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Lone Star J.R.
The Autobiography of Racing Legend Johnny Rutherford
By Johnny Rutherford, David Craft
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2000 Johnny Rutherford and David Craft
All rights reserved.
Quitting Was Never an Option
April 3, 1966, was "Johnny Rutherford Day" at Eldora Speedway, and the track officials found me slumped over in my car with my hands in my lap.
I was a mess: my goggles were down around my mouth and my flip shield was hanging off the back of my helmet. At least that's what they told me later. I don't remember anything, because after it happened I was in a daze.
As I came to, I could hear the rocks being kicked up by the guys leaping over the guardrail and running down the embankment toward me. I can even remember the voice of the first man who reached me, my old friend, Roy Reed.
"John! John! Are you okay?!"
Confused and groaning, I somehow mumbled, "I think my arms are broken. They hurt like hell, and I can't see."
Because of all the ruptured surface blood vessels in my head, I had temporarily lost my vision. It felt as if a couple of handfuls of sand had been thrown into my eyes. My eyes were irritated and every time I blinked it hurt, so I kept them closed as best I could.
The guys unhooked my belts and started to pull me from the car so they could lay me on a stretcher. It was a heck of a way to celebrate a day in my honor. There I was, the reigning United States Auto Club's National Sprint Car Champion of 1965, carrying the number "1" on my car for the 1966 season, and I was being carried out on a stretcher while thousands of fans, including my wife of three years, Betty, watched. It was only the second race of the new season, a season, as it turned out, in which I wouldn't race again.
* * *
The first race of the '66 season had been at Reading, Pennsylvania. It was cold that day and I was driving a brand new car. The owner, Wally Meskowski, had built the car for me earlier that winter, and he had put Mario Andretti in the car in which I had won the title the year before. I was excited about having a new sprint car, but it was March, and I didn't know yet how the changes Wally had made to the new car would affect its handling on the track.
The crew prepared the car for warm-up laps at Reading, but in all the excitement, the crewman whose job was to change the gears and put things together in the center section of the rear end forgot to replace the lubricant. When I went out to drive some slow warm-up laps, the car didn't feel right. It was kind of sluggish. I returned to the pits, and when we checked the car we found that the lack of lubricant had caused the ring gear and pinion in the rear end of the car to overheat. They were ruined, and our race day was over before it began. I had no idea what the car would be like in an actual race; it was still brand new.
The race at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, came a week later. Track conditions were typical of Eldora in the spring, coming into a thaw. A lot of rocks in the dirt came to the surface in the spring, so the racetrack was unpredictable and always rough. In fact, I heard that Earl Bates, the track promoter and owner would have the track plowed and then he'd take a potato picker out to the track and pick the rocks out himself.
The racetrack was built on the side of a hill, and the dirt was pushed from the infield and built up to create the backstretch of the track. This formed about a sixty-foot drop from the guardrail to the normal terrain level outside the track. A small creek ran along the bottom of that sixty-foot bank.
I really liked the Eldora racetrack. It's a half-mile, high-banked, dirt track that is fast and a lot of fun to run. I had done fairly well there over the years. In 1964 I won my first USAC sprint car race at Eldora, and I set a new track record there in '65 when I won the title. I was confident about returning to Eldora. Plus, I had the extra incentive of racing there on "Johnny Rutherford Day." Boy, was it ever.
The car was not handling well, but I was able to make the feature event. I had barely made the feature through my heat race, a qualifying race. I was running about seventh in the field of eighteen cars that had started the feature event. Mario was behind me, driving the car I had been so successful with the previous year.
Wally Meskowski was on the front straightaway, giving us hand signals to tell us "You're stretching the guy out" or "He's closing in on you." Wally stepped out to where I could see him and signaled me to move up. I thought, Well, I can't see what everybody else is doing, but he sees something, so I moved up a little bit. When I did, my car hooked a rut and I bounded around slightly as Mario drove by me on the inside.
I came around again and let Wally know with my own hand signals what I thought of his moving me up. I went into the first turn and then ran a couple more laps. On lap thirteen I was closing in on Mario, trying to set myself up to pass him, when his car kicked up a rock or dirt clod. Whatever it was, it hit me right between the eyes and gained my undivided attention.
I had my goggles on, of course, and attached to my helmet was a shield made of clear, heavy, acetate plastic. I would throw the shield over the front of the helmet to protect my eyes from the rocks, clods of dirt, and mud that would fly up during the early stages of a race. When the shield became too dirty to see through, I'd just flip it back over my helmet. I'd still be protected by my goggles, which had what were called stack-ups — extra lenses on elastic straps. When they became covered with mud and dirt, I would just pull a stack-up down to expose a clean lens. That's the routine over the course of a dirt race.
I had just flipped my shield back when that rock or clod struck my face just above the bridge of my nose. It must have knocked me unconscious for a moment. At the very least I was stunned. The impact of that rock was the beginning of the end of my day at Eldora Speedway. The right rear of the car bounced as I hooked a rut. In that split second, when I relaxed and my foot came off the throttle — which is a cardinal sin in dirt track racing, because in the rough stuff you have to keep the back wheels churning and buzzing so you can work through those tough spots — my car hooked the rut and was jerked into the air.
