Rutherford Ponders Bad And Good On 85th Birthday

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 18 2023

Current drivers Will Power, left, and Pato O’Ward, right, joined racing legend Johnny Rutherford in Texas last week.

FORT WORTH, Texas _ Three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Johnny Rutherford belatedly check-marked his 85th birthday during a media event at Texas Motor Speedway, where “Lone Star J.R.” mused over a pair of regrets in his racing life.

“My one disappointment with Team McLaren was that I didn’t get hired until three years after Bruce McLaren was killed in a testing accident at Goodwood,” said Rutherford, who scored the first two of his three victories at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in chassis bearing the surname of the driver/designer/engineer from New Zealand. “I got to meet Bruce, but I didn’t get to spend any time with him at the Speedway when they first came in 1968, or whatever it was (actually May 1970).”

McLaren was killed when an experimental Can-Am car of his design crashed on the Lavant Straight just before Woodcote Corner at Goodwood Circuit in England on June 2, 1970. McLaren was 32-years-old.

Rutherford shared a dais Wednesday in TMS’ infield media center with two-time/reigning NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske and rising star Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren. Power and O’Ward were on-site to promote INDYCAR’s PPG 375 on Sunday, April 2 _ second race of the 2023 season and first-and-only oval event before the 107th running of the Indy 500 on May 28.

A resident of the River Oaks neighborhood in Fort Worth, Rutherford and his late wife, Betty, became immediate fixtures at TMS even before the facility hosted its first NASCAR and INDYCAR races in 1997. Betty Rutherford was installed as first president of the Texas Chapter of Speedway Children’s Charities in May 1996. Johnny, who retired from open-wheel racing in May 1994 at IMS, served TMS founder O. Bruton Smith and President/General Manager Eddie Gossage in a variety of roles ranging from roving ambassador to unofficial INDYCAR rookie test observer to official INDYCAR Pace Car Driver.

In addition, the Foyt-Rutherford Trophy made its debut in 2000 as the hardware recognizing the winner of the track’s annual INDYCAR race. Four-time Indy 500 champion A.J. Foyt Jr. of Houston _ aka “Super Tex” _ shares billing on the trophy with Rutherford.  Fittingly, Foyt and Rutherford were inducted as inaugural members of the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame at TMS in 2004.

“I always was upset with Bruton and Eddie for building this thing after I retired, because this was my kind of racetrack,” Rutherford said of the 1.5-mile oval. “I liked the high-banks _ races on the hills, we called ‘em. There were some problems here in the beginning, as always with a new racetrack, but it has come a long way.

“It’s a mile-and-a-half, high-banked racetrack and those are fun to run. There’s tricks to running on the high-banked racetracks, and these guys (Power and O’Ward) know what the tricks are. Hopefully we’ll see another exciting race when the cars get here in early April.

“I drove the Pace Car for the first (INDYCAR) race here (on June 7, 1997). I came in and parked my car at the end of the pits and the cars got the green flag. And as they hurtled by where I was sitting and into the first turn, I just reached for the key to start the car because I knew there was going to be the damndest wreck we’ve ever seen at this place going into Turn 1. But they all made it…and it’s just that fast. Just that fast.”

Rutherford, who turned 85 on Sunday, March 12, was ambushed by a group of friends on Friday, March 10, during a surprise birthday party at The Original Mexican Eats Cafe on Camp Bowie Boulevard. What Rutherford was led to believe was lunch with buddy Bart Stevens became a celebration that included former Indy 500 television announcer Paul Page, Gossage and longtime barbers and fans Doug and Jim Taylor.

“It was a total surprise. I had no idea,” Rutherford said. “I have a list of the people, 60 or more fitting into one section.” Rutherford said he also received a birthday phone call from Zak Brown, chief executive of McLaren Racing’s INDYCAR and Formula One programs.

“Zak Brown understands what I accomplished for McLaren, but it was a different group of people then,” Rutherford said. “It was Teddy Mayer and Tyler Alexander, they were Team McLaren. They hired me to drive for them in ’73 and once they got the car sorted it was magic. The M16 McLaren (powered by an Offenhauser engine) was the best flat-bottomed car to ever run the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and I took advantage of that. We tested the car in February, I think, at the Speedway and it understeered or pushed the front end. We could not get it to stop. Tyler and I, over three days we changed everything but the paint job and could not get it to stop.

