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.
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!”
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.