Where Are They Now? Johnny Rutherford

Published On May 23, 2013 » 2753 Views» By Jan Shaffer » Blogs, Where Are They Now?

Johnny Rutherford in 1980

He is an artist, doing all kinds of oil portraits, pencil drawings and other creative things.

He once owned two P-51 Mustang World War II fighter planes, in which his wife said he conducted a few “strafing runs” in isolated parts of Texas. He has taken rides with the Blue Angels, Thunderbirds, Canadian Forces Snowbirds, an F-15, an F-105 Thunderchief and others.

At one time, he was a TV analyst. And when he wasn’t busy with art and aviation and TV, Johnny Rutherford etched his name in the record books as the winner of three Indianapolis 500s.

“I do (miss it) very much, Rutherford said of his aviation enthusiasm. “It was the best release. You get up there and have a good time.”

Then he laughed about “strafing runs.”

“Down in Texas, there’s plenty of places to do that,” he said.

Rutherford knows his stuff about aviation. When INDYCAR started racing in 1996 at Walt Disney World Speedway, Rutherford grabbed two friends and took off for nearby Kissimmee when he heard there was an aviation museum there. He proceeded to be the “tour guide” for his friends.

Along with that, Rutherford, 75, and his wife, Betty, have worked endlessly for children’s charities both in racing and their home in Fort Worth, Texas. Betty was the leader of drivers’ wives in founding CARA Charities among the Indy car community and now is working on Speedway Children’s Charities at Texas Motor Speedway.

The Rutherfords always have been considered among the sport’s best ambassadors.

Johnny Rutherford always was a fan favorite at Indianapolis. But his first victory at Indy, in 1974, finally ended a long run of disappointment.

“It was a great thrill being involved with Team McLaren,” Rutherford said. “The atmosphere they exuded was to go to the track and win. We went to Milwaukee the next weekend and won again. Then we went to Pocono and won again. Three straight. And another big thing about Indy was that it was my 10th year there and the first time I finished 500 miles.”

In ’76, his second victory for Team McLaren was sponsored by HyGain, which manufactured CB radios, among other things. It came at a time in history when the speed limit was lowered to 55 mph, a guy named C.W. McCall made a record called “Convoy,” and people were swarming to stores to get CBs to avoid speeding tickets, joining a unique culture and becoming Robin Hoods of the “superslab” (Interstate highways).

It helps to avoid tickets when someone driving on the other side of the road says, “You got a Kojak with a Kodak (officer with radar) at the (milepost) 134.”

Rutherford spent time during May 1976 just talking to folks on the CB.

“It was a great opportunity to be in on something like that,” Rutherford said. “Everybody had a CB handle (nickname) and we were sitting around one day, someone said I had to have a handle, and someone suggested ‘Lone Star JR.’ Betty became ‘Yellow Rose.’ They were a fun bunch of people. I’d be driving around and identify myself as Lone Star JR, and somebody would always ask, ‘Rutherford, is that you?’”

In 1980, Rutherford got his third victory in a newfangled machine called the Pennzoil Chaparral, a cutting-edge car with ground-effects aerodynamics fielded by Jim Hall. It was called the “Yellow Submarine.”

“The Yellow Submarine was the future of Indy car racing,” Rutherford said. “It was the birth of ground effects, although Mario Andretti may have had some in Formula One in 1978. It put you in a whole new realm of aerodynamics.

“It was so great. It took me 10 years to win the ‘500’ for the first time, I broke my arms in a sprint car, and I had to keep going and looking for the right set of ingredients to do the job.”

Today, Rutherford serves as the pace car driver for the IZOD IndyCar Series and occasionally helps rookies. And he uses his “semi-retirement” to assist charities.

“It’s always good to be involved with charities and give something back,” he said. “It’s helping the kids. I do some speaking engagements with the Boy Scouts and organizations like that.”

Even with all their activities, the Rutherfords have had their fun through the years.

When the TV show “Dallas” was in flower with J.R. Ewing as the principal character, it sparked an idea. At Michigan International Speedway, Betty Rutherford walked out on the pit road wearing a T-shirt that said, “I sleep with the REAL JR.”

“Everybody got a good laugh out of it,” Betty said.


About The Author

I have seen 50 Indianapolis 500’s live, as a fan and in the media and motorsports PR business, plus two with Tom Carnegie’s son on closed-circuit TV in Kansas City when in college during the 1960s. I started my career as a sportswriter in Danville, Ill., Rochester, N.Y., and Pontiac, Mich., before moving into public relations in 1980. My PR stints took me from Michigan International Speedway to CART. I started Shaffer Communications in 1985 to handle media relations in auto racing and air shows and have worked with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in various capacities, including Daily Trackside Report editor and News Bureau editor, since 1986. My work travels also have taken me to the Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Alaska, Infineon Raceway in California and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, among other places. I’ve also survived working for A.J. Foyt at the Hoosier Hundred! I’ve flown an airplane (straight and level) and driven a sprint car on dirt and a midget on pavement (slowly, with few other people around).

what was the name of the two friends ? was one Stan Coppock

Rick Borden
Rick Borden

There are just not enough great adjectives or accolades to describe how much Johnny Rutherford has meant to racing or the Indy 500. My father and my mother saw him sail out of Eldora speedway and thought the worst had happened. This man is the epitome of perseverance and effort. Once he got with that McLaren team in 73 the die was cast. In actuality, his pole effort that year was even more incredible in that the Gurney Eagles were considered the better chassis to go with. In fact, 1972 winner Mark Donahue of Penske Racing dumped the Mclaren chassis in favor of the eagle. Johnny upset the eagle contingent with his pole run and darn near cracked 200 in the process. I really believe though, that the 1974 M16 chassis was his dream car and he probably would have won 3 straight Indy 500s with it had it not been for the rain in 75. In 76 he had passed AJ Foyt just prior to the race being red flagged for rain. The track dried and the projected restart was most likely one of those anticipated restarts in the history of the Indy 500. Foyt's crew used the delay to repair a broken sway bar which had previously made him a sitting duck. Everyone knew Foyt was hell bent on getting that 4th win but it rained again and the race was called. What might have happened had the race gone green again is a question that haunts many open wheelers to this day. The superior straight line speed of Foyt's coyote vs the superior cornering handling of Rutherford's McLaren. They had an epic duel in 74 running nose to tail for countless laps. I remember looking towards turn 4 waiting to see that orange McLaren ahead of that poppy orange coyote but ole JR just sat on the rear wing of Foyt's coyote. Johnny's McLaren pit crew that year had the measure of Foyt's crew and I seriously wonder if AJ didn't tear up his gearbox trying to make up for lost pit time as his gearbox did indeed put him out on lap 142. Whatever the case these two drivers gave a show to the fans. Its always fantastic to see Johnny at the speedway every year. I just cannot think of a better ambassador of Indy Car Racing or the Indy 500 than Johnny Rutherford. FYI: I share Johnny's love for aviation and became an Air Force Pilot and now an airline pilot. Thanks Johnny for the great racing and competitiveness you provided.

Bill Johnson
Bill Johnson

Thanks for the article, Jan! Love reading about old friends.