“Well, I didn’t know until years later what happened. They sent the car back to England and Gordon Coppuck, the designer, did some work on it _ he changed the rear section on the car totally. They brought it back to the Speedway and we didn’t know what we had. I went out and within five or eight laps I was running 200 mph (a 20 mph increase from the February test). It was a jaw-dropper. The thing was just incredible. It was so stable at that speed, it was really something to drive.”

On Pole Day, Rutherford’s No. 7 Gulf/McLaren turned three laps at 198 mph and one at 199 mph to narrowly miss cracking the magic 200 mph barrier around the famed 2.5-mile layout. “Disappointing but still a new track record and the pole,” said Rutherford, whose 10-mile average was 198.413 mph. Rutherford finished ninth in the race’s 57th edition, won by Gordon Johncock.

“And it was from that point on that we had success with the car,” said Rutherford, who won “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” for Team McLaren in 1974 and 1976, sandwiched around a runnerup result to Bobby Unser in 1975.

“It was a good team and Tyler Alexander was as good a chief mechanic as I’ve ever witnessed. It was incredible,” said Rutherford, who has continued to track McLaren’s progress since its return to the series fulltime in 2020. “Zak Brown called me to wish me happy birthday and I asked him, ‘Am I going to be involved (during the Indy 500?) and he said, ‘Definitely.’ We’ll see what turns up, whether it’s with public relations or interviews or whatever.”

Pato O’Ward’s NTT IndyCar Series career with Arrow McLaren began to fulfill its promise when the native of Mexico scored his first career victory at Texas Motor Speedway in May 2021.

O’Ward’s breakthrough moment came in his 26th career start, when he passed two-time series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske with 24 laps remaining in the 248-lapper and pulled away to a 1.2443-second victory. The win came after five top-three finishes _ including three as runnerup _since O’Ward became a fulltime driver in the series. Included in those stats was Pato’s third-place finish in the previous day’s Genesys 300, Race 1 of a doubleheader around TMS’ high-banked/1.5-mile oval.

“I love this track,” said O’Ward, 23, who finished second to reigning Indy 500 champion Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the 2023 season-opener on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 5. “I think my first time maybe I didn’t find so much love for it because it was probably the first time I was in a race car where it was like, ‘Shit, this is quick!’ The first time I went around this place I remember my eyes were just massive inside of the car. After you see qualifying onboards top of sixth gear this looks pretty planted, and I was on top of fourth and two gears to go and it just feels ridiculously fast.

“Anyways, I have had good success here. I have really grown to love what it is like to race at superspeedways. It is definitely a different skill to what it is on road-courses and, obviously, street courses. The way you have to approach it is different as well because the risk is that much more and the speeds, like I said, are very quick.”

After filling Newgarden’s rearview mirrors with a series of fake moves for several laps, O’Ward took the bit with a bold pass below the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet through the 24-degree banking of Turn 3. 

And that was that. With his No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet running in clean air, O’Ward distanced himself from Newgarden, who won here in June 2019. In the process, Pato returned the McLaren nameplate to Victory Lane in domestic open-wheel racing for the first time since Fort Worth’s Johnny Rutherford swept a doubleheader at Atlanta Motor Speedway on April 22, 1979. Rutherford, incidentally, spent the weekend “hanging out” in O’Ward’s pit and joined in the Victory Lane festivities.

Team Penske ace Will Power began defense of his second INDYCAR championship with a seventh-place finish on the Streets of St. Pete on March 5. Power, whose first start at “The Great American Speedway” in Fort Worth resulted in a 13th place finish in 2008, will be making his 17th start in the upcoming PPG 375 _ moving the native of Australia into a tie with Scott Sharp for fifth-most career green flags in Cowtown.

Power’s TMS resume features wins in 2011 and 2017, four podiums, three pole positions and third among most laps-led with 453. Will’s three poles _ won in consecutive years from 2013-15 _ are tied for the INDYCAR track record with Tomas Scheckter.

Despite logging 3,480 competitive laps here, the 42-year-old Aussie said he still approaches the layout with respect.

“It’s always been a spectacular place to race with the high-banks and being a superspeedway,” said Power, driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet. “The frontstretch is very tough because it’s not straight and it’s not a constant curve. You have to hit two apexes which also makes it quite daunting when you are three-wide or even two-wide. I’ve seen many big wrecks here too, so it’s unforgiving and you’ve got to respect the place. I really enjoy it. I love it.”

Team Penske dominated last season’s event by taking three of the top four finishing positions. Josef Newgarden slipped by teammate Scott McLaughlin of New Zealand on the final turn of the final lap and held on for a margin of victory of 0.0669-seconds, while Power finished fourth. The margin of victory turned out to be the closest of the 17-race season.

