IRL: Johnny Rutherford press conference transcript 2001-04-13

HOST: Mike King GUEST: Johnny Rutherford MIKE KING: Once again, it's great to have you here. This is a gentleman who needs really no introduction but I'm going to give him one anyway. A real legend here at the Speedway and in the world of ...

HOST: Mike King
GUEST: Johnny Rutherford

MIKE KING: Once again, it's great to have you here. This is a gentleman who needs really no introduction but I'm going to give him one anyway. A real legend here at the Speedway and in the world of motorsports, Lone Star JR, John Rutherford. Three-time winner here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in '74, '76 and again in 1980. In addition to his role as the pace car driver for the series when we're not here at the Speedway, on race day here for the 500 he joins me in the booth as our driver analyst on the worldwide network, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network. In addition to that, he acts as both driver coach, adviser, special adviser to the Speedway. You name it, he has his hand in an awful lot of pots and very valuable advice from a guy who understands this sport very well. I guess first, Johnny, let's get your take on day one of rookie orientation and how the nine drivers have done so far. You saw at least or you know what occurred in the Nicolas Minassian situation. Could you kind of let everybody know what happened there?

JOHNNY RUTHERFORD: Yes, the drivers are always impressive. It's gratifying to see these young men, some of them that have never been here, go out. It says a lot for the IRL formula, I think, because the engine and cars are so well matched. It's such a good combination that the car, set up properly, a young driver can go out and just automatically go quick. It takes a little time to get some laps around here and get comfortable. But this morning we've had several drivers get through most of their phases. Minassian had finished his and was going out to run some speed. Until they do a postmortem on a car and find out if there was anything wrong, it certainly appeared that he locked up a gear box or an engine or something happened to him; because he pulled over away from the wall and started leaving tire marks past the end of the pits, pit entrance, and slid quite some distance before it finally spun on him. He just scuffed the inside wall and then went across and plugged it into the outside wall pretty good. I've heard that he's doing okay, I guess, and had some wrist -- when he hit the wall on the outside, he hit it with the front of the car and that has a tendency, if you're hanging onto the steering wheel, to twist the wheel very hard if it grabs a tire and it works on the steering. So that's understandable. But from all of my experience here in looking at accident scenes and situations, I would say he probably -- something locked up in the car, the gear box in the engine, that caused him to do that. If it didn't, I don't know what caused it.

M.K.: You know, if you could, there's one young man here, one of the nine, Brandon Erwin from Denton, Texas, in a few ways has some things in common with Johnny Rutherford. A sprint car driver from the state of Texas who comes here says it's always been his dream. I think he's 25 or 26 years old. He's finished the first two races in the series, albeit a ways down the charts, but the bottom line is he's been running at the end of the first two races in the series this year. Can you look at a guy like that and identify with what he is going through this rookie orientation process?

J.R.: Well, obviously, yes, having been there, done that so to speak. It's like discovering a lost world coming to the Indianapolis Speedway after running in sprint cars, or any other kind of race car for that matter, because it's such a magnificent facility and so big and the speeds are so high. That's what Al Unser Sr. and I try to hammer into these guys before they get on the track is this is something different. This is the top of the mountain and this is where you go the fastest and get the biggest rewards for accomplishments. So to see someone come along like Brandon Erwin who is very dedicated -- I had the opportunity to give him his first driver's test at Texas Motor Speedway in Ft. Worth. He did a marvelous job. His times were within the bracket right on for the four phases and he accomplished his test without any problem. He suffers from what most young drivers today suffer from, that is they don't have the money following to be able to buy into a situation or start a situation where they could continue on with this. So he did what he could do easily the best, and that was they bought a sprint car. His dad bought a sprint car, I guess, or someone put him in their sprint car and he's become a winner in Texas racing in sprint cars. So he's proven himself there and he got that experience running on the dirt mostly. He has the opportunity now to come back. They've put some sponsorship together and he's running for the McCormack team; and he's gone out and done well. The first two races I hammered at him to just finish. That's what I tell all the new guys, just finish. If you don't finish, then you start getting a black mark on your record for crashing or whatever, unless the car breaks obviously. So he's done an exceptional job. He did a good job at Phoenix and he did a good job at Homestead. This is the first run here at the Speedway and he's gotten his three phases in, going to start this afternoon on his high-speed phase. I don't think he'll have any problem unless the car gives him any grief. But he's done a good job. All of the drivers, for that matter, have shown great aptitude and eagerness to get out and learn and learn the ground rules. This place has a lot of little bitty rules that you have to learn and remember about etiquette on the racetrack because the speeds are so high, the closing rate is so great. You can come off of the turn and check your gauges and look in the mirrors and nobody will be there; and by the time you get to the end of the back stretch, somebody will be there. I always tell them they didn't fall out of an airplane and just land there. They came from somewhere. So if behooves you to let them go, either that or get run over. There are a lot of little things they have to learn. It's enjoyable for myself and Al to watch these guys, the light come on and it just starts clicking and they start putting the two and two together and coming up with the right answer. It's a lot of fun.

