SI Vault
Sam Moses
June 07, 1976
Make that the 255. Cooling it under cover in the pits after rain cut short his spirited duel with A. J. Foyt, Gentleman Johnny Rutherford learned he had won the day
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June 07, 1976

A Slick Way To Win The 500

Make that the 255. Cooling it under cover in the pits after rain cut short his spirited duel with A. J. Foyt, Gentleman Johnny Rutherford learned he had won the day

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Among the myriad variables affecting the outcome of the Indianapolis 500, the biggest, and least controllable, is the weather. Local forecasters have learned from experience not to commit themselves on race day until umbrellas are wet or noses sunburned. This year the earliest Memorial Day weekend forecasts called for showers on Saturday and Monday, but conspicuously did not mention Sunday, race day. It's that old Indy aphorism at work: if you can't say anything nice about the weather on race day, don't say anything at all.

Well, this week Johnny Rutherford is saying a lot of nice things about the weather, because he made it work for him—to the tune of more than $200,000 in prize money for his second Indy victory. He may be the only person saying kind things about the rain that finished the race just one lap past the point—252.5 miles—where it became official. It was the shortest Indy ever, and Gentleman Johnny learned in the sodden pits, not on the track, that he had won by 13 seconds over A. J. Foyt, his famous fellow Texan, who has been burning to become the first four-time winner of the 500 since his last victory in 1967. Between them, they led 77 of the race's 102 laps, and until Foyt's sway bar and the clouds cracked, in that order, the duel looked as if it might last until next Memorial weekend. This possibility was revived 2� hours later, when it seemed the race would resume with Foyt's Coyote bearing a fresh sway bar. However, the sky darkened again and Chief Steward Tom Belford called it a day. But not before Foyt, whom some people around Indy consider as controllable as the weather, raised a storm of his own, claiming that Rutherford had illegally improved his lead while the field was running under a caution flag. The initial complaint was discounted after a review of the timing sheets, but there was a possibility that A. J. would file a formal protest the following morning, when the official results were to be posted.

Even if this year's 500 was compact-size, it certainly was not lacking in excitement. From his pole position Rutherford's McLaren led the first three laps with Foyt working his way up close to him from a second-row starting spot, and on Lap Four Foyt made his move.

"I saw A. J.'s Coyote coming, and he passed me down the back straight and led into Turn Three," said Rutherford. "All of a sudden I had to back off because A. J. started sliding, and I thought he was going up the wall. I passed him, but he passed me back again in Turn One."

On the ninth lap Roger McCluskey spun into the infield and the yellow caution flag came out. Foyt waited one lap too many to pit and top up his fuel tank and found himself sitting on pit row as the green flag was dropped. Meanwhile Rutherford had completed his pit stop and was back on the track with his foot down. Foyt barreled out into a device by which his crew had positioned the car—it was not pulled away in time—and no sooner did he get back on the track than another yellow flag came out.

Next came perhaps the most exciting racing that has been seen in the 500 since the early '70s, when the refinement of car aerodynamics made them so difficult to control in the slipstream created by other cars that the race seemed to become a game of stay-away. At about the 50-mile mark Rutherford and Foyt surged through traffic in a pack that included Gordon Johncock, Wally Dallenbach, Pancho Carter and Tom Sneva along for company (they eventually finished third through sixth, respectively). The six of them threaded through a like number of slower cars along the front straight before they settled into Turn One without incident.

"I don't know how many cars were in that gaggle, but I'm sure glad no one opened a gate in the wall," said Rutherford. "We would have all ended up out on 16th Street."

There was to be a lot of that kind of dicing. A new USAC rule required engines to be fitted with "popoff valves"—devices that work on the same principle as the little thing that whistles on the top of a pressure cooker—which limit the turbocharger boost and in effect limit horsepower. Previously, a driver could raise the boost at will. This year the racing was tighter because the cars were slower and more evenly matched, which in turn led to more passing in the corners.

It would have helped if the crowd had been fitted with popoff valves. The night before the race the city had been restless; throngs of boisterous visitors roamed the streets near the Speedway. Result: more than 100 arrests, one overturned and burned automobile, dozens of drag races on the streets and more Code One (emergency) calls than the police could handle. Those who made it to the 500 as spectators were a little fragile.

Last year when Rutherford had finished second to Bobby Unser in another rain-shortened 500, his sponsor was Gatorade, and he had to endure endless alligator jokes; now it is Hy-Gain CB radios, and Rutherford found himself dodging elbows aimed at his ribs by people calling, "Breaker! Breaker! Put the pedal to the metal, good buddy, ten-four."

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