J.R. Reflects On The Career, Passing of Pat Patrick

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, January 14 2021

Indy car team owner U.E. “Pat” Patrick passed away on Jan. 5. Former driver Johnny Rutherford talked about Patrick’s days in open-wheel racing.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

The respective career paths of three-time Indianapolis 500 champions U.E. “Pat” Patrick and Johnny Rutherford crossed during several memorable Months of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, albeit never in Victory Lane.

That ironic fact has not diminished Rutherford’s respect and admiration for Patrick, who won the Indy 500 three times as a team-owner. Patrick, 91, died Jan. 5, 2021 in Phoenix after a long illness.

“Pat was good to the guys and gave us what (crew chief) Mike Devin wanted,” said Rutherford, who made four starts at IMS in cars entered by Patrick. “He was one of those owners that came along, jumped in and started doing really pretty good.”

Indeed, Patrick Racing fielded race-winning Indianapolis 500 entries for Gordon Johncock in 1973 and 1982 and Emerson Fittipaldi in 1989. Patrick regularly entered cars in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” from 1970-95, with one final entry in 2004. He is one of just seven team owners with three or more Indianapolis 500 victories.

A native of Kentucky, Patrick began his professional career in accounting before launching an independent oil company, Patrick Petroleum Co., in 1963 in Michigan after successful drilling efforts in the area. His “wildcatter” efforts to strike oil were reflected in the name of the chassis built by his team _ the Wildcat.

Patrick’s entry into Indy car racing began via sponsorship of fellow-oilman Walt Michner’s team in the late 1960s. Rutherford’s association with Michner and Patrick began with the 1969 Indy 500 when he qualified 17th and finished 29th in the No. 36 Patrick Petroleum Eagle/Offenhauser. The car completed only 24 laps before being sidelined with a leaking oil tank.

Legendary driver Johnny Rutherford talked about Pat Patrick with RacingToday.com’s John Sturbin this week.

“Pat and Walt Michner were very close friends,” Rutherford, 82, said during a telephone interview from his Fort Worth home with RacinToday.com. “I drove for Michner Racing for a couple of races and Pat had Patrick Petroleum on the side of the car.”

Patrick formed his own racing organization in 1970, and Rutherford qualified second at IMS in the re-numbered No. 18 Patrick Petroleum Eagle/Offy in the team’s Indy 500 debut.It was a situation where when Michner decided he was going to get out of the business Pat was right there,” Rutherford said. “He plugged in and gave Mike Devin and the guys whatever they needed for us to get better.”

The car Rutherford drove at IMS in 1969-70 began its life as a 1967 Eagle that was upgraded via some at-track innovation common to the period. Rutherford and Devin collaborated on a wedge-shaped body design that had been brought to the United States from England by Formula One team-owner Colin Chapman and Team Lotus. 

“I had sent some drawings to Mike Devin about the wedge body and they put the thing together and it turned out to be really, really good,” Rutherford said. “But on the Thursday before the Saturday Pole Day we were down to 161 mph and we were just wondering what the heck is going on. Mike Devin looked around (after the Thursday practice) and got some aluminum and made a ‘chin spoiler’ for the front of the car. That’s what we had problems with _ understeer_ it was pushing pretty bad. That nailed it down and that last practice on Friday we got up to over 170 mph. In fact, it was noticed so much that Parnelli Jones came down and looked our car over pretty good.”

Jones, the 1963 Indy 500 champion, owned the No. 2 Johnny Lightning P.J. Colt/Ford that Al Unser qualified on-pole with a four-lap/10-mile average of 170.221 mph (3 minutes, 31.49-seconds). Unser led the race three times for 190 of 200 laps en route to the first of his two consecutive victories in the car. Rutherford started second in 1970 after timing in at one-thousand of a second slower than Big Al, a distance that was calculated at two-and-a-half feet.

“Mike Devin was the crew chief and engineer and did a great job in putting that body on the car,” Rutherford said. “It was one of those things that _ ‘Wow, look at us!’ We had a problem during the race which set us back, but it was fun. A lot of fun.”

Rutherford’s race day ended after 135 laps due to a cracked header. “It was sad for us because the guys had worked really hard and the car was good; just one of those things that happen at Indianapolis,” said Rutherford, whose 18th-place finish in a car he nicknamed “Geraldine” tied his previous best at IMS from 1968.

