Lone Star J.R. Given A Texas-Sized Party

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 12 2018

Legendary driver Johnny Rutherford was given an 80th birthday party in Texas. The party came complete with a ‘Yellow Submarine’ cake.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas – Open-wheel legend Johnny Rutherford is celebrating his 80th birthday today with some cake that, appropriately enough, has a few miles on it.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 champion was feted during Texas Motor Speedway’s annual Media Day program at The Speedway Club on Feb. 28. Rutherford, who lives in the River Oaks section of Fort Worth, attended the session after receiving a personal invitation from TMS President Eddie Gossage to come on up and do lunch.

TMS’ media relations staff assembled video clips from past and current Indy car drivers _ including fellow-Texan A.J. Foyt Jr.,  Al Unser Jr. and Helio Castroneves _ wishing “Lone Star J.R.” a great day. None of the messages was more to the point than Foyt’s, first four-time winner of the Indy 500. A fierce rival of Rutherford’s during the 1970s at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, team-owner Foyt later provided several cars for Rutherford as his career wound-down.

“Johnny, who would ever think we’d make 80-years-old? I damn sure didn’t,” Foyt, who turned 83 on Jan. 16, said a message that drew laughter from a crowd of TMS season-ticket holders and media. The audience saluted Rutherford by singing “Happy Birthday,” with the best surprise saved for last.

Erika Bridges, owner of Confections in Cake in Burleson, presented a custom-designed cake that’s a replica of Rutherford’s famed No. 4 Pennzoil Chaparral. Fielded by fellow-Texan Jim Hall of Midland, Rutherford drove the revolutionary car nicknamed the “Yellow Submarine” to his third Indy 500 victory in 1980, as well as the Championship Auto Racing Teams and U.S. Auto Club championships.

“If A.J. were here today, we would talk and he’d look at me and I’d look at him and we’d break out in a grin and laugh and he’d say, ‘Hey Rutherford, we made it!’^” Rutherford said.”So many of our friends over the years didn’t make it, and you didn’t use to think that race drivers would be over 30-years-old. I was still racing Sprint Cars when I was 45, and it’s desire _ what you want to do and accomplish.”

Born in Coffeyville, Kan., in 1938, Rutherford competed in Indy car’s “Golden Era”

Starting on the front row of the 1980 Indianapolis 500 were three American auto racing giants: Bobby Unser, Mario Andretti and Johnny Rutherford.

against Foyt, aka “Super Tex,” Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, Rick Mears and Big Al and Bobby Unser.

Rutherford’s Indy 500 wins in 1974 and 1976 driving for Team McLaren led to several network TV gigs as color commentator and ambassador for Indy car racing. In addition, wife Betty was among the first women to break tradition by logging timing and scoring for her husband in the pits.

While his win in the Chaparral stamped Rutherford as a “Legend of The Brickyard,” the car was not necessarily his favorite. “It was a different world because of the downforce and aerodynamics of the thing,” said Rutherford, who replaced Al Unser Sr. in the Chaparral after the 1979 season. “Probably the M16 McLaren (1973-76) was the most fun to drive because you could drift it around pretty hard. The ground effects on the Chaparral, it just stuck. It put a whole new physical challenge on you.”

In recent years Rutherford remained connected to sanctioning body INDYCAR as tutor to the annual crop of drivers participating in IMS’ Rookie Orientation Program, while also serving as the Verizon IndyCar Series’ official pace car driver.

“Hey Johnny! Wow! 80? No, it can’t be 80. You look like what, 50s,” three-time Indy 500 champion Castroneves said in his video clip. “It’s incredible. We’ve known each other for a long time and I wish you all the best. From one three-time Indianapolis 500 winner to another, I wish you great happiness and hopefully I’ll see you in Texas supporting my Team Penske on the Indy car side.”

The Verizon IndyCar Series will visit TMS and its 1.5-mile oval for the annual DXC Technology 600 night race on Saturday, June 8, where the winner will receive the Foyt/Rutherford Trophy.

“What can I say to the guy that won his first Indy 500 the year I was born (1974) and the guy that has the most beautiful autograph I’ve ever seen?” said Tony Kanaan, who won the Indy 500 in 2013 and is in his first season of driving for A.J. Foyt Racing. “Happy Birthday. I hope I can make it as long as you have and be as good-looking as you are.”

