BH You guys had that camaraderie and still do. Mario Andretti just came over and was teasing you about your belt, and you can tell you guys are just so comfortable, old friends. I don't know if that's the case for most of the current drivers. They're pulled in so many directions now, or kind of cocooned in their team hospitality area and there doesn't seem to be much closeness.
JR You know, Bryan, I think a lot of that is because of the sponsorship programs. They're kept so busy and I don't know how they do it. I liked my own time with my team and my car. I didn't like anybody messing with that. If we had a problem, we worked together to get the car sorted out; we didn't have an engineer as such. It was between – in the case of McLaren – Tyler Alexander and myself. We worked at figuring out what we could do to the car to make it handle better for me.
I think maybe today the guys are too busy with their sponsorship duties to be working with the engineers to optimize the handling of their car. Maybe with an engineer and the cars the way they are, it's different. But back when I was racing, how the car performed was up to the chief mechanic and myself.
BH And you experienced a lot of technical experimentation and innovation through the years. I imagine when you started at the Speedway, you were not only lifting, you were probably braking for the corners and by the end, of course, you were running flat-out around there. How did it change for the drivers: did it become easier, harder or just different?
JR Probably all of the above! It might be considered a little easier, but I've always maintained the reason they had a week of practice prior to qualifying at Indianapolis was so you could blunt your nerve endings for Pole Day, when you have to go flat chat. When I started, being a sprint car driver had made you ready for anything: those cars could jump sideways, get up on two wheels or whatever. We were used to running loose: you turn in, catch it, and then give it some gas instead of backing off because if you back off, it transfers the weight to the front, hooks up and around you go. Sprint cars prepared you for that.
Then, going from the front-engine cars to the rear-engine cars was a giant learning curve about bump-steer and about setups and things. The rear-engine car had so much more grip in the corners because of the independent suspension and everything. Then they started adding aerodynamics to them, and then it just progressed very quickly. We went faster every year.
During the '70s, the leaps in speed were pretty graphic. 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, because it was going to happen, period.
Now, today, thankfully the cars are very strong as well as fast. I can remember getting towed out of the garage area through Gasoline Alley, and when those Marches went over the drain there, you could feel the sidepods moving under your elbows. And then when you made a pit stop, you knew when it was over because the car changed shape around you once it was filled with fuel…
BH See, no one ever talks about great stuff like that, things that you guys took for granted.
JR Sure we took it for granted, That's just the way it was….
LONE STAR LEGEND
Johnny Rutherford's career highlights:
• Starts racing in modified stock cars in 1959.
• Enters the IMCA sprint car championship in '61, leads much of '62 before switch to USAC. Makes first IndyCar start at the Hoosier Hundred.
• Makes first Indy 500 start in 1963, same year he takes his first IndyCar pole (Phoenix), sets a new NASCAR track record at Daytona and wins his first NASCAR race!
• In 1965, he scores his first IndyCar win (Atlanta) and also wins the USAC Sprint Car championship, but misses most of '66 with two broken arms from the Eldora sprint car crash.
• Al Unser's Colt beats JR's Eagle to 1970 Indy 500 pole by 0.01sec. It's still the closest pole-winning margin in Indy history.
• Joins McLaren in 1973, takes third in the IndyCar championship with two wins and two poles, one of which is Indy (RIGHT).
• First Indy 500 win in 1974 – from 25th on grid – is one of four that year, resulting in runner-up in title race, a position he emulates in '75.
• Wins the shortest Indy 500 in history (255 miles) when '76 event is rain-shortened. Also took pole.
• Three more years at McLaren result in several wins and poles, but McLaren quit CART IndyCar at the end of '79 to focus on F1.
• Rutherford joins Chaparral and scores his third Indy 500 win and his sole IndyCar Series title with five victories and three poles.
• Final complete seasons ('85-'87) spent at Alex Morales Autosports. Last win is the 1986 Michigan 500, at the age of 48.
• Retires in 1994 with 27 IndyCar wins and 23 poles – still 10th and 11th on respective all-time lists.