Before he was a three-time Indy winner and polesitter, national champion and one of the faces of USAC racing, Johnny Rutherford was an asterisk at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Fifty years ago he lost the pole position by three-and-a-half feet in a four-year-old car.
“Man that was such a thrill and also a disappointment all at the same time,” said Rutherford, recalling his run in the Patrick Petroleum Eagle-Offy. “We came out of nowhere because nobody was paying any attention to us, and we almost stole the pole from Big Al (Unser). So we were thrilled to be in the middle of Row 1, but we came so close so that hurt a little bit, too.”
Pat Patrick’s new team was lean and mean, led by chief mechanic Mike Devin, the many talents of Danny Jones and jack-of-all-trades John ‘Sarge’ Anderson. In seven previous starts, Rutherford had never started better than 11th, and had never finished the race he would go on to win three times. The car was a 1966 Dan Gurney Eagle, but it had a totally different look by the time May of 1970 rolled around.
“John was a pretty good artist so he sketched out a basic design on a bar napkin,” recalled Devin, a crew chief at Indy for 25 years who also served as tech director for USAC and the Indy Racing League. “The nose we used had been made the year before when I worked for Lindsey Hopkins with Jack Beckley.
“So Jones, myself and Eldon Rasmussen did all the sidepod and bodywork. We didn’t have a wind tunnel or anything – just a good eye, I guess.”
During practice nobody noticed the Patrick team because they were seven-eight mph off the pace of the fast guys.
“We were really struggling, so we changed everything but the paint job,” said Rutherford. “We went back to the basics, and that started turning things around. I ran real good on Friday, and then backed it up in practice on Pole Day morning, and I thought we might have something. Some of us were always able to find a little extra in qualifying, and I was pumped.”
Devin did what was necessary back then – he cranked in more boost, and prayed the engine held together for four laps.
After Unser’s four-lap average of 170.221 mph was posted and he was being interviewed on the IMS public address system, J.R.’s first lap was announced. Big Al quit talking and the 175,000 people in attendance started screaming. At the end of 10 miles, the difference was only 0.008s.
“I figured that had to get Al’s attention when they announced my first couple laps, but then I made a very slight bottle on Lap 3 and that’s what cost us,” said Rutherford, who would come back to win the pole in 1973, 1976 and 1980.
Jerry Hoyt stole the pole in 1955 when he went out in the closing minutes in very windy conditions after most of the front-runners had parked their cars for the day. But 50 years ago, J.R., Devin and the car called Geraldine (comedian Flip Wilson’s character) gave the Speedway faithful a big thrill and an example of what homemade creativity, taking a chance and a brave racer could accomplish back then.