M.K.: JR, last year you talked a bit about Juan Montoya and you said he had the quick hands and something special about him that you don't often see. We've seen Felipe Giaffone this year be very impressive in his first two outings. He was sixth at Phoenix and fourth last week at Homestead. Kind of give us an evaluation of this young guy because he seems to be pretty together for a rookie.

J.R.: He does. There are a lot of them, several of them that are very good. This is a personal feeling about Montoya. After watching him and seeing some things done. Of course, if you watched the Formula One race the other day last week on television or the week before maybe when he made that pass on Schumacher, I think that's a peek at the future from his abilities. I think he's another Ayrton Senna to be honest and Ayrton Senna was very good. I remember watching the track record he set in Japan at Suzuka. They had an in-car camera. And I've driven a lot of different race tracks and I've gone about as fast as anybody. To watch that, to see him approach a corner with that in-car camera, and I know it wasn't speeded up or anything, it would take your breath away. So I think that Montoya is out of the same bolt of cloth, because he shows the abilities. I think it's just a matter of him getting seat time over there and learning the cars and getting confident in his ability.

M.K.: I guess your reaction to the finish we saw between Sam and Sarah, a 21-year-old and a 20-year-old both out of the state of Ohio, kind of the, I guess, the perfect poster kids for what the Indy Racing League is all about.

J.R.: Well, that's probably an understatement. I think Sarah is due. I used to drive for Herb Porter, and I don't know how many of you ever knew Herb Porter, but Herb used to hammer at me and tell me if we can finish in the top three, we can win. Sarah has had two podium finishes, a third and a second. So she's due. I think she's due for a win. To see Sam pick up the slack, jump in the car and do what he's done, getting the valuable seat time and knowledge of winning -- you know, you can race and just finish at a lot of these things and you really don't know what it's like to win. When you win, that's all there is. Nobody ever remembers who finished second. So it's the ability that he's developing and the team that he has. Obviously, they have the communications, which is paramount. If you don't have communications in a business, you're not going to succeed. They have obviously developed that communications between the engineers and the crew chief that they know what he's saying and he knows what they're going to give him. So he goes out and does the job. But I think it's great, it's good for the Indy Racing League. I think it shows what the Indy Racing League is all about. That's developing young drivers; and we've got two of the best there and we've got a lot of them, a lot of great young drivers. Some of the older ones that are running -- Al Unser Jr. is the elder statesman now, that's hard to believe. But he's happier than I've seen him in several years. So I think that says another -- it's another gold star for the IRL in that they've come here and found a whole new, fresh race organization and racing situation. It's good. I think that says it all right there.

M.K.: Okay, questions for Johnny Rutherford?

On that same thing with the two drivers. Last year they came here as two kind of young -- I mean one was 19, one was 20 when they came here as rookies. A year later here they are coming back from a one-two finish in a major race on a long racetrack. What does that speak for young drivers?

J.R.: Well, I think it speaks more for -- I think it's always been there, Dick. I think the young drivers have always been there and the situation with -- I've got to call names here, CART, and the road racing aspect and kind of shutting the door on the young sprint car, midget driver, Silver Crown driver getting the opportunities has finally been dispelled. They said they couldn't drive rear engine independent suspension race cars. So that kind of put the kibosh on any new drivers making it in. The IRL came into existence and that was the aim and the principal goal, was to tap this here, you know, this source; and it's paid off. That's why we're seeing some younger drivers getting an opportunity that have been able to excel in sprint cars, midgets, Silver Crown or whatever, wherever they came from. I think that speaks good and that's good old American racing.

Did you anticipate last May that these two would be that successful?

