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Rutherford Feted By Road Racers

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 14 2018

Johnny Rutherford was guest of honor at the Road Racing Drivers Club on Thursday in Long Beach. He was ‘interrogated’ by RDCC president Bobby Rahal.

Three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Johnny Rutherford was honored for his distinguished career by his peers in the Road Racing Drivers Club Thursday night as a prelude to this weekend’s 44th running of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

The RRDC Evening with Johnny Rutherford Presented by Firestone was held at the Hilton Hotel before a capacity crowd of auto racing dignitaries, corporate executives and champion race-car drivers. Representatives from the Verizon IndyCar Series, the Indianapolis 500, the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship, Pirelli World Challenge and a number of Historic Trans-Am drivers competing on the streets of Long Beach this weekend for the first time gathered to honor “Lone Star J.R.”

“It’s a genuine thrill,” said Rutherford, a resident of the River Oaks section of Fort Worth, Texas. “I never would have thought that I would have risen in the ranks to earn this. I’m just a guy from Texas that wanted to drive race cars, on the dirt mostly back then, so it was different. But I enjoyed my road-racing, and I’m thrilled to death to be considered for this honor.”

On hand to celebrate Rutherford’s short-track heritage were Ken Schrader, Ron “Sleepy” Tripp, Kevin Olson and Jeff Haywood, as well as NHRA drag racing legend Don “The Snake” Prudhomme.

Rutherford’s career path from the dirt bull rings of North Texas to the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was captured in a video written and voiced-over by former sports car ace Sam Posey.

Another congratulatory video, from McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown, showed Brown standing in front of the bright orange McLaren M16 that Rutherford drove to his first Indy 500 win in 1974. That car is on display at McLaren’s headquarters in Woking, Surrey, England.

RRDC President Bobby Rahal then “interrogated” Rutherford on his achievements in the style of “Late Night with David Letterman.”  Rahal, the 1986 Indy 500 champion, covered the gamut of Rutherford’s career, from his early days racing Modified stock cars in 1959, his United States Auto Club championship era to his time racing sports cars in the ’70s. Among other marques, Rutherford competed in a Ferrari, a Corvette and a Porsche 934 for Dick Barbour Racing. He scored a second-place finish at the 1978 Daytona 24-Hour in a Porsche 935.

“Johnny is the consummate professional, a hell of a race car driver, but more of a gentleman and a tremendous ambassador for the sport of motor racing,” Rahal said. “The guy is just first-class in everything he’s done. He was very public and he respected all of us drivers. He really was a complete package, so it’s great that we were able to recognize him tonight.”

Mario Andretti, the 2014 RRDC honoree, competed against Rutherford during his “glory days” at IMS. In addition to his breakthrough win in 1974, Rutherford captured the 1976 race again driving for Team McLaren. Rutherford added his third win in the 1980 edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” driving fellow-Texan Jim Hall’s revolutionary ground-effects Pennzoil Chaparral 2K_ the famed “Yellow Submarine.”

“He is so deserving to be recognized among the racers here,” said Andretti, the 1969 Indy 500 champion. “He’s had a fabulous career. He’s very versatile and just one of the good guys in our sport. Not just because of his record but also as a friend. Johnny is one of us, for sure, big-time. He’s a racer.”

Rutherford, who logged 27 career Indy car victories, 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 Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth and six other national and international motorsports halls of fame, Rutherford was feted during a surprise 80th birthday party at The Speedway Club during the track’s annual media day. Rutherford was born in Coffeyville, Kan., on March 12, 1938.

Rutherford’s Indy 500 wins and interview savvy 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.

Firestone Racing has been presenting sponsor of the RRDC Evenings for nine years. “Tonight’s honoree, ‘Lone Star JR’, exemplifies the best of our sport…a true gentleman and an ambassador off the track,” said Lisa Boggs, director, Bridgestone Americas Motorsports. “Congratulations; a well-deserved honor.”

Featured on the patio during the cocktail reception sponsored by American Honda were the Offenhauser-powered Silnes/Meskowski chassis, from the Malloy Foundation, in which Rutherford made his Championship Car debut in 1962; the McLaren M16E in which he finished second at the Indy 500 in ’75, and his Indy 500-winning No. 4 Chaparral 2K from 1980. The McLaren and Chaparral were on-loan from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.

Rutherford won both the U.S. Auto Club and Championship Auto Racing Teams driving titles in 1980, his first season with Hall’s team based in Midland, Texas.

An original painting by acclaimed artist Randy Owens depicting Rutherford’s third Indy 500 win in the Chaparral 2K was presented to J.R. by Owens. A giclee print of the painting, signed by champion drivers and other racing legends attending the dinner, along with a 25-foot-long backdrop of the painting, were included in a silent auction.

The event marked the RRDC’s 10th consecutive annual banquet honoring auto racing’s most influential leaders. Previous honorees in addition to Andretti and Hall were Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones, Roger Penske, Brian Redman, Bobby Unser, George Follmer and Emerson Fittipaldi. Hall, Andretti and Follmer were in the audience to salute and kibbitz with Rutherford.

Gurney, who would have turned 87 Thursday, died on Jan. 14 from complications of pneumonia in Newport Beach, Calif. A special tribute video, narrated by TV commentator Bob Varsha, was shown commemorating the Californian’s remarkable legacy in the sport as driver, car-builder and team-owner in everything from NASCAR, Indy car, sport car and Formula One.

The dinner’s proceeds help support RRDC’s young driver initiatives, including its groundbreaking  SAFEisFAST.com presented by Honda program, and the Team USA Scholarship, which RRDC has backed since 1997. Team USA is celebrating its 27th anniversary this year. 

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.

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 Saturday, April 14 2018
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