NASCAR & Auto Racing

3-time Indy 500 champ Johnny Rutherford reflects on famed race

Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford is driving the pace car at the famed race for the last time on Sunday.
Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford is driving the pace car at the famed race for the last time on Sunday.

Johnny Rutherford is more than happy that he’ll forever be linked to the Indianapolis 500. That’s just the way it goes when a driver wins the prestigious event.

“In the beginning, I was introduced as Johnny Rutherford who raced at the Indy 500. And, ‘Wow, that’s something,’ ” Rutherford said. “Then when they introduce you as an Indy 500 winner, ‘Wow, really? That’s really something.’ Then you get the two-time effect and it’s stronger and better.

“And three-time? ‘Whoa.’ 

Rutherford, a longtime Fort Worth resident, is one of only 10 drivers to win the Indy 500 at least three times. He did it in 1974, 1976 and 1980 and certainly enjoyed the trademark glass of milk in Victory Lane.

Since retiring as a full-time racer, Rutherford, 78, has served as an honorary pace car driver at the race, and will do so once again Sunday at the 100th running of the famed race.

Rutherford will retire from driving the pace car after the race, and it will be a fitting farewell to a race that has meant so much to him. Rutherford talked to the Star-Telegram about the Indianapolis 500.

What makes this race special? Well, the fact that it’s 100 years old and this is the celebration of the 100th running of the Indy 500. There are not a lot of places that can say that. It was a fabulous fan favorite ... It is the top of the mountain. It’s where every young driver wanted to obtain — run in the Indianapolis 500. It’s changed a little bit now with NASCAR and other situations, but it’s still the Indy 500 and it is 100 years old.

Can you put in words why the tradition is what it is? It has so much history involved in it. The great names of racing who came here and made their mark, or didn’t make their mark. It has a storied history unlike any other. It’s a great place. I still get a little chill up my spine when I come up through the gate because of what it means and what it means to me. It’s great in and of its own self, its own character, its own things that happen.

What do you remember about your first Indy 500 win? Oh, gosh, it’s almost like it’s still surreal. It took me to my 11th try to finally pull it off. I had a great car with Team McLaren and it was my favorite race of the three. I dueled with A.J. Foyt, we went after it for half the race, and it was just one of those things where everything worked just right. I won the thing.

After winning the first, was the pressure off in getting the next two? It wasn’t so much pressure as it was figuring out, ‘Oh, that’s how you do it.’ It’s running hard, but you have to stay out of trouble and not do anything that’s going to cost you the race. And you do have to have some luck. Luck is where opportunity meets preparation, and with Team McLaren it was preparation and doing everything we had to do to put ourselves in position to win it. And we always went there to win it.

Do you still have ‘star’ status in Indy? Yes. Fortunately the fans here at the 500 don’t forget. They don’t let you forget, either, because you’re one of the guys they watched race here and enjoyed whatever you brought to the sport. And that’s the way it is. I can’t walk into the garage area without stopping and having autograph-seekers pile up. That’s the payback we get for accomplishing what we accomplished, and it’s great to see the fans and talk to them and sign their memorabilia and programs. It’s part of the business.

What has driving the pace car meant to you? It’s something that kept me close to the sport I loved and did so much for me over the years. This is my last, I’m going to retire after this race. Maybe I’ll try to do Texas since it’s home when we’re down there in June, but I’m through with these activities. It’s going to be tough, it’s been my life and it’s coming to an end, but I’ll figure something out. And I’ll still be back up here for future races as a three-time winner of the greatest race in the world.

Finally, could you ever imagine becoming a three-time winner as a youngster? My dad was in the Air Force and we moved around quite a bit when I was growing up. But we were living in Tulsa, Okla., and one Saturday night my dad took me out to the fairgrounds to the midget car races just after World War II in 1947 or so. I was 9-year-old at the time and just saw those painted cars and the engines and that’s what lit me up. I wanted to drive one of those things, and it’s been that way ever since. I found the opportunities and I took them and was able to climb the ladder to where I am.

Drew Davison: 817-390-7760, @drewdavison

Indianapolis 500

11 a.m. Sunday, WFAA/Ch. 8

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