J.R.: Yes, I think so. The fact that they came here and made their first race and did well in their tests and everything else, they were in a lineup of possibilities. It's gratifying to see them rise to the top like they have. I think there's some more out there. I think we're testing some here that possibly could be stars of tomorrow. It just takes the time and the seat time for them and the opportunity to figure out just how good they are. I think we have several that are in that category.

You are a three-time winner of this. You came here with a lot of open-wheel, short-track experience. When you get here, how long does it take to understand the track? You've got you and big Al advising, but can you learn it in one race or 50 laps or a hundred laps, or does it take you several years to figure out the nuances that are here?

J.R.: If you are a student of this place and you are dedicated to doing well here -- and this is like the old saying is, all the rest of the races they run all year are just practice for here. And to come here and do well, you have to be a student of this place. But you never, ever, I don't think, learn everything this old girl's got to throw at you. My 24 races here, my 40 years -- this is my 41st year here. I came here in '60 to watch my first Indy 500, so I've been coming here for 41 years. And to see everything that's happened and the transformation of this place from the Speedway that it was then and the wooden grandstands to this magnificent facility we have here is awesome. You learn something every day and -- no, I think you've just got to be a student of this place and respect her. If you treat her right, she treats you right. I've learned that.

Johnny, it seems like the younger drivers that are coming here now probably have pretty good mentors in you and big Al. Did you have that when you first came here?

J.R.: I did. Rodger Ward was my mentor and Tony Bettenhausen was my hero. I used to like to watch him run the sprint cars and dirt cars and he always had the mystique, the name here at the Speedway and on the championship trail. And Troy Ruttman helped me a lot and Jim Rathmann. They were all very helpful in giving pointers and tips. There are some that just kind of, you know, look down their nose at you. You know, kid, you're invading my territory or whatever the case may be. But in most cases I found that, no, they were willing to help because they've got to run out there on the track with you, you know; and if you're going to screw up, they don't want to be around you. But it was that way, sure. It behooves the elder statesmen and the guys that have been here to help the drivers and answer questions or give them tips or chew them out if they see them do something wrong so that they'll learn about this place and be able to rise to the top and maybe have a chance to win it some day.

How intimidating was it to deal with Harlan Fengler in the ROP? And do you and Brian kind of run it the same way that he did?

J.R.: I don't think anybody runs it the same way Harlan used to. I did my rookie test in a Watson roadster. We used to go to the north end of the pits to stage for the driver's test. Some of you may remember that. That's where all the tests emanated from. You all went out and ran your ten laps in the particular phase. On my final phase I went out and on my fourth lap I got into turn one just a little bit high and saw that big old 18-inch steering wheel and turned it in a little bit and pinched it and I spun. The line was just such that I spun to the head of the short chute and stopped. Boy, I thought that was it. Harlan was going to run me off back to Texas and I would never get to run this place. And I was walking -- or down at the car, they pulled it back in and stopped in our pit box. Harlan was there, you know, with his arms folded and that little red hat. And he said, 'Do you know what you did?' I said, 'Yes, sir. I went into one and I got it in a little high and I saw I was and I pinched it and spun.' He said, 'Well,' and he turned around like he was going to walk off and tell me that's it, kid, go home. And he said, 'Okay, you can come back in the morning. You've got to sit down the rest of the day but you can come back in the morning and finish it.' Boy, the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders. Some of you may know the story as it goes on, but I walked back through the garage area, the old Gasoline Alley entrance and my future wife was standing there. She was an RN on loan from Methodist Hospital out here. I had seen her at the fence earlier and I saw her. The first thing I ever said to her was, 'Haven't I seen you someplace before,' and started the conversation. That was the first part of May and we were engaged the first of June and married July the 7th.

Good thing you spun.

J.R.: I don't know about that. Thirty-eight years ago.

M.K.: We're going to wrap it up. It's just before 1:00 now. I have been told the lunch line is open. So JR, if you would like to join us.

J.R.: I've got to go back to work here in a little bit.

M.K.: Johnny Rutherford, thanks very much. We appreciate you being with us. We will reconvene here at 1:30 with Sam Hornish Jr. and John Barnes.

-IRNLS/IMS-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Felipe Giaffone , Al Unser Jr. , Brandon Erwin , Nicolas Minassian , Al Unser Sr. , Ayrton Senna , John Rutherford , Rodger Ward , Tony Bettenhausen , John Barnes , Sam Hornish Jr. , Johnny Rutherford