Second-generation star Graham Rahal, son of 1986 Indy 500 champ Bobby Rahal, added, “Happy Birthday, my friend. You’re a legend, you’re an icon. You were there for me from the beginning with my rookie orientation at Indianapolis in 2008. Thanks so much for what you’ve done for Indy car racing.”

Rutherford, who logged 27 career Indy car wins, is one of only nine drivers to have won the Indy 500 three times or more. A member of the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame at TMS and six other national and international motorsports halls of fame, Rutherford said he was caught off-guard by the ceremony.

“I had no idea and that’s magnificent,” said Rutherford, whose family moved to Texas in the early 1950s. “What a great tribute and I can’t thank those guys enough for their kind words. It’s always fun to come to Texas Motor Speedway and this is another visit that I won’t soon forget. What a great day. My plan is to go to 100, so in 2038 I’ll be back here wishing you guys luck in whatever you’re doing. I appreciate it.

“The one thing I hate about this place is that they built it after I retired. This is my kind of racetrack.”

Meanwhile, Rutherford confirmed he will be honored by the Road Racing Drivers Club during an “RRDC Evening with Johnny Rutherford presented by Firestone” in Long Beach, Calif., on Thursday, April 12. RRDC’s 10th consecutive annual banquet honoring auto racing’s most influential leaders will be held prior to the 44th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Verizon IndyCar Series street race.

Previous honorees include Hall, Andretti, Jones, Dan Gurney, Roger Penske, Brian Redman, George Follmer, Emerson Fittipaldi and Bobby Unser. “It’s a wonderful group,” Rutherford said. “I’m truly honored almost to the point of questioning, why?”

Rutherford began racing Modified stock cars in 1959. He won his first NASCAR-sanctioned race in 1963, capturing one of the Twin 125-mile qualifying races for the Daytona 500 driving for legendary car-owner/mechanic Smokey Yunick. That victory made him the youngest NASCAR race-winner at that time.

Two years later, Rutherford won the USAC Sprint Car Championship. He made national headlines the next year when he broke both arms after his car flipped over the fence and out of Eldora Speedway.

Rutherford’s breakthrough at Indy came in the mid-1970s, when he delivered two Indy 500 wins and a second place over three consecutive years for Team McLaren. He was an accomplished road-racer as well, piloting a Porsche 935 to a second-place result in the 1978 Daytona 24 Hours.

“Johnny has always been a tough, accomplished racer on the track and an absolute gentleman off the track,” Bobby Rahal said in his role at RRDC president. “He always has time to sign an autograph or pose for a selfie. He’s been the ultimate ambassador for our sport and the RRDC is privileged to honor him in Long Beach.”

The Road Racing Drivers Club was formed in 1952 as an initiative to give champion drivers a voice in their sport, particularly in the area of safety, and has evolved to serve the future of road racing by mentoring new drivers on both amateur and professional levels. Club membership includes industry professionals, race officials and motorsports journalists, in addition to prominent racing names. Rahal is joined on the executive staff by John Fergus as vice president/treasurer and Tom Davey, secretary.

In 2011, RRDC launched a free on-line training seminar _ SAFEisFAST.com _ featuring RRDC members and industry experts in high-quality videos covering subjects from physical and mental preparation to driving techniques, driver safety to car setup and sponsorship. The videos are updated regularly. Each week, a professional from the world of motor racing answers readers’ questions on the site in a feature called “Ask a Pro.” To-date, more than 550,000 racers in 171 countries have viewed nearly three million video tutorials in 70 languages.

The RRDC presents three annual honors _ the Phil Hill Award, the Mark Donohue Award and the Bob Akin Award, and supports the Team USA Scholarship, which has been assisting young Americans in the early stages of their careers since 1990.

The RRDC Evening with Johnny Rutherford presented by Firestone will be held at the Hilton Hotel, 701 West Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, Calif., with cocktails at 6 p.m. and dinner at 7:15. Tickets are $200 per person ($175 for RRDC members) if purchased before April 1. Sponsor packages also are available for an event open to the public. For reservations, contact Jeremy Shaw at rrdc2@box.net.

Proceeds will help support RRDC’s young driver initiatives, including the SAFEisFAST.com program and the Team USA Scholarship, which the RRDC has backed since 1997. 

In 2017 The Mark Donohue Foundation, a 501(C)(3) organization, was formed to support the SAFEisFast.com program and to help insure its operations. Contributions to the Foundation are tax deductible at http://www.rrdc.org/mark-donohue-foundation/.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 12 2018
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