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'Lone Star JR’ Ends Long Hiatus, Savors Return to Driver's Seat in Charity Pro-Am at IMS

Old racing instincts return rather quickly, even two decades removed from when Johnny Rutherford last drove “a car with any poke.”

But three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rutherford soon realized Saturday afternoon that his 1968 Chevrolet Corvette Roadster wasn’t going to let him accelerate as much as he was used to coming out of the corners on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 14-turn, 2.439-mile infield road course.

The 81-year-old legend was driving an old car in a different direction than his glory years, with tires that didn’t grip like those of an Indy car.

The slippery situation made for a bit of a wild ride as Rutherford teamed with car owner Clair Schwendeman to finish fourth in the B class and eighth overall in the Vintage Race of Champions (VROC) Charity Pro-Am presented by Chopard Watch. The 50-minute race was the feature event for the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association’s (SVRA) Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational.

“I enjoyed that. The more you run, the more you learn,” Rutherford said, still seated in the car. “I’m glad (Schwendeman) told me it was slippery because I might have done a whoop-de-do.”

“Lone Star” JR’s face was flush from the heat. He cooled his neck with an ice pack and sat back behind the wheel, apparently in no hurry to climb out, due to the pure enjoyment of driving.

“It’s been a tremendous honor to have him in the car,” said Schwendeman, 60, of Dallas. “I think he had moments when he wasn’t so sure it was fun, but he’s had fun. He’s a fabulous gentleman. I hope he comes back next year.”

Rutherford clutched the wheel again. On his right hand, he wore the last of his three Indy 500 checkered flag winner’s rings for his 1980 triumph in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

“He’s worn that all weekend,” Schwendeman said.

Schwendeman has owned this vintage vehicle for a decade and has enjoyed racing on the SVRA circuit with retired INDYCAR drivers Scott Harrington and Richie Hearn as previous teammates. But to see someone like Rutherford in his car had the owner beaming.

“It’s good,” Rutherford said before pausing to chuckle. “In fact, I might even consider coming back now that I know how things go.

“This is a good car, good people. We could do a couple of things to it to make it work a little better out there. It was oily. It was slippery. If you tried to lean on it at all to get off a corner or anything, it would just (whistles). But I learned a whole lot about the road course running it.”

Truth be told, it didn’t take long for those racing instincts to return.

“You never forget,” he said. “It’s just been so long since I’ve been in a car with any poke to it. It was 20 years ago. Now that I’ve done this … (laughs) … I might get him to let me run with him at the next one.”

As SVRA celebrated race winners overhead in Victory Lane, Rutherford finally stepped out of the car. In doing so, he spotted a familiar face with the IMS Safety Patrol.

“How ya’ doin’? I thought you retired?” he said to his old friend.

Rest assured, the same can be said for Rutherford, although he sounds somewhat eager to race a vintage car again. Schwendeman said his legendary teammate has an open invitation.

“Where’s your next race?” Rutherford said.

“Watkins Glen,” Schwendeman said.

“Oh, I like Watkins Glen,” Rutherford said.

They both smiled.

“You might become my new enduro co-driver,” Schwedenman said.

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