Johnny Rutherford, dubbed ‘Lone Star JR’ dues to his Texas heritage, is one of only nine men to have won the Indianapolis 500 three times or more. Rutherford’s Indy victories came in 1974, ’76 and ’80.
Born in Kansas in 1938, Rutherford began racing modified stock cars in 1959 and he actually won his first NASCAR-sanctioned race in 1963 capturing one of the twin 125-mile qualifying races for the Daytona 500. That was the same year he made the decision to switch to Indy cars.
“My first dream was to go run the Indianapolis 500, and I came up through sprint cars and midgets and stock cars to get there,” Rutherford recounted. “I had a great opportunity to stay in NASCAR with Smokey Yunick when I raced stock cars in 1963, but my passion was to go to Indianapolis and that’s where I went and have been a part of it ever since.”
Rutherford’s early reputation in Indy cars was that of a crasher, earning him the alternate nickname ‘Wreckaford.’ Indeed, he failed to finish the Indianapolis 500 in his first nine attempts, though he scored his first Indy car race win at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1965. He finally saw Indy’s checkered flag by finishing ninth in the rain-shortened 1973 race after starting from pole position with a record qualifying speed of 198.413 mph.
JR had joined McLaren prior to the 1973 season and they combined for seven successful seasons. At Indianapolis in 1974, Rutherford blew an engine on Pole Day and had to start 25th despite posting the second fastest speed in the 33-car field. The McLaren-Offy was fast in race trim too, allowing Rutherford to lead 122 of the final 136 laps on the way to the biggest win of his career to date.
Rutherford was again a front-runner at Indianapolis in 1975, but he was running second to Bobby Unser when rain ended the race after 435 miles. But inclement weather worked in Rutherford’s favor a year later when he was out in front when the 1976 race was called after just 255 miles with Rutherford out in front. It was the shortest Indianapolis 500 in the history of the race.
“I’m proud and happy to win, but I would have liked to race for it,” commented Rutherford from Victory Lane. He had started from pole position.
Rutherford and McLaren struggled at Indianapolis during the remainder of the 1970s. He joined Hall Racing in 1980 to take over development of the Chapparal 2K chassis that had shown so much promise in the hands of Al Unser in 1979.
Rutherford won the 1980 season opener at Ontario Motor Speedway (an Indianapolis clone) and he dominated the Month of May 1980, earning pole position and leading 118 laps to claim his third and final Indy 500 victory. In all, JR won five races and the 1980 CART IndyCar championship.
“When McLaren pulled out of Indy car racing, I got the job with Jim Hall and the Chaparral,” Rutherford said. “Jim was a thinker. Things occurred to him during his driving career that made him an innovator. What he came up with was a better way to do it – and he beat everybody doing it.
“Driving the ‘Yellow Submarine’ was my crowning glory because the car was so good and the fans loved it so much. It was really a dream come true.”
Rutherford stayed with Hall through the end of 1982. He then entered a fallow period of his career, though he managed to win Indy car races at Sanair Speedway (1985) and Michigan International Speedway (a 500-miler in 1986). His last full season of Indy car competition came in 1987.
However, Rutherford continued to run at Indianapolis into the 1990s. His final start came in 1988 and he failed to qualify in 1989, ’90 and ’92. Rutherford announced his retirement from driving in May, 1994 and drove a ceremonial lap of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the same manner (and the same 1993 Lola) that fellow Texan AJ Foyt did one year earlier.
Rutherford won a total of 27 Indy car races, and following his retirement, he accepted a position with the Indy Racing League as pace car driver and driver coach. He remains a popular member of the IndyCar Series community.
“I enjoyed it thoroughly and my three victories at the Indianapolis 500 were obviously the highlight of my career,” Rutherford recalled. “Being one of nine drivers to win it multiple times is very special.”