IndyCar history runs ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas’

Bruce Martin
NBC Sports

AUSTIN, Texas – From A.J. to “Lone Star J.R.”

From “Hard Luck” Lloyd Ruby to Jim McElreath.

From famed car builders and former racers Carroll Shelby to Jim Hall and even NASCAR’s “Texas Terry” Labonte.

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Throw in a few racetracks with names such as “Playland Park” in Houston or the “Devil’s Bowl” outside of Dallas to the modern-day Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.

The racing heritage in the state of Texas is as rich as the “Sweet Crude” oil that is pumped from the ground that has made “The Republic” one of the richest and proudest lands in the nation.

“Texas is big and so were its race drivers,” the legendary A.J. Foyt told NBC Sports.com.

Deep in the Texas “Hill Country” is the state’s latest contribution to auto racing, and in particular, the NTT IndyCar Series.

It’s the lavish Circuit of the Americas, a racing venue that has all of the trappings expected of a Formula One circuit when it was completed in 2012 to become the host of the United States Grand Prix that same year.

The 20-turn, 3.41-mile permanent road course brings some of the great aspects of a European road racing venue with its own unique trademark – a massive tower that rises far above the Texas landscape that can be seen 10 miles away.

On at 1 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN, the next great racing venue in Texas will host the INDYCAR Classic and the NTT IndyCar Series.

With legendary names such as Foyt of Houston, the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 who remains a rascal at 84 years old, to three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford of Fort Worth and other fast drivers such as Ruby from Wichita Falls and McElreath from Arlington, the history runs deep.

Why has Texas had such an impact on IndyCar?

“We’re just tougher than the rest of them, I guess,” Rutherford told NBC Sports.com.

It takes toughness to grow up in Houston before air-conditioning, as Foyt did. Fort Worth isn’t much better in the summer, either, and Rutherford believes Texans could handle the heat of a race car because of that.

“That is the way we all were,” Rutherford said. “I can remember running Salem or Winchester in Indiana, and it always got hot at those tracks. I can remember 30-lap features with Sprint cars and 20 laps into it, the drivers were backing by me. I was able to keep steam up.

“It did help us be stronger on a hot day. The other guys that lived up there couldn’t handle that. That is something we used to our advantage.”

Foyt’s father was a racer and a mechanic named Tony Foyt. He wasn’t a bad Midget racer, either.

Growing up as Tony Foyt’s son wasn’t easy for young A.J. His father demanded excellence from A.J. because the boy had to earn it.

“I started at Playland Park, a quarter-mile dirt track near Houston,” Foyt recalled. “My daddy had Midgets before I started racing. They ran it at the Little 500 one year up in Anderson, Indiana before the Indianapolis 500. Back then, you could run in Austin, San Antonio and those were about the only tracks around here. I won at San Antonio; it was called Pan American Speedway. Playland was a dirt track and then they built a paved track.

“Devil’s Bowl was a little quarter-mile dirt track near Dallas.”

Despite their deep Texas heritage, both Foyt and Rutherford knew if they were going to hit the big time, they needed to run in the “Heartland” – the great Midwest.

“I decided to go to the Midwest and run Midget races,” Foyt said. “I borrowed money from a bank. My mother-in-law signed for it. I took off and decided to go racing. Cecil Bain was from here, too. My dream was to one day make the Indianapolis 500; much less be lucky enough to win it.

“That was my dream come true.”

Rutherford’s tale is fairly similar to Foyt’s.

He was born in Kansas, but his family moved to Fort Worth when he was 12. His interest in racing began a few years before the move to Texas.

“My Dad took me to a Midget race when I was 9 years old in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” Rutherford recalled. “There was something about Midget racing for a 9-year-old, and I was hooked. I wanted to be a Midget racer when I grew up. It seemed like a natural to me.

“I built my own car to race at the Devil’s Bowl in Dallas. It was a modified stock car. A 1932 Chevrolet Coupe. I raced that first year and the guy wanted me to drive his car for a second year in 1960. It had a 1938 Chevrolet frame, an International six-cylinder pickup truck engine and a 1949 Crosley body on it. I drove that until McElreath, and I left to go to the Midwest and drive Sprint Cars.

“The original Devil’s Bowl that I started on was in a rock quarry on the edge of Dallas. We would run there and race at Waco, Texas. Texarkana had a track. There weren’t any race tracks out west then, but we raced wherever there was a track and we could race.

“They eventually build a paved track in Houston and I went to the first one there in 1959 or 1960. But if we wanted to race, we had to go to Indiana and Illinois and Ohio and Pennsylvania to have big-time Sprint Car racing.”

Before Rutherford became an IndyCar winner, however, he drove to victory in a NASCAR Cup race. It was in Smokey Yunick’s Chevrolet in the 100-mile qualifying race for the 1963 Daytona 500. Back then, victories in the qualifying races counted as Cup wins.

“I am the only driver in the history of NASCAR that has ever won a race with car No. 13,” Rutherford said.

His true love, however, was in open-wheel racing machines. It wasn’t always easy for Rutherford, however.

He drove out of the ballpark at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, on April 3, 1966. He broke both arms and wore casts while the injuries healed.

“That’s when you find out who your true friends are when you have to go to the bathroom to the bathroom with two broken arms,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford was a rookie at the Indianapolis 500 in 1963. He missed the race in ’66 with the broken arms and struggled at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in his first nine Indy 500s with six finishes lower than 25thplace.

