Editor's Note: This is the sixth in a series of articles leading up to the June 20 "Tim Richmond Memorial ARCA RE/MAX 200" at Mansfield (Ohio) Motorsports Park.
RICHMOND'S RIDE WITH RUTHERFORD PART OF INDY 500 HISTORY
MANSFIELD, Ohio (May 15th, 2009) -- Twenty-nine years later, Johnny Rutherford still smiles when talking about one of happiest moments of his 1980 Indianapolis 500 win. In celebrating his third Indy 500 victory, he shared his ride to victory lane with a "hitch-hiker" named Tim Richmond.
The 1980 Indy 500 was a meeting of what motorsports writer Dave Argabright refers to as the "Greatest Generation" of open wheel drivers. Texan Rutherford, also known as "Lone Star J.R." won the 500 over Tom Sneva, Gary Bettenhausen, Gordon Johncock, Rick Mears, Pancho Carter, Danny Ongias, Tom Bigelow, Richmond, and Greg Leffler. A.J. Foyt, Mario Anderetti, and Al and Bobby Unser were there, too. It just wasn't "their" day.
Rutherford was making his 221st Champ Car start and his 17th in the Indy 500. Richmond was making his eighth career start and his inaugural appearance at The Brickyard.
Both drivers were popular however. The veteran Rutherford had cultivated legions of fans with his friendly demeanor for nearly two decades. Richmond, with some help of his sponsors, UNO and Indianapolis rock radio station Q95, was gaining a new young fans.
Rutherford didn't know Richmond well before arriving at Indianapolis for the month of May 1980, but he quickly knew of him.
"Tim was the rookie, the new guy and he showed some great talent. We were aware of his abilities. We had the quickest time in all the practice sessions but once. Tim was faster. He was full of enthusiasm--. A real up and comer," Rutherford said.
At the end of 500 miles at Indy on May 25, 1980, Rutherford had won his third and final Indianapolis 500. Richmond led one lap and finished ninth, three laps down and stopped on the grass inside of turn four after running out of fuel. He was still the highest finishing rookie in the race and 1980 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year. It was a huge day for the 25-year-old.
What happened next, "that was spontaneous," Rutherford said. "When I drove McLaren, then Hall, I'd take an entire extra lap after the race," Rutherford said, "just in case there was a scoring problem. I was coming around the track for the last time and in turn four, I saw a couple of cars sitting off the track smoking. I saw Tim, and I could hear the crowd cheering. Tim was standing there looking at his car, and he looked like he wanted to kick it. I got on the brakes, and flipped it in neutral. Tim ran up and asked 'Did you win?' I said 'Yeah. Do you want a ride?' So he jumped on the side pod and grabbed the roll bar and I took him down to pit road. The crowd was roaring and he was slapping me on the helmet. It's one of my happiest memories of Indy. I wish Tim had stayed in Indy Cars and won the 500. That way I could have told people that I showed Tim the way to victory lane."
Richmond made only two more Indy Car starts in 1980. Just eight weeks later made his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, opening the door to a meteoric NASCAR career that saw him win 13 times between 1982 and 1987. He returned to the Indianapolis 500 in 1981, started last in 33rd position and finished 14th. It was his final Indy Car start.
Richmond's last NASCAR race was in August of 1987 at Michigan where he started and finished 25th after posting two wins at Pocono and Riverside, Calif. In June.
The driver's health was failing due to complications of the AIDS virus, which eventually claimed his life in August of 1989.
"It was devastating that we lost him," Rutherford said. "He was gregarious, a go-getter, handsome, dashing and he had a lot of ability. Had he lived, he would have set a lot of records."
To celebrate Richmond's life, he will be honored near his hometown of Ashland in Mansfield, Ohio on June 20. The inaugural Tim Richmond Memorial ARCA RE/MAX 200 will be presented at Mansfield Motorsports Park. Richmond was a winner in ARCA competition in the ARCA 200 at Daytona in his first series start in February 1981.