INDIANAPOLIS, Saturday, April 14, 2001 - The rookies for this year's Indianapolis 500-Mile Race call Johnny Rutherford and Al Unser "sir" and lean on every word they say about racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It's the respect seven ...
INDIANAPOLIS, Saturday, April 14, 2001 - The rookies for this year's Indianapolis 500-Mile Race call Johnny Rutherford and Al Unser "sir" and lean on every word they say about racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It's the respect seven Indianapolis 500 victories bring.
But this same group of fresh-faced newcomers who went through the annual Rookie Orientation Program Friday and Saturday never think that one time, long before they were born, J.R. and Al were wide-eyed rookies themselves.
It happened to Rutherford in 1963 and Unser two years later. Each has fond memories of their tests and what happened while they were struggling to make themselves eligible to compete at Indy.
Rookie orientation was different in those days. Harlan Fengler, the autocratic chief steward, ran the rookies through the four phases early in the month with the veterans running on the track at the same time. Three strips of tape - the "rookie stripes" - were placed on the tail of the car to alert the veterans to the newcomers' presence and the rookies also had to stay below a white line low on the track.
Both drivers thought they weren't going to make it, for different reasons.
Rutherford not only passed his test despite a spin during his final phase, but wound up with a wife to boot. Not many drivers of any era can say that.
"I was driving a Watson roadster with an Offy in it," Rutherford said.
"About the fourth lap, I got into the first turn a little bit high, pinched down and spun the thing. But the way it spun it didn't hit anything or didn't cause any problems other than the spin and the anxious minutes."
Rutherford stayed in the cockpit as the car was towed back to the pits. He climbed out of the cockpit and there stood Fengler wearing his attention-getting red hat.
"Harlan was the ruler in May around here, the guy who ran the show," Rutherford said. "His word was the law so he had sent some drivers home. He said, 'Go back, get some more experience and come back next year.'
"I got out of the car and walked over. And he said, 'You know what you did?' I said, 'Yes sir, I got in a little high, pinched it a little bit and spun.' 'Well,' he said, 'I'm going to set you down the rest of the day. You can finish in the morning.' The weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders."
Now, as Paul Harvey says, here's the rest of the story.
When Rutherford's car was pulled up to the north end of the track to begin his test, he had dropped his helmet in the cockpit.
"I looked up and there was this good looking little blonde standing at the fence with one of her nurse friends," he said. "I looked up and our eyes met and I winked at her. She says she waved, but she winked."
Now buoyed by Fengler's decision to allow him to finish his test, Rutherford strolled down the pits and into Gasoline Alley. Standing at the first aid station was this same blonde talking with her friends.
"The first thing I ever said to her was, 'Haven't I seen you someplace before?' That was our first meeting, we talked. That was the first of May. We were engaged the first of June and we were married July 7."
John and Betty Rutherford will celebrate their 38th wedding anniversary on this July 7.
Al Unser followed brothers Jerry and Bobby to the Speedway. He came with an aging Maserati owned by Californian Frank Arciero. "Harlan, sure he was an old crab," Unser said. "But he didn't put us through a hardship. "When I came here, they at first turned me down. They wouldn't even let me take a test. And if it wasn't for Rodger Ward, who was the driver's rep at that time, and my brother, I wouldn't have got to take the test.
"They finally said, O.K. I took off from there."
It was a different time then. Not many of the active drivers helped the rookies. Unser said they had worries of their own. Retired driver Freddie Agabashian and a couple of other former drivers provided him with advice.
"You rolled out there and went with everybody," Unser recalled. "You had to run below the white line. It was very rough and dangerous, because there wasn't very much room."
Unser remembers everything going well during his test. But it took some ingenuity by brother Louie, his chief mechanic, to get him through the four phases. The engine was leaking oil so Louie packed the belly pan with rags to sop up the oil.
"It was a shoestring operation," Unser said. "Frank put a big effort into it and so did we."
Just as Rutherford met his wife as a rookie, Unser also encountered good fortune, too. A.J. Foyt, already a two-time winner by 1965, was garaged across from him and was impressed with the way Unser handled the old Maserati and invited him to qualify and drive his second car in the race.
In a span of two years, the careers of two of auto racing's great drivers were launched.
Rutherford, though, wasn't so sure when he finally got on the track without the stripes.
"I went out, warmed the car up and got up to speed and finally got to use all the track and thought, 'Boy, it was great; just felt so much better,'" he said. "And I was out there running, going down the back straightaway. I thought, 'Here I am, King of the Hill,' and Rodger Ward went by me like I was painted on the fence. And I thought, 'What in the hell am I doing here?'"
Rutherford and Unser were part of two of the best rookie classes ever. Among those joining Rutherford were Jim Clark and Bobby Unser, who together would win the 500 four times. Part of Unser's group were Mario Andretti and Gordon Johncock, who would win three times. Each contingent accounted for seven victories.
Neither Rutherford nor Unser earned the rookie-of-year award. Clark and Andretti were drivers cited in those years.
"At that time, we didn't know (how good they were)," Unser said. "Everybody was trying to become a racer, something that they loved, and that's what we were doing."
Today, the job for Rutherford and Unser is to help the new names of the game through the learning process at the Speedway. Last year Juan Montoya became the first rookie to win the Indianapolis 500 since Graham Hill in 1966.
"There's a lot of good ones," Unser said.
"Again, the rookies, you can always say it's a good group, a medium group or a bad group. But you don't know until qualifying day, and then you really don't know until race day - you know, how many make the show and how they do in the actual race.
"That tells the story. There's where you separate the men from the boys, and you can really say they are or aren't."