Sixty-seven years to the date that Tony Hulman purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from Eddie Rickenbacker for $750,000 and began its restoration, two of the premier drivers in Indy car racing history returned to share anecdotes of the racetrack and its marquee event, the Indianapolis 500, with fans.
“All these people came to see us?” Bobby Unser said to fellow three-time Indy 500 champion Johnny Rutherford upon seeing the hundreds of people seeking their signatures on a cornucopia of items at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum on Fan Appreciation Night.
“I think they’re all here to talk to you. You’ll be busy,” Rutherford quipped to his longtime friend and competitor.
Either Unser or Rutherford won the 500 Mile Race, which will be contested for the 97th time next May 26, in 1974-76 and also in 1980 and ’81.
“(This) is my home in a lot of ways and it’s always special to be here,” said Unser as he engaged the first person in the winding line while seated in front of the No. 3 Rislone-sponsored Dan Gurney Eagle/4-cylinder Offy entered by Leader Cards Inc. in which he won the first of his Indy 500 titles in 1968. “It’s great to see all the people; it does a lot for us, too.”
Unser led 127 of the 200 laps in ’68 and recorded an average speed of 152.882 mph. The car was the first with a turbocharged engine to win.
“It brings back a lot of memories; it was a good little race car,” Unser said. “It was my first win, which in English means I didn’t know if I could win. I knew I was fast, but the chance of finishing 500 miles and going fast the whole race is not very likely. A lot of people dropped out. I was exceptionally lucky because the car did run all day (he started third).
“We did have some problems with the transmission; I only ended up with fourth gear that would work, which was killing me getting out of the pits. The good part about that was the car held 75 gallons of fuel and I could go a long way between pit stops.”
He also won the 500-Mile Race in 1975 from the third starting position and added a victory from the pole in 1981. He completed 2,611 laps in 19 starts at the Speedway, with two poles, 10 top-10 finishes and 440 laps led over 10 races.
Rutherford was positioned near the distinctive yellow Pennzoil Chaparral 2K/V8 Cosworth entered by Jim Hall in which he won the 1980 race from the pole. He led 118 of 200 laps at an average speed of 142.862 mph. Nicknamed The Yellow Submarine, the car (plus a twin with which Al Unser dominated the first half of the 1979 race) were the first to have “ground effects” incorporated into the John Barnhard-designed chassis.
“It was a whole new realm. The car let you do so much more than what you could do with the other cars that didn’t have ground effects,” said Rutherford, who is the pace car driver for INDYCAR events. “It was a chore because it so stuck so tight to the track that it put a lot on you – lateral G (forces) – and it wasn’t as easy as everyone might think because of the design. But it was a lot of fun to drive and we accomplished a lot with it.”
Rutherford drove the 2K to four Indy car victories during the 1980 season and won both the USAC and CART National championships.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, it changed the direction of Indy car racing with ground effects,” he added. “That was quite a stroke because cars were doing OK the way they were and then along comes the Chaparral. It opened up a whole new garage.”
Rutherford also won the '500' in 1974 (from the 25th starting position) and 1976 from the pole. His line at the Speedway includes 24 starts, three poles, eight top-10 finishes and 296 laps led over five races.
Tickets to the 2013 Indianapolis 500 are on sale CLICK HERE. Three-time winners Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti will seek to join an even more select group.