Johnny Rutherford (IndyCar Photo)
Johnny Rutherford (IndyCar Photo)

Rutherford Shares Thoughts On Foyt, Dixon & Many More

INDIANAPOLIS – In a career that began with the 1962 Hoosier Hundred racing a USAC Champ Car owned by Fred Sclavi, to his tearful retirement on a practice day for the 1994 Indianapolis 500 behind the wheel of an A.J. Foyt Racing entry, Johnny Rutherford remains a legend.
 
The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner with victories in 1974, ”76 and ’80 won a combined 27 races in both USAC and CART and one IndyCar National Championship in 1980. He also drove a Smokey Yunick Chevrolet to victory in a NASCAR Cup Series race at Daytona Int’l Speedway in 1963, when the qualifying races counted as official Cup Series wins. He also won countless midget and sprint car races in his career.
 
The man from Coffeyville, Kansas would later move to Fort Worth, Texas and become “Lone Star JR.” What made Rutherford’s career so impressive, is he raced against some of the greatest drivers in the history of the Indianapolis 500 and in IndyCar.
 
Here are Rutherford’s thoughts on the great drivers that he actually competed against, along with two of today’s most accomplished drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series.
 
SPEED SPORT: We have to begin with your buddy A.J. Foyt. A lot of people consider him to be the all-time greatest. What does Johnny Rutherford think of him?
 
Johnny Rutherford: “I think the same thing. AJ was very good. He knew when to, and when not to. He had his time, and we all did back then. He had crashed at Michigan and could have lost his arm, but they saved it with the terrible cut in it. AJ was very good. He was always good to me. We talked a lot, and he had a couple of cars I drove for him during that period.
 
“He’s just a dear friend. We still talk a lot. He was “The Best.”
 
SPEED SPORT: Mario Andretti
 
Rutherford: “Mario Andretti, obviously his record stands for him. He was a very good driver. At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Mario Andretti could have been a five-time Indy 500 winner. He was always leading and running well. But he drove the car into the ground. That was the one thing that you noticed, he just wouldn’t back off and save the car. I learned that from Herb Porter. Herb said when you are out there running, you have to take care of your car. If you can breathe the engine a little bit in the corners, and do things to try and save it, I learned that a long time ago and always thought that of Mario.
 
“That doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great driver.”
 
SPEED SPORT: Al Unser
 
Rutherford: “Al Unser was always one of the best. I’ve always said if I was a car owner and I wanted a driver, I would hire Al Unser. Al was good. He proved himself good on the dirt, which surprised everybody that he was able to manage the dirt as well as the pavement, but he was good. He was a four-time Indianapolis 500 winner who knew when to and when not to.”
 
SPEED SPORT: Bobby Unser
 
Rutherford: “Bobby Unser was very good, bless his heart. He and I came together at the Speedway in 1963. He was a rookie, and I was a rookie. On the second or third lap he crashed in the first turn. But he was good.
 
“It’s kind of funny, after the 1975 race I was interviewed and said if it hadn’t rained, I would have won the race. Oh, Bobby was upset at that. He was mad. He let it be known.
 
“The next year, we were at a Goodyear party and Bobby was there and he talked and said he was glad to win and so forth. I got up and said, ‘Next year, five years, 10 years and 20 years, if you look at the record books, it will say Bobby Unser is the winner. That’s the way it was.’ We walked down pit lane and I felt this hand on my shoulder. He looked at me and smile at me and shook me and that was it. We were good friends again.”
 
SPEED SPORT: Rick Mears
 
Rutherford: “Rick Mears is a good driver. To come from where he did in off road racing and get into Indy cars and perform the way he did as a four-time Indy 500 winner. He is another one of the good ones. He was very precise. He knew when to and when not to. He was good. Very good. We are still dear friends and see each other at the Speedway and around. He is the guy that won it four times and had a great drive.”
 
SPEED SPORT: Gordon Johncock
 
Rutherford: “Gordy was very good. He drove like nobody else I know in that he pushed so hard. He won the Indianapolis 500 twice. He had problems at other places. He was driving for McLaren when they hired me. Pat Patrick wanted him as a Michigan driver to drive for him. Gordy went over there, and I went over to drive for McLaren.
 
“Gordy is a neat guy. He has a logging business in Michigan. He is fun to be around. He is a happy guy. I don’t think he quite realized he won the race twice. He was good. He was as good as they come. When you had to race Gordon Johncock, you better be ready to race.”
 
