Race car drivers reunite to celebrate Jim McElreath's 85th birthday

Posted Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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ARLINGTON -- Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, a white-frosted cake in hand, headed down the hall looking for a friend.

"Happy birthday, old man!" he called out, spotting his old racing buddy Jim McElreath in a living room recliner. "We didn't have room for all the candles."

McElreath, who turned 85 on Monday, grinned, shook Rutherford's hand and immediately said what was really on his mind:

"How about Danica?"

With that, the cake is momentarily forgotten and the men launch an insider's discussion of Danica Patrick becoming the first woman to win the pole position for the upcoming Daytona 500.

"We always talk racing," McElreath said. "We don't know anything else."

Such is life for two retired race car drivers. McElreath, once the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, met Rutherford in 1959 at the Devil's Bowl Speedway when it was still in Dallas.

So when Meals on Wheels of Tarrant County, which serves the McElreaths as clients, decided to throw him a birthday celebration, they knew who to call.

"There's camaraderie in racing," Rutherford said. "A lot of us keep tabs on one another."

Meals on Wheels generally only throws parties for clients 100 years or older, said Denise Harris, an organization spokeswoman. But McElreath's circumstances have touched case managers and employees, who wanted to celebrate him.

McElreath's wife of 61 years, Shirley, is bedridden from strokes suffered years ago. During the day, McElreath plays cards with her. At night, he sleeps in his recliner next to her bed in case she needs anything. He does this while trying to keep his own illness, leukemia, under control.

The McElreaths have known other tragedies in life. Their son, James, also an Indy car driver, died in a crash in 1977. Their daughter, Shirley, was killed in a small plane crash in Kentucky about 13 years ago.

Rather than hire someone to care full time for his wife, McElreath does most of it himself, Rutherford said.

"Jimmy has been relentless," Rutherford said. "It's incredible what he does."

McElreath's living room is decorated with photos, trophies and helmets from his and his son's racing careers. A framed March, 20, 1977, edition of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star with the headline "James McElreath Wins Class C" hangs on the wall.

McElreath raced for four decades, was named Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year in 1962 and entered the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 2002.

He and Rutherford can trade all kinds of great stories. They recall their early days of sprint car racing at state and county fairs, packing up McElreath's 1951 Ford pickup with a trailer and a Oldsmobile V8 engine (it could fly, they say) and heading to the Midwest to "try and make the big time."

Rutherford remembers watching McElreath take "a hell of a crash" on the first turn at Devil's Bowl. "That thing went end over end," Rutherford said. "It rung his bell."

McElreath recalls shaking California Governor and future President Ronald Reagan's hand after he won a race out West.

He and Rutherford drove cars in the 1969 racing movie Winning, which starred Paul Newman and Robert Wagner.

McElreath and Rutherford did a lot of the driving for the actors, but Newman put in some laps. "Newman could really go," McElreath said.

Before the celebration ended, the men were asked if it was difficult remaining friends over the years in a competitive sport like car racing.

They chuckle.

"Well, it depends on whether someone ever spins you out," Rutherford said. "Jimmy never did."

Alex Branch, 817-390-7689

Twitter: @albranch1

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