We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With 85 days to go, we look back at one of the race’s most enduring champions.
Johnny Rutherford is one of the Indianapolis 500’s greatest champions by virtue of his three titles in 1974, 1976 and 1980 – but no other Indy legend took so long to start being, well, legendary.
Rutherford made a name for himself in early 1963, winning a Daytona 500 qualifying race the very first time he wheeled a stock car. He would finish ninth in the Daytona 500, ahead of Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt, Jim Hurtubise.
His Indy debut later that year was less memorable, as he qualified 26th and finished 29th. The next two years weren’t any better (27th and 31st), then he missed the 1966 race while recovering from two broken arms sustained while defending his sprint car championship.
If that accident hadn’t happened, might he have succeeded at Indy sooner? Rutherford had impressed later in 1965 in winning a 250-mile Indy car race in Atlanta that was considered somewhat of an upset, and he was set to race in the ’66 “500” in a good Leader Card entry.
“So it took him like three or four years to get back where he was,” Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian Donald Davidson said.
Rutherford earned his first front-row start in 1970, then landed a great ride in 1973 with McLaren. He put it on the pole that year, then in 1974 at age 36 began his great three-year run of first-second-first – 11 years after his first appearance at Indy.
McLaren got out of Indy car racing after 1979 but Rutherford had another piece of good fortune when Al Unser walked away from Jim Hall’s Pennzoil Chaparral – the “Yellow Submarine.” J.R. jumped in, was the runaway favorite from 1980 and didn’t disappoint in winning from the pole. (Rutherford also won from the pole in the rain-shorted 1976 race.)
After 1980, Rutherford made seven more starts but never mounted a serious charge at becoming a four-time winner, infact he would never finish all 200 laps again. But his legendary status was stamped from 1973-80 with three poles and three wins.
It was worth the wait.