SPEED SPORT: Tom Sneva
 
Rutherford: “Tom Sneva is a good driver. He learned in different types of racing, and he won the Indianapolis 500 in 1983 after he went through some horrendous crashes and things and made it. I used to say it was always fun to follow him at Phoenix and watch him because he drove the wheels off everything that he drove. He was a good driver and when he had the right equipment, could show everybody what he could do.”
 
SPEED SPORT: Lloyd Ruby
 
Rutherford: “Lloyd Ruby was a dear friend. We used to spend Christmas with Lloyd and his family and Ebb Rose and his family at Ebb’s place in West Texas. Lloyd was a smart, heady driver. He was successful in sports cars, Indy cars. I don’t think he drove Sprint Cars very much, but he was good. He helped me get into my first Indy 500. He told me about the car he had tested and what worked. Just before I went out to qualify in that car, Lloyd came over and said, ‘Rutherford, don’t you let us Texans down. Get out there, do what you can do and get her done.’”
 
SPEED SPORT: Dan Gurney
 
Rutherford: “Dan was something. He was an engineer and designed and built the Eagle, which was one of the better cars at the time at the Speedway. The first time I ever met Dan was in that little restaurant in the Tower Terrace as you go out to the track. I went in and was behind him in line. Somebody introduced me to Dan, and we shook hands. Dan was looking for something to eat and found a piece of Apple Pie.
 
“I will never forget; he ate that piece of Apple Pie in two bites. He took the dish to the lady and charged him for it. That was my first recollection of Dan Gurney.
 
“In 1978, when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway kicked a bunch of us out because of the difference between CART and USAC, we were in the courtroom for our chance to tell our story. Dan and I sat together. We learned to talk without moving our mouth. He would ask, ‘What do you think is going on?’ without moving his lips. I said, ‘I don’t know, Dan.’
 
“We got reinstated and every time Dan and I got together, we would talk with our mouth closed. We did that a lot.”
 
SPEED SPORT: Parnelli Jones
 
Rutherford: “If you had to line them up and say pick the best three, it would be AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones and Mario Andretti. Parnelli was really good in sprint cars. Racing with him a lot in sprint cars. He was the first one to go 150 miles an hour at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a Roadster. He had a lot of talent. Anything he drove, he drove it ten/tenths. He was really very good and a dear friend.”
 
SPEED SPORT: Al Unser Jr.
 
Rutherford: “Al is a good driver. He had some problems during his career and that is the way it was during that time in our careers. He’s good. He has settled down and I think the world of him. The Unsers were like brothers to me. He is a good guy. I really like Al Jr.”
 
SPEED SPORT: Don Branson
 
Rutherford: “Don was a dear friend. We spent time together with our families. We went fishing. He was a very good driver, sprint cars especially and Indy cars. We raced together in St. Paul, Minnesota on the paved half-time track there at the fairgrounds. That was in 1965. I won both of them and Don raced me so hard. He came over to me after the second one and said, ‘I’m not going to show you anymore because you already know too much.’ That thrilled me to no end to have Don Branson say that about you.
 
“Don was the guy that when he qualified on the mile, everybody dropped their tools and stood up on something to watch because he really stood on the gas.
 
“It was sad when he got killed at Ascot Speedway in California. I’ve always wondered what happened because it wasn’t Don to drive it off into the corner, straight into the wall, not turn, crash and die.”
 
SPEED SPORT: Helio Castroneves
 
Rutherford: “Helio is a great, great young man. He so wanted to get that fourth one, he had to keep trying. I’m so happy when he did. I met him in the middle of the front straightaway on his way to Victory Lane. He threw his arms up and we hugged each other. I asked, ‘Are you going to talk to us anymore? You’re a four-timer.’
 
“He laughed and said, ‘You can count on it.’ He’s a good driver. He drives sports cars. He drives everything and does well. He deserves to win that fourth Indy 500, for sure.”
 
SPEED SPORT: Scott Dixon
 
RUTHERFORD: “Scott is one of those guys that does what he has to when it’s time to do it and he wins. He is very good. He doesn’t push the effort early in the race and he is calculated. He knows what he is going to do, and he does it. He has proved that with his victories and championships.
 
“He is one of the best in the group now and from whence he came.”

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