"Lone Star JR" Johnny Rutherford

David E. Davis, Jr.
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02 David E Davis Jr

Brock Yates and I got to have a long, comfortable breakfast with the great Johnny Rutherford when an absolutely biblical thunderstorm threatened to shut down the Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance. Bill Warner, the Amelia Island impresario, was grimly trying to find sheltered places where some 270 irreplaceable cars and their owners might not get struck by lightning. As judges, all we had to do was sit around, drink coffee, and wait for the adults to deal with the monsoon.

0306 Americandriver A

Johnny Rutherford is, for me, the quintessential Indianapolis 500 champion. In the years after World War II, all the way up through the mid-engine revolution in the middle '60s, Indy winners were special. They had style and the sort of inner light that we see in some charismatic preachers, politicians, and film stars. Attending a cocktail party at the Speedway Motor Inn one year, I looked up from the mob to see Johnny Rutherford trot into the room, and he had that star quality. He would have stood out in any crowd. He was, as they say, to the manner born. If you hadn't the slightest idea who he was, you'd have been in no doubt about his importance.

Rutherford raced from 1959 to 1994. He started in 315 Indy-car races, took pole position in twenty-three, and won twenty-seven. Only three other drivers have started more than 300 Indy-car events. In 500-mile races, he is tied for third with Mario Andretti, with fifty-nine career starts, five wins, six second-place, and twenty-five top-ten finishes. He has been to the city and seen the elephant.

0306 Americandriver B

As we digested breakfast and watched the rain, Yates and I asked him about the 1964 Indianapolis 500, in which Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald were killed in a multicar crash and conflagration on the second lap. Both Yates and I attended that race. When the accident occurred, Brock was in the press box, and I was on the inside of Turn One with a small crowd of fellow journalists. Neither of us actually could see what happened. I stayed at the track for an additional two days, learning all I could, then returned to New York, where we pieced together a second-by-second diagram of the accident for our Indy story in the August '64 issue of Car and Driver. Rereading that story a few minutes ago, comparing it with Johnny Rutherford's and Bobby Unser's descriptions of the nightmare in Turn Four, I feel some real gratification knowing that we answered most of the questions. Despite the smoke, despite the confusion, despite the rumors, we figured it out.

0306 Americandriver C

The race started beautifully. The weather was perfect. Dave MacDonald—a brilliant sports car driver but a rookie at Indianapolis—was beside Rutherford in the fifth row. MacDonald was driving an innovative Mickey Thompson car that predicted future tech in several ways but was badly constructed and difficult to drive. Eddie Sachs was behind Rutherford in the sixth row. Johnny reasoned that Sachs, a charger and a seasoned veteran, would push to the front, and all he had to do was stick to Sachs and stay out of trouble. It worked out as he had planned. Sachs surged past, and as the field was sorting itself out on the second lap, MacDonald passed Rutherford on the back straight, his car loose and ragged, its engine note rising and falling as the inside wheels threw up grass and dirt from the edge of the track. Rutherford remembers: "I thought, `Whoa, he's either gonna win this thing or crash.' Then he was gone. As we came around Turn Three and approached Turn Four, I was right on Eddie's tail."

0306 Americandriver D

Up ahead, MacDonald, broadsliding through Turn Four, lost it and headed sideways toward the infield wall. As Rutherford negotiated Turn Four, he caught a flash of a red car hitting the wall and erupting in a huge orange and black cloud, then heading back onto the track. He saw Sachs, directly in front of him, glancing from side to side as he tried to make sense of the disaster he was about to drive into. Rutherford was hard on his brakes, the nose of his car right under Sachs's tail. Sachs guessed wrong and went high, hitting MacDonald broadside. Both Sachs's and MacDonald's cars were fueled with gasoline, and now a total of 155 gallons of burning gasoline were sprayed across the track. Rutherford went under Sachs's tail and over MacDonald—so close that he tore off a couple of MacDonald's intake horns, which wedged in the left rear of his roadster. Somewhere in the melee he had run across the nose of Unser's car. Now, as he struggled to shift down to his starting gear and get clear of the carnage (roadsters were equipped with primitive two-speed transmissions), Unser, his steering gone, emerged from the wall of smoke and flame and struck him on his left rear tire, propelling him onto the outside wall.

After a short ride along the top of the wall, Rutherford's car, wrapped in flames, landed back on the track on all four wheels, and he did a quick damage assessment. All this had happened in a bare few seconds. The back of his neck was badly burned, and his four-ply driving suit had been ripped apart right down the front. There was a piece of carpet on the floor of his cockpit, to absorb oil, and that was burning. He accelerated down the track toward Turn One to put the fires out, and in the short chute between Turns One and Two, he was overtaken by Bob Veith, who vigorously signaled him to park in the infield. He signaled back that everything was okay, but Veith again made it clear that everything was definitely not okay. Johnny pulled down to the edge of the track and coasted to a stop in Turn Three, where a helmeted corner worker with a fire extinguisher looked his car over and assured him that everything was fine. He then continued to Turn Four, the scene of the accident, and was waved to a stop by driver Don Branson. Throwing off his belts and climbing out of the cockpit, he discovered that the impact of the Unser collision had ruptured his fuel tank, and a great puddle of fuel was spreading around his car. The fact that he was running methanol was probably all that had saved him from being torched.

At the infield hospital, his gurney was placed beside MacDonald's. MacDonald was burned beyond recognition, but his chest was heaving as his system tried to continue breathing, and there was a streak of pink liquid matter running down the side of his face. Rutherford asked an attendant what that was, and the attendant replied, "That's his lungs; that's what happens when you inhale the fire." MacDonald died at 1:20 in the afternoon. Eddie Sachs, the clown prince of the Indy 500, died in the middle of the inferno.

At the end of his story, Rutherford said, "They got my car back to the garage about the same time I arrived from the infield hospital. We walked over to the car, and Herb Porter, my chief mechanic, undid the hood restraints and lifted the hood. There was all kinds of broken plexiglass and gravel and trash in there. Herb reached in and picked up a lemon that had a cord looped through it and one end cut off to expose the meat.

"Later, I asked around and discovered that Eddie Sachs had always hung a lemon around his neck, so that during a caution flag, he could suck on the lemon and get a little moisture—maybe the tartness gave him a little boost. Evidently, when Eddie smashed into Davey, the lemon flew off his neck and sailed into the air, and my car scooped it up.

"That's close."

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