News & Media

Retro Racing: Fort Worth's Rutherford opened with a bang

November 01, 2012, Mark Aumann,

In 1993, a young Jeff Gordon shocked the stock-car racing community by winning one of the Daytona 500 qualifiers in his first attempt. The former sprint-car star then went on to have unparalleled success at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But that story was just a repeat performance from three decades before, when a driver from Fort Worth, Texas -- in his first stock-car race -- surprised NASCAR's finest by not only winning the pole for the 1963 Daytona 500 but the qualifying race.

Unlike Gordon, Johnny Rutherford never won another NASCAR race, but his greatest success came in the form of three Indy 500 victories.

"Lone Star J.R." was actually born John Sherman Rutherford III in Coffeyville, Kan., in 1938. His father was an airplane mechanic in the Army Air Corps, and the family was constantly on the move. According to one story, Rutherford claimed he attended at least 13 elementary schools.

He also experienced his first car race shortly after World War II ended, attending a midget race in Tulsa, Okla. It was then and there Johnny decided on a racing career. After his father left the service in 1950, the family settled in Fort Worth.

At 18, Rutherford joined a hot-rod club and built a car to race at police-sponsored events at a nearby National Guard base. One of his friends had a dirt-track car, and offered to let Johnny drive it at Devil's Bowl Speedway in Dallas.

Eventually, Rutherford met up with a fellow Texan, Jim McElreath, and they got the idea of moving to the Midwest -- where there were more tracks and more opportunities to race. In 1962, Rutherford estimated he ran more than 70 races, sometimes three or four during the course of a week.

He was considered a "hard-charger," as likely to crash as win. But his potential caught the eye of legendary Daytona Beach mechanic Smokey Yunick, who thought Rutherford had the talent to succeed in stock cars.

So Rutherford showed up at Daytona International Speedway in February 1963, climbed in Yunick's black and gold No. 13 Chevrolet -- and promptly stuck the car on the pole with a record-setting lap of 165.183 mph.

But that was just the appetizer for Rutherford, who admitted to Bernard Kahn of the Daytona Beach News-Journal he was fine running by himself but wasn't sure exactly how he'd do in traffic.

"I hope to pick up some more pointers, especially about drafting," Rutherford said. "I know I've got a lot to learn in speedway stock-car competition. But I came here not to finish second but first."

And he did just that in conditions that challenged even the most experienced of stock-car drivers. Some 27,000 fans braved 45-degree temperatures and howling 20 mph wind to witness the twin qualifiers.

Johnny Rutherford, circa 1977 (Smyle Media)

What they saw was record-breaking speed from the new Chevys. Junior Johnson won the first at a blazing 164.083 mph, beating Paul Goldsmith's Pontiac to the line. And then Rutherford went out in the second, took the lead from Rex White with five laps to go and held on to win by three car-lengths in his NASCAR debut.

Yunick was ecstatic in Victory Lane afterwards.

"The kid had to go to school," Yunick said about Rutherford's race. "He passed. Instead of getting just an 80 or a 90 on his report card, Johnny got 100.

"His orders were to feel the car out, draft and save fuel for about 35 laps, then push the button down and don't look back. He didn't."

Rutherford couldn't continue his success in the 500-miler, although he was competitive. He finished ninth, four laps behind eventual winner Tiny Lund. Given the choice between staying in NASCAR and going back to USAC, Rutherford chose to return to open wheel -- and made the Indy 500 as a rookie that May.

He won a USAC national sprint-car championship in 1965 and eventually found success in Indy cars, winning the Indy 500 in 1974, '76 and '80. During the course of the next 25 seasons, Rutherford returned to NASCAR on a sporadic basis, making a total of 35 starts -- including a fifth in the 1981 Firecracker 400 at Daytona.

He officially retired as a driver in 1994, and went on to serve as a driver-coach and pace-car driver for the Indy Racing League.