JOHN “JOHNNY” RUTHERFORD
March 12, 1938 –
John Sherman Rutherford III, more commonly known as Johnny, has been hooked on speed! Had he not become an auto racer, Rutherford claims that he would have become a fighter pilot. Reared in a military family, the twelve-year-old Johnny moved to River Oaks in 1950 and graduated from North Side High School in 1956.
As an older teen, Rutherford joined a local group called the “Idlers Hot Rod Club” that met in a River Oaks garage. There he learned about dirt car racing, and soon began raising money for his own car. Rutherford “hocked everything” to buy a ’32 Chevrolet coupe that had been a race car, towed it back to Idlers, and began rebuilding it.
In 1959, Rutherford began racing modified stock cars at the Devil’s Bowl in Dallas, and the following year he traveled the Midwest perfecting his skills. Racing on dirt tracks week-after-week toughened him and sharpened his skills. Rutherford quickly advanced to sprint cars, to Indy-style cars, and stock cars.
Prior to the 1963 Daytona 500, mechanic Smokey Yunick asked Rutherford to drive his Chevrolet. Apparently, Yunick had been closely watching Rutherford’s career as a sprint car driver and wanted a new driver for his team. Rutherford agreed, got fitted into Yunick’s car, and during qualifying he set a world and track record for speed (165.183 miles per hour) in a stock car on a closed course. He won the pole position and also the one-hundred-mile qualifying race at the 1963 Daytona, becoming one of only six drivers to win their first NASCAR race. Later in 1963 Rutherford made his first start in the Indianapolis 500, and in 1965 won his first Indy car race at the Atlanta 250.
Though not a superstitious driver, “Lone Star JR” (called such because of the Texas flag on his helmet) always gets in his car on the left, puts on his left driving glove first and has a tiny ladybug painted in the center of his steering wheel. Despite the danger, violent risk, and possibility of accidents—including a rolling wreck at Eldora that shattered both of his arms and a frightening episode in Phoenix where his car flipped and he slid a hundred feet on his head—Rutherford claims he has only done what he liked, which makes life worth living. In the process, he won the famed Indianapolis 500 three times (1974, 1976, 1980). He also won the Indy pole three times (1973, 1976, and 1980). During the 1980 season Rutherford won the Indy-Car Driving Championship, and also the Olsonite Driver of the Year. In 1986 he became the first driver to win the Triple Crown of Indy-car races (Indianapolis, Pocono, and Michigan 500 races).
Rutherford finished his Indy car career with 27 victories. By the time he retired in 1994, he had 315 Indy car starts, finishing in the top five in 99 races and in the top ten 157 times. Rutherford also stood in the victory circle of every major race track in the nation, and closer to home finished seventh during the 1989 Celebrity Cutting Horse futurity in Fort Worth.