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'Lone Star JR' Never Tires of Visiting Hallowed Ground at IMS, Enjoys SVRA Role

As Indianapolis Motor Speedway thermometers ascended toward the 90s, a long line of autograph-seeking fans ignored the elements to get up close and personal with a pair of racing legends on a humid late Saturday morning.

Three-time Indianapolis 500 winners Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser always are eager to return to this famous track, which played such an integral part in creating their legacies. These 80-something racers are always at IMS in May. This visit, for the Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational, was a bonus.

Nobody looked and sounded more content than Rutherford, grand marshal for the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) event.

“This is home,” said Rutherford, the 80-year-old Texan from Fort Worth. “‘Back Home Again in Indiana.’ I know all the words and I can sing it all the way through. This is my second home.”

It’s the second time “Lone Star JR” has been an SVRA grand marshal, the other appearance in November for the U.S. Vintage Racing National Championships at Circuit of Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas.

But this couldn’t be more special because it’s Indianapolis, site of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

“I’ve been here for a long time and have truly enjoyed being here,” he said. “This place has done a lot for me, you know? I met my wife (Betty) here in 1963, when I was a rookie. We were married in July of 1963, so it was a hurried romance. We had to find a weekend when I wasn’t racing sprint cars somewhere.”

Rutherford recalled how they met. Betty was a registered nurse working at an infield first aid station. He spotted her when his car was being wheeled out for the final phase of his rookie orientation test. The second time he walked by, he gave her a wink. He recalled her winking back, but she always corrected him to say she waved.

“I met my wife here, the victories and the camaraderie in racing, it’s just been such a highlight every year of my life,” Rutherford said. “It’s something you look forward to every year, to come back and be a part of and see what it has to offer each time. It’s good.”

He appreciates how SVRA gives car enthusiasts the opportunity to restore old classics and race them. Unser served as honorary race steward Saturday for the Indy Legends Charity Pro-Am Presented by RACER Magazine. Twenty former Indy 500 racers, as well as NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott and road racing legend Ron Fellows, were in the field.

Considering the competitive contingent also includes 84-year-old Dick Simon in what he says will be the final race of his career, it’s not too much to suggest that Rutherford could still drive, too.

“Yeah, I think I could,” he said with a hearty laugh, “but I’ve been here and done that.”

Old-school racers from a different era are always confident.

“We all think so, I guarantee you,” Rutherford said.

JR is just happy to be back in any capacity. He jokes about how the drivers are going “the wrong way” clockwise on the 14-turn, 2.439-mile IMS road course as opposed to clockwise on the 2.5-mile oval.

But it's no joke how he sees this place.

“This is hallowed ground. This is the top of the mountain,” Rutherford said. “And it’s a grew view.”

Visit IMS.com to buy tickets, see the complete weekend schedule and for more information about the Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational. All kids 15 and under are admitted free Sunday when accompanied by an adult ticket holder.

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