. He had won the Daytona 500 the year before in Smokey's Pontiac and so I had a few questions for him. Then little Joe Weatherly in his clipped Virginia accent, said, “Kid, if this car is right, you can run it flat-footed all the way around here.” So, I took him at his word and I set a new record for stock cars on a closed-course and a Daytona track record, and I won a 100-mile qualifying race. It wasn't that tough.
I have run a lot of NASCAR, I've run a lot of sprint cars, I've run a lot of midgets, I've run a lot of sports cars, I have run a lot of open-wheel Indy cars on dirt and pavement…What more would you want to do?
BH Through the 1970s, you were synonymous with winning and with McLaren. When McLaren decided to focus solely on Formula 1, how hard was that for you? Were you shocked that they'd abandon such a successful Indy car operation?
JR No, I could see it coming, gradually. What happened, the way I've been told, was that McLaren had Marlboro money to do Formula 1 and Teddy Mayer was taking a little bit of that for the IndyCar project and Marlboro found out and ended it.
Teddy and [team manager] Tyler Alexander had to cancel the Indy car program because of lack of funds, so at the end of 1979, it was all over.
Fortunately for me, Al Unser and Jim Hall had had their falling out at Chaparral, and Al went with Bobby Hillin's new team, Longhorn, so Jim was looking for a driver. Tyler called him and said, “We're not coming back so you better hire Rutherford.” And so Jim hired me and we had a great run with the Chaparral from '80 until the end of its career. Things just kind of worked out.
Then Jim said in 1982, “I'm not going to come back,” and that threw me out into the marketplace. I wasn't used to that because…well, because I came from the era when you got hired to drive a racecar because you had talent to drive a racecar! Now suddenly I was put on the auction block, or dangled out there for the money that I could draw in from sponsorship. I tried for several years, until I finally had a steady ride with Johnny Capels at the Morales Autosport team. We ran for three years, '85 to '87, and that was really kind of the end of it. In 1988, I drove for Kenny Bernstein and Pat Patrick, searching for the same ingredients I had at McLaren and at Chaparral but they weren't there. Finally, in '94, I said that was it and hung up the helmet.
BH My rookie year was in 1994, driving for A.J. Foyt, and the 500 was my first ever IndyCar race. I remember vividly that was the moment you chose to take your final lap around the Speedway and you did it in one of A.J.'s cars, which I thought was so apropos. It was, I think, very symbolic of your image and your career: not a lot of fanfare, just a classy event. And I thought it was cool that A.J. afforded you the opportunity to do that in one of his cars – my backup car.
JR Yes, well I was wrestling with the thought of retirement. You never see it coming and you never think it's going to happen. Then finally it dawns on you that there are a lot of kids looking for rides, and you're struggling even though you've been a three-time winner at the Speedway and have a lot of experience.
Al Unser had just announced his retirement. Mario had announced he'd finish the season and then quit. Everybody else – Foyt, Jim Hurtubise and Parnelli Jones – had already retired and I was kind of the last of the group. I talked to my wife Betty and she said, “Well, that's your call,” but she'd always told me that if I said I was retired, that would be it. She would put her foot down if I ever wanted to come back.
So I thought I would take a last lap around there and tell everybody, “Goodbye, I'm through,” and walked down to A.J.'s garage. I said, “A.J., do you have a car I can take a lap in around here? I'm going to retire.” He didn't hesitate. He just spun around and asked Craig Baranowski, “Hey, is that car ready to run?” Baranowski said yes and A.J. said, “Get it ready: Rutherford is going out to make a lap.” It was the car that A.J. made his last lap in as well.
So I went out and it was good. It was overwhelming to have all the memories come flooding back from having been there and done so much. There were mixed emotions, obviously. I had been racing for 30-plus years. It's something you don't anticipate or look forward to, obviously – it's just there, very suddenly. I was too old to be driving racecars. When I started racing, the life expectancy for a driver was…well, he was an old man at 30 years old. Sprint cars and midgets took their toll. So, to have gotten through… Foyt and I still get together, telling tales and we'll look at each other and laugh and say, “God, we made it!”