- March 12, 1938
- United States
- Not Active
Johnny Rutherford is a former American racing driver who won the 1980 PPG IndyCar World Series and scored three Indianapolis 500 victories in 1974, 1976 and 1980. He raced until the age of 54. His nickname was 'Lone Star JR'.
NASCAR and USAC racing career debut in the same year
Johnny Rutherford (full name John Sherman Rutherford III) was born on March 12th, 1938, in Coffeyville, Kansas. He started to race in 1959, driving modified stock cars in Dallas. In 1961, he entered IMCA (International Motor Contest Association) and in the following years he progressed to USAC sanctioned races.
Rutherford debuted in the NASCAR Grand National Series in 1963. His debut exceeded all expectations after he won the first race. It was the second qualifying heat race for the 1963 Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. Johnny was driving Smokey Yunick's Chevrolet, starting the main race from fourth place and finishing 9th.
The same year, Rutherford finished 14th in the USAC National Sprint Car Series and 10th in the USAC National Championship. The part of the National Championship was Indianapolis 500 and Rutherford participated for the first time, driving Ed Kostenuk's Watson-Offy and finishing 29th.
Rutherford was the USAC Sprint champion in 1965
In 1964, Rutherford competed again in the same three series as in the year before, but without notable results. He finished 27th at Indy 500 while winning the USAC National Sprint Car Championship in 1965, with seven wins and fourteen podiums in 20 races. In the USAC National Championship, he scored his first victory, at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and finished the season 12th in the point standings.
On April 3, 1966, Rutherford suffered a broken arm, a broken finger and a head injury in a serious crash at Eldora Speedway, after his car went out of the track. He missed the 1966 edition of the Indianapolis 500, making it the only Indy 500 he missed between 1963 and 1990.
From 1967 to 1970, he competed five times at Indy 500 driving an Eagle chassis, but his best finish was 18th place. In 1971, he switched to Brabham-Offenhauser of Michner-Patrick Racing, but again the results were disappointing, as he finished 27th.
The deal with McLaren produced instant results
In 1973, Johnny made a move which changed his career: he became a member of McLaren's team. Great results followed immediately: he won the pole position at the 1973 Indy 500 and finished 9th. One driver was killed during the practice and two more men died in separate incidents during the race.
Because of rain, the race was stopped after 133 laps (332.5 mile). Due to the tragic circumstances, weather problems and rain-shortened finish, the 1973 race was widely considered the worst year ever in the Indianapolis 500 racing history. Later in the year, Rutherford took two wins in the USAC National Championship and finished 3rd in the final standings.
Johnny progressed from 25th place to the first Indy 500 victory
The following year was maybe the best ever for Johnny Rutherford. He started the race from the 25th position and after twenty laps he progressed to Top 5. He won the race ahead of Bobby Unser, after his main rival AJ Foyt retired due to the leaking oil problem. In the 1974 USAC National Championship, Johnny achieved three more wins besides Indy 500 and finished as the runner-up behind Bobby Unser.
The season of 1975 was also successful. Johnny scored one USAC National championship win and finished second in the classification. He was also second at the 1975 Indy 500, behind Bobby Unser.
Rutherford was an Indy 500 winner in a shortened race
In 1976, Johnny was second in the USAC National Championship third year in a row, but the real success was achieved at Indianapolis 500. Johnny started from pole and won the race, which was one of the shortest Indy 500 races ever. He was leading when rain halted the race on lap 103. Two hours later, the race was about to be resumed, but rain fell again. USAC officials pronounced the results according to lap 102 and Johnny Rutherford was declared the winner.
Australian adventure ended with a crash
In October 1977, Rutherford had a one-off appearance at the Australia's most famous race, the Bathurst 1000 at the Mount Panorama Circuit. His co-driver was fellow Indy racer Janet Guthrie (who earlier that year had become the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500). They were sharing the V8-engined Holden Torana of Ron Hodgson Racing. Rutherford qualified 26th of 60 starters. His race didn't last too long because he crashed in lap 8, so Janet Guthrie didn't drive at all.
In the following three season of the USAC Championship, from 1977 to 1979, McLaren was using a Cosworth engine and results weren't as good as before. Rutherford's best Indy 500 finish in that period was 13th place in 1978. Results in the other USAC Championship races were better and Johnny took eight wins in three seasons.
Driving Chaparral 2K to third Indianapolis 500 victory
In 1980, a few important changes occurred. The championship was renamed to Indy Car World Series and Rutherford had a new team. He joined Chaparral Cars and dominated through the championship, winning the title with five wins in twelve races. Cosworth-powered Chaparral 2K was the winning car at the 1980 Indianapolis 500, which Rutherford started from pole and finished with half a minute advantage over Tom Sneva.
12 races in the 1981 NASCAR Winston Cup season
Rutherford competed with Chaparrals for two more seasons in two parallel series – USAC Gold Crown Championship and PPG Indy Car World Series, but he scored only one win. On the other side, he had the longest NASCAR Winston Cup season. In the previous years, he competed sporadically in NASCAR, but in 1981, he drove 12 races, which is the most races he had ever done in a single NASCAR season. In total, he recorded 35 NASCAR starts between 1963 and 1988, but never achieved any notable results.
The last Indy Car win scored in Michigan
In 1983, 45 years old Rutherford wasn't ready for retirement and he joined Patrick Racing for the Indy Car World Series and Indy 500. In the following years, he changed teams a few times but he spent the most time with Alex Morales Racing. He scored his last two Indy Car victories driving for Morales, at Sanair Super Speedway (Canada) in 1985 and at Michigan International Speedway in 1986.
Johnny was a popular TV and radio analyst
His last Indianapolis 500 race was the 1988 edition, driving for King Racing and finishing 22nd. Rutherford failed to qualify three times in the following years, so it can be concluded that his last qualifying effort in 1992 was in fact the end of his racing career, although he officially announced the retirement in May of 1994.
In the last years, he ran a part-time schedule and he focused on some other things. He worked as a television analyst on NBC, ABC, CBS and ESPN and a radio analyst on Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network. He also served as the pace car driver for the IndyCar series.