As a result of that movement the tail of my car turned toward the infield, and then the car hooked another rut. Because the car was set up statically, with extra weight in the left rear wheel of the car, the wheel dug in and the car started flipping. The right-side tire hit the top of the guardrail post. The car bounced like a beach ball when the tires struck the railing.
My car soared out of the racetrack, flipping in the air at a height of twenty-five to thirty feet, higher than a nearby light pole. Then, after nose-diving down the sixty-foot embankment, the car landed on its wheels in a shallow creek bed. Later, a full-page photo in Life magazine caught me extended out of the car by approximately a foot, hanging by my seat belt and shoulder harness with my arms dangling above my head, when the car, nose down, was at its gyrating peak, higher than the light pole.
When the car nose-dived into the ground, my outstretched arms came down hard on top of the windshield, breaking both arms virtually in the same place. The right arm was more badly damaged because of a dislocation and fracture of the elbow.
The race had to be red-flagged — stopped — because all the emergency equipment was located on the infield, with access at the third-turn gate on the track.
Dr. Ward Dunseth, a sprint car owner from Illinois, was also racing at Eldora that day. Occasionally Dr. Dunseth served as our unofficial track physician. Seconds after my car landed in the creek, he was at the scene and quickly examined me. He suspected that I had suffered a basal skull fracture.
I vaguely remember Dr. Dunseth looking at me, firmly but gently holding my head, and saying, "Now, you may have a head injury, so John, for God's sake, don't move your head." Of course, being an animated person I nodded my head yes and said, "Okay." Right away I could feel his hands start to hold my head a little tighter.
An ambulance took me to the hospital in Greenville, Ohio, thirteen miles south of Rossburg on Highway 127. The doctor on call was not pleased to be called in to treat, of all people, "a stupid race car driver." I was later told he was most unpleasant, and that although he diagnosed my broken right arm, he completely missed my broken left arm until Betty brought it to his attention. Betty and Dr. Dunseth requested that X-rays be taken, but the attending doctor refused their request. He asked Betty to move me to a Dayton hospital immediately, as he did not wish to accept the responsibility of tending to my injuries.
Betty refused to move me anywhere.
As a registered nurse, she knew how serious my condition was and that if I did have a basal skull fracture there could be further complications if I were moved. She was more concerned about my possible head injury, and she knew what needed to be done — she called Indianapolis to talk with Dr. Ted Luros, a neurological surgeon with whom she had worked, and related my condition and symptoms over the phone.
Given the Greenville doctor's unpleasant behavior, Dr. Luros recommended that I be transferred to Dayton and called a doctor there to see me on arrival. Dr. Luros even offered to fly to either Greenville or Dayton if needed.
Betty knew that a fellow driver, Donnie Davis, had died as a result of a basal skull fracture suffered in a sprint car mishap in New Bremen, Ohio, not far from Rossburg. Because of insufficient emergency equipment and lack of skilled medical staff at the scene, Donnie was transported in a florist's truck to a Dayton hospital. He didn't have a chance of surviving his injury.
Betty was absolutely terrified at the thought of my being taken to Dayton in my condition, and she rode in the ambulance, holding my head for the entire thirty miles.
In the hospital I looked like one massive bruise. I was yellow and green and blue and purple. The white in my eyes was gone; they were solid red. While in the hospital, a doctor who had worked with NASA told me that I had had a "red-out." That's what happens when you pull in an excess of ten negative g's, which forces the blood to the head and causes many surface blood vessels to rupture. My eyes did not return to normal until about six to eight weeks after the accident.
At the hospital, surgeons placed a plate in my right arm to hold a wedge-shaped fragment of bone in place at the fracture site in my badly broken ulna, the large bone in the forearm. A second surgery was performed on my radius, the small bone in the forearm, which was dislocated at my elbow. Because of scar tissue and the dislocation, I neither can straighten my right arm nor turn my palm up or down. I only have about seventy percent mobility in my arm, but through the years I have learned to make small adjustments in the way I accomplish everyday tasks. For racing, my crew simply modified the car's steering wheel by moving it closer to me.
After I arrived at Dayton, Wally Meskowski, Mario Andretti, and Don Branson came to the hospital to check on me. Don was a friend and teammate of mine. I always called him "Teamie."
Betty was in the hall outside the emergency room when Don arrived. She told him, "Don, I want you to do something for me. When you go in there to see him, don't tell him who you are. Just stand beside him. Johnny said he couldn't see when they brought him in."
Don walked to my bedside and Betty said, "Look who's here to see you, Johnny."
I turned and opened my eyes slightly and said, "Oh, hi, Teamie."
Betty later told me that that was one of the biggest reliefs she experienced during our whole ordeal. I was getting my sight back. I was still in trauma, but I was recovering, however slowly. During the first two to three days I saw double images, but I could see, and I was improving.
