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My Favorite Car: Johnny Rutherford

Note: This continues a series of interviews with Indianapolis 500 legends about the favorite car they drove in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and why, in their words. “My Favorite Car” interviews will appear at on Mondays through the spring. Read other installments of "My Favorite Car" here.

Q: What was your favorite car you drove in the Indianapolis 500?

Johnny Rutherford: I have to admit to two cars that I liked at the Speedway, but they were in different categories. The M16 McLaren that I won two races in (1974, 1976) was a flat-bottom car. It didn’t have the aerodynamics that the Chaparral had. That was a great race car, won me two races at Indy. Then, of course, the Chaparral was the first true ground-effects car, and it was a whole new realm. It put you into a whole different world.

Q: But if you had to choose between those two?

JR: If everybody had a flat-bottom car, I would take the McLaren. If we were the way we were with the Chaparral, I’d have to pick it. That would be a hard one for me to do. But then again, the fans loved the Yellow Submarine, and it had to be one of my favorites. The car was very good everywhere we went. It won me the national championship in ’80, so you’ve got to lean that way. But if you had two different worlds, the M16 was the leader in the one, and the Chaparral was the leader in the other.

Q: When you first tested the Chaparral, was it immediately apparent that this was unlike any other car you had driven?

JR: No. To be quite honest, on the initial runs, I was quite disappointed. If you recall, Al Unser drove the car the year previous, and he won the last race of the season, at Phoenix, with the car. When Jim (Hall) hired me and we went to Phoenix for my first run in the car, they set it up like Al drove it and won the race. I couldn’t drive the thing. It scared me to death. It just didn’t do things the way I had been doing it at McLaren. Fortunately, I had Steve Roby with me, who had been at McLaren and knew what I liked in a chassis and in a car. And before the day was over, we were doing two seconds a lap faster than the track record. Thank goodness for Steve and Jim putting their heads together and figuring out what to do. But it was a whole new realm. Had it been a symmetrical racetrack, I could have driven it flat-footed all the way around the thing on the mile. It was incredible.

Q: What differed between Al’s driving style and your style that you had to dial out that test day in Phoenix?

JR: They ran the car a little soft, and it rolled and took sets. I always liked to have stiff springs, stiffer springs and lower the car to take advantage of all of the aerodynamics, the ground effects. What we had in the McLaren wasn’t anything like what it was in the Chaparral because of ground effects. Steve Roby knew that, and he started changing things. And there some other things with the bodywork that was a problem. It was just a matter of testing. That’s why we were there.

Q: Was there any point during May 1980 where you struggled with the Chaparral?

JR: After the races that we ran prior to Indy, we had a pretty good handle on the car. It was just good right off the truck. It makes my job a lot easier.

Q: You won by 30 seconds yet there were 13 caution periods. It almost seems like you could have lapped the field if the race was cleaner. Agree?

JR: I had a great teacher in Herb Porter, who was one of the best engine men around. He had raced Indy cars for a number of years. I learned a great deal about running Indianapolis-type cars from Herb Porter. He always said any time you can rest the car, do it because it will help in the long run. If I had a substantial lead and they told me on the radio I had a straightaway lead, I would just kind of relax through the corner a little bit and save the car. And it worked every time.

Q: Did you ever feel any more dominant in a race car than in the 1980 Indianapolis 500 in the Chaparral?

JR: Here we go again to the two different categories, the flat-bottom M16 McLaren and the ground effects Chaparral. I had a better run in the McLaren in ’74 when I started 25th in the field and in 12 laps, I was running third. So, you’ve got a pretty good race car that works like that. I just passed them as I came to them. It was incredible. Then A.J. (Foyt) and I got to put on a battle. That was probably my favorite race of the three that I won. It was good because I raced with A.J., and everything worked in my favor.

Facts about Johnny Rutherford’s 1980 Indianapolis 500 car:

Car name: Pennzoil Chaparral/Cosworth
Car number: 4
Team: Chaparral Racing, Ltd.
Qualified: First
Finished: First
Laps Completed: 200
Laps Led: 118
Status: Running
Johnny Rutherford career ‘500” starts: 24 (1963-65, 67-82, 84-88)

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