PERSEVERANCE PAID DIVIDENDS FOR RUTHERFORD AT INDY INDIANAPOLIS, May 12, 1998 -- Only Sam Hanks drove in more races at Indy than Johnny Rutherford before he won. Hanks won in his 12th start in 1957 and immediately retired. Rutherford,...
PERSEVERANCE PAID DIVIDENDS FOR RUTHERFORD AT INDY
INDIANAPOLIS, May 12, 1998 -- Only Sam Hanks drove in more races at Indy than Johnny Rutherford before he won. Hanks won in his 12th start in 1957 and immediately retired. Rutherford, like Jim Rathmann, won in his 11th attempt. Instead of hanging up his helmet, he went on to win twice more.
"A lot of guys never win," Lone Star J.R. said. "I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time."
More than once.
First, Rutherford, who will be honored May 13 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as part of the Parade of Champions, was lucky enough to get a call from fellow Texan Jim McElreath in 1962, inviting him to drive in the Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds that September. He quit the IMCA circuit, where he was the points leader, and squeezed into the field at 18th (of 20) for his first Indy-style car race with a worn engine.
Next, a Dallas friend arranged for a mechanic in Daytona Beach, Fla., to call Rutherford about a stock-car ride. When the call came to his Fort Worth home, Rutherford was shocked to learn the mechanic was the noted Smokey Yunick, owner of the famed "Best Damn Garage in Daytona." Yunick was offering J.R. a ride for the fourth Daytona 500. J.R. responded by starting on the inside of the second row and winning a 100-mile qualifying race.
"That kind of boosted my stock," Rutherford said, no pun intended.
Rutherford now was in demand. Veteran Dayton car owner George Walther, who died earlier this year, made the third pivotal call to Rutherford in six months. Walther had purchased the car that J.R. drove in the Hoosier Hundred and wanted him to return to the cockpit. Rutherford really wanted to be at Indy, so he accepted Walther's offer, passed his rookie test and, as he says, "the rest is history."
Except he could never win. Or even come close. In his first nine races his best finish was 18th. One year (1966) he even missed the race because he broke both shoulders in a sprint-car accident and walked around the Speedway with his arms in casts.
"My desire was so strong that accidents and injuries were not a deterrent, except for time," Rutherford said. "Desire was something I was eaten up with.
"I had always wanted to race at Indy. It was one of those things where you'd listen to the race on the radio, read about it. It was something that was instilled in me. That was my focus, my aim."
By 1970, Rutherford finally was starting to make a breakthrough in the "500." He qualified in the middle of the front row. Still, he needed one more fortuitous happening to reach the top. That came during the winter of 1972 after Phil Casey, current technical director for the Pep Boys Indy Racing League, announced he was quitting Rutherford's team.
J.R. was distraught. He went to engine guru Herb Porter and asked, "What am I going to do?" Porter told Rutherford that McLaren field man Teddy Mayer was in the U.S. seeking a driver. The next morning J.R. and Mayer had breakfast, and a contract was signed.
The next May Rutherford won his first Indy pole with a record speed of 198.413 mph and finished ninth to snap his long string of finishes outside the top 10. And the following year, 1974, when the Speedway desperately needed a popular winner after the disastrous race of 1973, the handsome, friendly Rutherford charged to victory, beating Bobby Unser to the checkered flag by 22 seconds.
"It was a team," Rutherford says about McLaren. "I always maintained if I ever found a team that wanted to win as badly as I did, we would be a winner. I found one with McLaren. The other owners were sportsmen."
After a second in 1975, J.R. won again for McLaren in '76, beating A.J. Foyt by 15 seconds in the shortest race (rain stopped it after 255 miles) in history. But McLaren was starting to lose its edge and ended its Indy participation after 1979.
And Rutherford once more needed some good fortune to smile on him. It came when Jim Hall and Al Unser parted company after Unser had done most of the development work on the ground effects Chaparral, later to be dubbed the "Yellow Submarine" by the media. McLaren crew chief Tyler Alexander called Hall and urged him to hire Rutherford, which he did.
Rutherford and his yellow machine captured the pole and won the 1980 race, making J.R. the fifth driver to win at least three times. After going 10 years of not coming close, he won three times in seven years.
"Perseverance is the key word," said Rutherford, who today is Pace Car driver, driving coach and consultant for the Pep Boys IRL. "To be there. To get with McLaren, because racing is a business. Driving a works car is the only way to go. You got the new pieces first."
Rutherford drove seven more years, but never completed 200 laps in any of those races. He tried four more years after that before finally admitting his career was over in 1993. Retiring was incredibly tough, he said.
"That's all I had done for many years," he said. "I did some real soul-searching. It was hard. When you make up your mind, you can't dwell on it. I probably stayed a little too long.
"I love the sport so much. I was like the old fire horse who still wanted to go when the bell rang. I probably had bruises on my head from beating it on the wall. The situation had changed so much. The owner didn't want to know what kind of driver you were, but how much money you could generate. I was protected so long with McLaren and Hall."
There is one other reason Rutherford has such a passion for Indy. He met his wife, Betty, a nurse at the time, at the Speedway.
Rutherford has embraced the Pep Boys IRL because he thinks founder Tony George has addressed the future of the sport and the "500."
"I commend him, because it was a brave move," he said. ***
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