“Last year we came in and I was vocal about us running a special session to run the second lane to create some really good racing,” Power said. “We had one of the best finishes we have ever seen here with a pass for the lead on the last lap _ I mean, the best finishes as far as the lower downforce races we’ve had at this track. We’re going to do that again this year but with all cars running a second lane. All cars will get a set of (Firestone Firehawk) tires and try and bring in that second and even third groove.

“I’m looking forward to the race. We’ll have more downforce this year _it’s quite a bit more _ which helps the car stick to the road so you’re going to see closer racing. I think we’ll be more wide-open for more laps in the race and potentially easier to run on the outside.”

This year’s event will be the first of a new three-year contract between Speedway Motorsports and sanctioning body INDYCAR in the key Dallas-Fort Worth market.

“I think INDYCAR made some good changes to promote good racing here so I’m looking forward to getting back here,” Power said. “I’ve had a lot of fun around this track. It’s always an enjoyable race and I think it’s one of the toughest tracks we come to as far as superspeedways go with really high banking and really exciting racing. It’s going to be fun so hopefully you’ll get a big crowd.”

INDYCAR’s two-day program will see NTT IndyCar Series competitors on-track Saturday, April 1, for practice and qualifying. The opening one-hour practice is scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. (CDT) and be followed by qualifying at 11:15 a.m. Split-field practices will run from 12:45-1:15 p.m. and a final one-hour full-field session at 1:30 p.m. The weekend culminates Sunday, April 2, with the PPG 375, scheduled to begin at 11:15 a.m. (TV: NBC & Peacock; Radio: INDYCAR Radio Network, SiriusXM, 95.9 The Ranch-local). 

Englishman Jack Harvey of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has been cleared by INDYCAR’s medical team to return to competition for the PPG 375 at TMS. Harvey was involved in a multi-car incident during the 2023 season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 5.

Texas Motor Speedway’s season-opening race weekend also will feature the SpeedyCash.com 250 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race on Saturday, April 1, at 3:30 p.m. (CDT). Ticket information and online purchases are available at www.texasmotorspeedway.com. Season tickets and camping for TMS’ 2023 major event schedule are on sale now. Fans can save up to 33 percent versus buying individual tickets, get the best seat selection and more. All-new reduced rates are available for the GEICO Infield, GEICO VIP and WinStar World Casino & Resort Lone Star Circle camping areas.

NTT IndyCar Series point standings _ 1, Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing, 51; 2, Pato O’Ward, Arrow McLaren, 41; 3, Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing, 36; 4, Alexander Rossi, Arrow McLaren, 32; 5, Callum Ilott, Juncos Hollinger Racing, 30; 6, Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 28; 7, Will Power, Team Penske, 26; 8, Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing, 24; 9, Christian Lundgaard, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 22; 10, David Malukas, Dale Coyne Racing with HMD, 21; 11, Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske, 20; 12, Marcus Armstrong, Chip Ganassi Racing, 19; 13, Agustin Canapino, Juncos Hollinger Racing, 18; 14, Conor Daly, Ed Carpenter Racing, 16; 15, Kyle Kirkwood, Andretti Autosport, 15; 16, Romain Grosjean, Andretti Autosport, 14; 17, Sting Ray Robb, Dale Coyne Racing with RWR, 14; 18, Josef Newgarden, Team Penske, 13; 18, Felix Rosenqvist, Arrow McLaren, 11; 19, Colton Herta, Andretti Autosport, 10; 20, Rinus VeeKay, Ed Carpenter Racing, 9; 21, Jack Harvey, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 8; 22, Helio Castroneves, Meyer Shank Racing, 7; 23, Santino Ferrucci, AJ Foyt Racing, 6; 24 (tie), Devlin DeFrancesco, Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport;  Benjamin Pedersen, AJ Foyt Racing and Simon Pagenaud, Meyer Shank Racing, 5.

(Editor’s Note: John Sturbin is a Texas-based journalist specializing in motorsports. During a near 30-year career with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he won the Bloys Britt Award for top motorsports story of the year (1991) as judged by The Associated Press; received the National Hot Rod Association’s Media Award (1995) and several in-house Star-Telegram honors. He also was inaugural recipient of the Texas Motor Speedway Excellence in Journalism Award (2009). His list of freelance clients includes Texas Motor Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, Rome (N.Y.) Daily Sentinel, Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller Times, NASCAR Wire Service, Ford Racing and Used Car Dealer magazine).


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, March 18 2023
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