It was going to be a long, hard pull. My fortunes had changed. One moment I was out doing what I loved to do and the next thing I knew I was bedridden at Good Samaritan Hospital in Dayton.
It was a violent crash, and I was fortunate to have survived and to have remembered little of the accident. Thank God the creek wasn't very deep, because if I had landed upside down I might have drowned before emergency crews could reach me.
* * *
Practice for the Indianapolis 500 was less than a month away, and when I saw the newspaper headlines — "Rutherford out of '500' " — Betty said I pitched a fit because I did not intend to miss the 1966 Indianapolis 500. But in truth, I would miss the race that year because my injuries were more complicated than I thought.
Examining my uniform after the accident, I found a red stain on the right shoulder and on the entire length of the sleeve. On the race car itself, the upholstery had been cut as if by a knife, just below where my right shoulder would have been. I found out later that the guardrail at Eldora was painted with red oxide primer, which seemed to solve the mystery of the red stain. The right-side tires had come down on top of the guardrail post and I must have slammed my shoulder and arm into the guardrail as the car bounded off the railing. The top of the guardrail apparently was sharp enough to cut right through the upholstery next to my arm. Luckily, my arm wasn't severed in the accident.
It's possible that the car's collision with the guardrail caused the dislocation of my elbow, which was later broken when the car made its final impact. That mystery remains unsolved.
Convalescing in the hospital gave me plenty of time to ponder what happened out there on the track. But for the life of me I couldn't understand how I lost control of my car and flipped as I did. That piece of the puzzle was still missing. I'd ask Betty, "What happened?" and she'd answer me as best she could, based on what she knew as a witness to the whole thing. After the first day or two that she stayed with me in the hospital, she tired of hearing me ask, "What happened?" But I needed to know what really took place out there.
Of course, when you suffer a head injury like that, it's devastating. You don't just bounce back right away. My short-term memory was gone for a while after the accident, but soon returned once the cause of my puzzling accident was discovered.
When I was moved to Good Samaritan Hospital in Dayton, Pete Wales, the owner and promoter of Winchester Speedway, one of the country's most famous high-banked racetracks, and his wife, Dottie, asked Betty to stay with them at their place, which wasn't far from the hospital.
At their house, Betty was getting some luggage out of the trunk when she found my helmet, my gloves, my goggles, and the uniform that had been cut from me after the accident. She looked at the goggles and immediately thought she knew what really started the accident.
At that time, race drivers always taped their lenses in with black electrical tape to provide shade from the sun and to hold the lenses in place if anything hit them. The rock that hit me split the tape and shattered the lens right at the point of impact.
The next day, when Betty came to visit me at the hospital, she handed me the goggles and told me what she had figured out. I still have those goggles in my trophy case at home. The goggles — which are the same type of shatter-resistant goggles used by fighter pilots in World War II — were shattered at the place where the rock hit them.
Even though it was discovered at the hospital that I did not have a basal skull fracture, I was devastated after the accident, both physically and psychologically, because it knocked me out of the Indy 500 that year and out of racing for the entire season.
* * *
After about a month in the hospital I was released, and Betty and I returned to Indianapolis to our new apartment. I was up and mobile but still pretty weak.
Immediately, I went over to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to visit with everybody, and I watched in agony as somebody else drove my car in the time trials — the car I would have been in and should have been in — for the 1966 Indy 500. That was tough, very tough. I knew I was in no condition to be driving in the Indy 500, but I still wanted to be out there on that legendary track. I was miserable. I decided to never again step over the dollar to pick up the dime.
Because I was out with two broken arms, I was approached to do the color commentary on the race, and I agreed. I was partnered with announcers Charlie Brockman and Chris Economacki, and I did the expert commentary on the first closed-circuit television coverage of the Indianapolis 500. Fans could go to their local movie theater, pay an admission price, and watch live coverage of the Indianapolis 500.
Excerpted from Lone Star J.R. by Johnny Rutherford, David Craft. Copyright © 2000 Johnny Rutherford and David Craft. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by A.J. Foyt,
Preface by Mari Hulman George,
Introductions by Johnny Rutherford and David Craft,
1. Quitting Was Never an Option,
2. Many Friends, Too Many Places,
3. The First Step,
4. On My Own,
5. My Scuffling Days,
6. Brickyard Bound,
7. Daytona Was a Phone Call Away,
9. Fireball in My Face,
10. The Win at Atlanta,
11. Sprint to the Championship,
12. My Comeback after Eldora,
13. Heartbreak, Hope, and Hospital Food,
14. Winning Was Everything -For a Few Weeks,
15. A Step Closer to Victory,
16. New Start for an Old Hand,
17. My First Swig of Milk,
18. After "the 500",
19. Walking to Victory Lane,
20. Crash the Yank!,
21. Check, Please,
22. Putting the CART before the Horsepower,
23. Ladybug on My Shoulder,
24. Broken Belt Drives and Broken Bones,
25. It Was Time,
26. Leaving Gasoline Alley,
27. Life after Racing,
Appendix 1. Racers, Rivals, Friends,
Appendix 2. Career Highlights,
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