His big break came in 1973 when he was hired by McLaren and won the Indy 500 pole. He finished ninth in that godawful Indy 500 during a month of May that claimed the lives of drivers Art Pollard and Swede Savage and pit crew member Armando Terran, who was killed when he was struck by a safety vehicle speeding the wrong way down pit road after Savage’s brutal crash in the race.

Terran’s death came in full view of the main grandstands and in front of the Indianapolis 500 Festival Queen and Princesses. Several of them fainted from witnessing the horrific site that occurred right in front of them.

Also in that race, numerous spectators were badly burned at the start when Salt Walther’s car pierced through the fence in a massive crash, spewing hot, flaming Methanol into the crowd.

It remains one of the grimmest “Months of May” in Indianapolis 500 history.

But Rutherford’s ray of light at Indy would come the following year.

Despite starting 25th, Rutherford’s McLaren was fast – very fast – in the race. He worked his way through the field to the lead and led 122 laps in the 200-lap race. He scored the first of his three Indy 500 wins that year.

“I had struggled for 10 years before I finished the Indianapolis 500 and when I finished it, I won it,” Rutherford recalled. “That is in 1974 when I drove for McLaren. It was good to finally find the right people and the right team. McLaren was it for me.”

Rutherford started on the pole and won the race at Indy in 1976. His greatest Indy 500 triumph was in 1980 when he teamed up with team owner Jim Hall of Midland, Texas who had developed the first true “ground effects” car to compete in the Indy 500 – the revolutionary “Chaparral.”

The undertray of the car combined with the design of the wings created a vacuum that kept the Chaparral stuck to the racing surface at high speeds. That allowed it to race through the corners faster than any other car in the field.

Because of its bright yellow Pennzoil sponsorship, the car was called the “Yellow Submarine.” Rutherford drove that “Yellow Submarine” to victory after leading 118 laps in the 1980 Indianapolis 500.

“That was one of the things that I enjoyed most about Jim and the Chaparral team is that he had been a successful driver in his own field,” Rutherford said. “He was easy to talk to. We talked the same language as Tyler Alexander and I at McLaren. I knew what he was going to do with the car, and he knew what the car was doing. It was a great opportunity.

“The car was based in Midland, Texas and it was an all-Texas team.

“I felt Texas pride with Jim Hall. It was good. There are things you think about and dream about. I had been with McLaren for seven years and they had to get out of IndyCar because of finances and they decided to stick with Formula One. I thought, oh no.

“Tyler Alexander called Jim Hall. Jim and Al Unser had a falling out and Jim called me. We hammered out a deal and it was perfect. The timing for me was everything.”

Rutherford won 30 races in his IndyCar Series career and earned the respect of Foyt, the all-time winningest driver in IndyCar with 67 wins. Foyt is the only driver to win the Indy 500, Daytona 500 (1972) and 24 Hours of Le Mans (1967).

Foyt had deep respect for all of the drivers from Texas.

“Johnny was a good all-around race driver,” Foyt said. “One of the hardest guys to get by when you were racing was Lloyd Ruby. He was a clean driver, but tough to get by. Rutherford and McElreath were really clean. I don’t think people recognized how good McElreath was. He was a lot better than people thought.

“I’ve known all of them really good and they were all good racers. Luck didn’t fall Lloyd Ruby’s way and you couldn’t count Jim McElreath out because he won the first race at Ontario Motor Speedway for me. Luckily enough, I won my share.

“All of them Texans were pretty good race drivers.”

Foyt gained a reputation as being a man that shouldn’t be crossed. He was as famous for his rage outside of a race car as he was for his victories. But inside the cockpit, Foyt was as cool and clean as any driver that has ever competed in racing.

“He was an extremely clean race driver,” Rutherford said. “At Indianapolis in 1974, he had just enough grunt with his four-cam Ford engine that he could handle me down the straightaways, but I could have put the wheel to him in the turns and passed him. My car handled all the way around the race track. He would have raced me that way and I raced him that way, gave him every break and not crowd him or put a wheel inside to him. It just wasn’t worth it.

“AJ was a hot head out of the car but did not have that anger in the cockpit. That was the difference in competitive nature. When you are in the race car, it’s competitive, you race them clean and don’t create any problems. That’s the way it was then, it was competitive.”

Rutherford admitted there was one race at the old Texas World Speedway in College Station, Texas where Foyt pulled a fast one on him using the pace car as a pick.

“Foyt pulled one of the slickest tricks I’ve ever had pulled on me in an IndyCar,” Rutherford recalled. “Bill Simpson was driving the pace car for some reason, and we were in Turn 4 for the pace car to pull off and get the green. At the last instance, Foyt pulled off beside him so he could not turn into the pits and go off the race track. Foyt dived into the pits, and I missed it, and I had to go around with the pace car.

“That ended up being his margin of victory.”

In more recent times, Texas Motor Speedway has been a showcase of IndyCar racing at its best with its annual Saturday night race on the high banks every June.

The “COTA Era” begins for IndyCar on Sunday, and Rutherford is confident the Formula One road course will provide a great venue for the Indy cars to shine.

“I think it’s going to be really good,” Rutherford said. “We need facilities like that. Hopefully, it will catch the attention of the fans. Formula One draws big crowds there. We have seen that. But the Indy cars will be slower than the Formula One cars.

“Time will tell. It should be a good race with a lot of cars there. It will be exciting to see.”

Auto racing is a sport for modern cowboys. Instead of riding “Bucking Broncos” these modern cowboys have to tame the automotive thoroughbreds that are the fastest cars that race on closed circuit race courses – today’s Indy cars.

“Rider up,” Rutherford said.

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