JOHNNY RUTHERFORD HAD QUALIFIED FOR THE INDY 500 EVERY YEAR since 1963, but his car was never good enough to finish the race. Finally, in '74, he made it through all 500 miles—and won the whole thing. "It's not an easy place to put it together," says Rutherford, now 73. And yet he was able to win it twice more, in '76 and '80.
Speedometer needles were steadily ticking to the right throughout the '70s. The tire wars between Goodyear and Firestone, which began in the mid-1960s, resulted in the production of tires with better grip. At the same time car manufacturers were honing their rear-engine builds, and the race organizers began permitting rear wings in '72. In '78 Tom Sneva took the pole with a track-record 202 mph, a great deal faster than the 170 mph that pole sitter Al Unser had averaged in '70.
At the '77 race Tony Hulman, the face and voice of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, stepped up to the microphone to utter those four familiar words. This time he added something extra. "In company with the first lady ever to qualify at Indianapolis—gentlemen, start your engines." That lady, of course, was 39-year-old Janet Guthrie, who received mixed reactions from fans and drivers, most of whom eventually offered their support. She struggled with mechanical issues throughout the race before bowing out in the 27th lap and finishing 29th.
In '78 Guthrie was back and ran ninth, the best showing by a female driver at the time. "If I contributed some small bit to the changing perception of women's abilities, I am glad of that," Guthrie wrote in her 2005 autobiography. "It was not the reason I did what I did. I drove race cars because ... it was an obsession and a passion." And that is something with which any Indy driver, and certainly three-time winner Johnny Rutherford, would agree.