The annual Road Racing Drivers Club dinner on the eve of the 44thToyota Grand Prix of Long Beach celebrated an Evening with Johnny Rutherford Presented by Firestone before a capacity crowd at the Long Beach Hilton last Thursday, April 12. The three-time Indy 500 winner joined RRDC president Bobby Rahal on stage for the usual loosely structured interview format that revealed or revisited the highlights of the Texan’s career — even though he admitted to having been born in historic Coffeeville, Kansas, rather that the Lone Star state from which he got his nickname.
It was the RRDC’s 10thconsecutive annual banquet honoring auto racing’s most influential leaders. The previous honorees have been Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones, Roger Penske, Jim Hall, Brian Redman, Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser, George Follmer and Emerson Fittipaldi. Hall, Andrettil and Follmer were in attendance to help recognize the newest member of this elite group.
Gurney, who would have turned 87 the following day, passed away earlier this year. A special tribute video, narrated by TV personality Bob Varsha, was shown to commemorate the American racing legend’s remarkable legacy in the sport. Rutherford’s path through his extraordinary career was similarly captured in a short video written and voiced by Sam Posey. On hand to celebrate Rutherford’s short-track heritage were drivers Ken Schrader, Ron “Sleepy” Tripp, Kevin Olson and Jeff Haywood, as well as Don “The Snake” Prudhomme of NHRA fame.
“Johnny is the consummate professional, a hell of a racecar driver, but more of a gentleman, and a tremendous ambassador for the sport of motor racing,” said Rahal. “The guy is just first class in everything he’s done. He was very public and he respected all of us drivers. He really was a complete package, so it’s great that we are able to recognize him tonight.”
On receiving the honor, Rutherford said, “It’s a genuine thrill. I never would have thought that I would have risen in the ranks to earn this. I’m just a guy from Texas who wanted to drive racecars, on the dirt mostly back then, so it was different. But I enjoyed my road racing, and I’m thrilled to death to be considered for this honor.”
Mario Andretti, the 2014 RRDC honoree, said of his friend and fellow competitor, “He is so deserving to be recognized among the racers here. He’s had a fabulous career. He is very versatile and is just one of the good guys in our sport. Not just because of his record but also as a friend. Johnny is one of us, for sure, big time. He’s a racer.”
Featured on the courtyard outside the Hilton during the cocktail reception sponsored by American Honda were the Bell Lines Trucking Spl., an Offenhauser-powered Silnes/Meskowski chassis from the Malloy Foundation, in which Rutherford made his Championship Car debut on the dirt in 1962, the McLaren M16E in which he finished 2ndat the Indy 500 in ’75, and his Indy 500-winning Chaparral 2K from 1980. The McLaren and Chaparral were on loan from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.
An original painting by Randy Owens depicting Lone Star JR’s third Indy 500 win in 1980 with the Chaparral 2K was presented to Rutherford by Owens. A giclee print of the painting, signed by champion drivers and other racing legends attending the dinner, along with a 25-foot-long backdrop of the painting, were included in a silent auction.
The dinner’s proceeds help support the RRDC’s young driver initiatives, including its groundbreaking SAFEisFAST.com presented by Honda program, and the Team USA Scholarship, which the RRDC has backed since 1997. Team USA celebrates its 27thanniversary this year. For further information please visit www.rrdc.org