How much does three-time Indy 500 champion Johnny Rutherford love being behind the wheel of a race car? So much so that a decade after his retirement from racing, he still can be found there. Rutherford, 66, has driven the pace car at every IRL race, meaning he and his wife of 41 years, Betty, still live the touring life, often traveling hundreds of miles a week in a high-end motor home during the 15-race season.
Rutherford has worked for the IRL since its inception in 1996. He also evaluates new drivers and speaks at IRL promotional events, but driving the pace car is his most visible duty. And his most glamorous: He has trained ceremonial Indy 500 pace car drivers such as Jay Leno and actors Jim Caviezel and Morgan Freeman. (The celebs handle the opening lap; Rutherford does caution duty.)
One of his regrets is that he didn't have a photo taken at last May's Indy 500, during which he chatted with Freeman, the ceremonial driver, and Caviezel, who drove the pace car in 2002 and had come back to watch the race. "I could say I had given pace car instructions to God [ Freeman's role in Bruce Almighty] and Jesus [Caviezel's role in The Passion of the Christ]," says Rutherford.
Driving a pace car isn't always as simple as it sounds. Rutherford's most difficult run was in October 2003, after Kenny Brack had crashed at Texas Motor Speedway, breaking his back, ribs, thigh and ankles. "We were down to 20 mph trying to pick our way through the debris at the end of the backstraight." Rutherford says. "That was tough because I knew someone had to be seriously injured in that accident."
Rutherford regularly speaks to IRL drivers about safety, and he believes they are listening. "They're starting to take care of one another on the track, and that's what it's all about," Rutherford says. "That's what [A.J.] Foyt and [Mario] Andretti and all of us used to do. If you don't have a clear shot to pass, you give it a break and let it all work out."
Rutherford, whose home is in Fort Worth, Texas, a mile from where he lived as a teenager, sounds a bit weary when he talks about the travel that comes with his job. But the guy who fell in love with the track when he went to a midget car race at age nine says he's not going to give up the life anytime soon. "Until the day I can't get in the car and do the job, I can't picture me sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair and letting the days go by," Rutherford says. "I'm not that way." -- Bill Syken