Rutherford started 24th and again finished 18th in the No. 18 Patrick Petroleum Eagle/Offy in 1971. Patrick then made a dramatic change for 1972 with the purchase of a BT32 Brabham chassis built by Australian driver/constructor Sir Jack Brabham. A three-time F1 World Driving Champion, Brabham made four Indy 500 starts between 1961 and 1970. Brabham started 13th and finished ninth as an Indy rookie in 1961 driving the No. 17 Cooper/Climax _ first rear-engine car at IMS during the Modern Era.

Brabham drove the No. 32 Gilmore Broadcasting Brabham/Offy to a 13th-place finish at IMS in 1970. It was Brabham’s final chassis, and it wound up at Patrick Racing after Lee Roy Yarbrough drove it at the California 500 later in the season. 

“Pat had decided to do some ‘engineering’ and bought the Brabham, which was a very good race car,” Rutherford said of the wedge-shaped chassis. “He had a General Motors engineer start changing the body and it put so much drag on the car. If they had left it alone, I think we could have probably done pretty good with the thing.” Rutherford started eighth and finished 27th in ’72 after a broken engine rod sidelined him after 55 laps.

Patrick reorganized his team for 1973, hiring Michigander Johncock as driver and George Bignotti as chief mechanic. The team’s first Indy 500 victory was the immediate result, as Johncock captured the rain-shortened race in the No. 20 STP Double Oil Filter Eagle/Offy.

Johncock also put Patrick Racing back into Victory Lane at Indianapolis in 1982 after a breathtaking duel during the closing laps with Rick Mears, edging the Penske Racing ace at the finish by a then-race record margin of just 0.16-seconds in Patrick’s No. 20 STP Oil Treatment Wildcat/Cosworth.

Patrick celebrated his third victory in 1989, when two-time F1 World Driving Champion Fittipaldi earned the first of his two 500 wins, this time driving the No. 20 Marlboro Penske/Chevrolet Indy that was co-owned by Chip Ganassi.

Patrick’s drivers also claimed two national championships, with Johncock taking U.S. Auto Club honors in 1976 and the popular Brazilian “Emmo” winning the Championship Auto Racing Teams title in 1989.

Two-time Indy 500 champion Al Unser Jr. started and finished 17th in Patrick’s final Indy 500 entry, the No. 20 Patrick Racing Dallara/Chevrolet, during the rain-shortened 2004 event.

Patrick’s team was home to two of open-wheel racing’s legendary crew chiefs. Bignotti ran Patrick Racing during the mid- and late 1970s, with Jim McGee taking the reins in the 1980s. By then, Rutherford was a three-time Indy 500 champion, having won with Team McLaren in 1974 and 1976 and with fellow-Texan Jim Hall’s revolutionary No. 4 Pennzoil Chaparral/Cosworth _ the famed “Yellow Submarine” _ in 1980. But Hall shuttered his Midland, Texas-based team after the 1982 season, leaving Rutherford to find a new ride.

“Lone Star J.R.” reunited with Patrick and worked with McGee during an ill-fated Month of May in 1983, when a crash in Turn 3 during practice in the Sea Ray Boats Wildcat/Cosworth left Rutherford with a broken right ankle and broken left foot.

“Pat got an engineer to design the car like the Chaparral and it wasn’t near as good, obviously,” Rutherford said. “I could drive it down the front straightaway or the back straightaway to the start/finish line and then from the start/finish line to Turn 1 it took over. You did not know where it was going to go.

“After I got out of the hospital and got back to the (Gasoline Alley) garage, they had a card table between a couple of the doors and they had a whole bunch of the links that attached the suspension to the side panels to the car and they all hard red tags on them, that they were cracked. I figured that was the reason why it was so hard to drive _ they weren’t strong enough. Gordy was the only one who was able to manage it a little bit.”

Rutherford qualified for only six races in 1983 with Patrick and did not finish a single one. “It just wasn’t a good time,” Rutherford said. “I drove a season for Pat and nothing worked right. It was a time in my career after the Chaparral when I was struggling to find a ride that was like McLaren or Jim Hall and I just couldn’t get hooked up with anything like that. They were the best.”

The entrepreneurial Patrick was inducted into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 2016 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2018. Patrick also was instrumental in the founding of two major North American racing series during the late 1970s and mid-1980s _ CART and Indy Lights.

Patrick is survived by three sons and one daughter.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, January 14 2021
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