by Keith Courson
February 27, 1995
Third Indy 500 Elevated Rutherford Into A Whole New Group
When you win it three times, you become a legend.
Johnny Rutherford is just that.
The three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, who retired from racing in 1992, flew from sunny, 80-degree Fort Worth, Texas to cold, rainy Jamestown to guest speak at the 14th annual Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame Induction Dinner Monday night.
Before the activities got under way, Rutherford talked about some of his accomplishments and what he thinks of auto racing today.
“Lone Star J. R.” walked away with unforgettable Indianapolis 500 memories in 1974, 1976 and 1980.
It’s a great sense of accomplishment,” he said. “You have gone there for the month of May. You’ve put everything that you know and want to do on the line and if it all works out right… then it’s the greatest thrill in the world.”
The Indianapolis 500 is the most attended spectator event that there is in this country. Legends like Rutherford are one of the many reasons why.
“It’s the world’s greatest race. There is no doubt about that. Nothing even comes close to the Indianapolis 500,” he said. “Winning it the first time… you’re suddenly a piece of the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. To win the second time, it opens up another whole new set of doors in that you are special.” When you win it a third time, you are elevated into a whole new group. It’s exciting for the recognition that it gets.”
While the glory days as The Brickyard will always remain sensational thoughts to Rutherford and he is retired from active competition, he is still committed to the sport. He even hinted at a possible ownership within the PPG Indy Car Series someday.
“I still go to all the races and drive the pace car. I stay close to it because after 35 years of being involved as a professional racer it’s hard to walk away,” said the 1963 Indianapolis 500 rookie. “I enjoyed all my racing and what I have done and would hope that my expertise in the business would be of benefit to somebody and I can get involved in the same way with a team or even find sponsorship to do a team.”
Rutherford has a son who is just getting his racing career under way and without a doubt would like to someday have him drive for a team he manages or owns.
Starting a race team, however, is extremely difficult to accomplish today because of the economic burdens that the sport commands. A high profile sponsor has to be locked into a place to establish a contending team. If the sponsors decided to go away, so would racing.
In fact, many of the sponsorships in the PPG Indy Car Series and NASCAR Winston Cup Series are from the tobacco and alcohol industries.
“If the government decided to put a ban on advertising of tobacco products, for example, and you stop and think of all the teams and all of the series, all that are dependent on the tobacco industry for sponsorship, that would be devastating,” said Rutherford. “We’ve made ourselves so dependent on sponsorship.”
And, as sponsorship money comes in, there are more resources with which to test products and perform research and development. With that, technology improves and cars run faster. Competition becomes closer than ever and teams struggle to find an edge.
“It’s gone from a pretty basic simple race car to a very high tech, electronic, very intricate racecar,” he said. “Back in the old days, cars would break just as easily as they do today, but it costs so much more (today).”
Rutherford noted that you now have to have an electronics engineer on the team to read the data from the on-board computers on the car to determine set-ups. Crews have to be a lot more specialized because the cars are.
Consequently, due to the added costs and improved technology, car counts are down within the PPG Indy Car Series.
“I can remember years ago when we used to go to Milwaukee, the weekend after the Indianapolis 500 and I’ve seen 45 cars show up to qualify for 18 starting spots for a hundred-mile race.” added Rutherford. “Today, you don’t even get enough to fill a field, or what you should have.”
Meanwhile, the NASCAR Winston Cup series has no trouble filling a 40-car field today and last August when the Cup cars took to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the inaugural running of the Brickyard 400 that was won by Indiana native Jeff Gordon, many fans felt they didn’t belong there. There wasn’t room for stock cars at Indy. It just wasn’t right, they said.
Rutherford was also hesitant – at first.
“Initially, as a long-time fan and having run many years at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway… It was Indy Car territory. It was ours, he said.” After it’s all said and done, it was time for stock cars to come to Indy. When the end came – the last 50 miles – it got pretty exciting. I think it was a good show and it was well received.”
Rutherford and the Indy 500 go hand-in-hand. You can’t mention one without bringing up the other. Throughout the years, they’ve made history together.
“It’s is tradition,” he said. “You don’t buy tradition – you build it. It (Indy) has 79 years of tradition. The old saying ‘man’s love affair with the automobile,’ the mystique and the romance and the prestige of the Indianapolis 500…. I think that says it all.”
Indeed it does.
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