Legends of the 500: Johnny Rutherford

Published On March 5, 2016 » 2534 Views» By John Schwarb » Blogs, IMS, IMS History, Indy 500

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.

More Legends: Louis Meyer | More 100 days

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.

"Lone Star J.R." made his first Indy start in 1963.

“Lone Star J.R.” made his first Indy start in 1963.

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.

J.R. missed the 1966 race with broken arms sustained while sprint car racing.

J.R. missed the 1966 race with broken arms sustained while sprint car racing.

“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.

Rutherford's 1973 pole (alongside Bobby Unser and Mark Donohue) was a sign of several big years to come.

Rutherford’s 1973 pole (alongside Bobby Unser and Mark Donohue) was a sign of several big years to come.

The Pennzoil Chaparral "Yellow Submarine" would deliver Rutherford's third win.

The Pennzoil Chaparral “Yellow Submarine” would deliver Rutherford’s third win.


About The Author

John Schwarb

I joined the Indianapolis Motor Speedway communications team in July 2014 and love sharing stories from the World Capital of Racing, particularly its rich history. Most of my professional career has been in racing or golf, so if I'm not in the IMS media center, the office at 16th and Georgetown or milling around Gasoline Alley, maybe I'll be standing over a birdie putt at Brickyard Crossing. Follow us at @IMS or drop me a line at @JohnSchwarb and come back to the blog often for more stories.