Powersliding the fastest racecars in the world

Johnny Rutherford – the man who scored two of McLaren’s three Indy 500 wins – talks about a lesser-known part of our history

Many of McLaren’s early successes came in America. The team dominated the early years of Can-Am, and – in 1972, 1974 and 1976 – would take three victories in the Indianapolis 500, the second two scored by the works team. So it was entirely fitting that the M16C that took those wins was accompanied on its return to the UK by both the man who drove it, American racing legend Johnny Rutherford, and also the famous Borg-Warner trophy that bears the likenesses of all Indy 500 winners.

‘The Indy 500 is the top of the mountain, it was where every young driver wanted to go,’ Rutherford said during his visit to the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, UK. ‘Other than my children being born I think of it as my greatest accomplishment.’

Rutherford was recruited by McLaren in 1973. The M16’s pace was immediately obvious at that year’s Indy 500. ‘We were the first team to go 200mph at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,’ Rutherford says, ‘but it was unofficial, set during practice. We put four laps together - all over 200mph - and were sure we’d break the 200 in qualifying, but then the weather changed and I did a 199, three 198s and a 198 average. It was a track record, but it wasn’t the 200.’

Rutherford started the race on pole, but a broken exhaust header sent the Offenhauser-powered McLaren to the pits and he eventually finished ninth. There were no such problems the following year, when ‘JR’ battled his rival and close friend AJ Foyt for much of the race.

‘I’ve got a picture of Foyt and I when we were racing so hard in ‘74 and our left fronts are on the yellow line inside the turn and our left rears must be about two feet off,’ Rutherford said. ‘We were both out of sprint cars, you just develop that feeling.’ Powersliding what were then the fastest racecars in the world; it was a different time.

‘I’VE GOT A PICTURE OF FOYT AND I WHEN WE WERE RACING SO HARD IN ‘74 AND OUR LEFT FRONTS ARE ON THE YELLOW LINE INSIDE THE TURN AND OUR LEFT REARS MUST BE ABOUT TWO FEET OFF. WE WERE BOTH OUT OF SPRINT CARS, YOU JUST DEVELOP THAT FEELING.’
Johnny Rutherford

Rutherford went on to take another Indianapolis win in 1980, making him one of the elite group of drivers to have won America’s most famous race three times. His front-line racing career continued into the 1990s, and he acted as mentor to Fernando Alonso when the double Formula 1TM world champion made his debut at the Indy 500 last year.

Rutherford was joined for the ceremony at MTC by racing VIPs past and present, including Gordon Coppuck, McLaren’s then chief designer and the man who created the M16 (pictured with Johnny, above left). Before the ceremony they talked about both the car and the huge risks of racing during the period, with Coppuck admitting that a major suspension redesign in 1974 was driven in large part by Rutherford’s complaints about the previous season’s car. ‘That’s what drivers do, of course,’ he said, affectionately, ‘they complain!’

But Coppuck also said the passion that the young team put into the M16 came in part from the shock of Bruce McLaren’s death in 1970. ‘We knew that our superstar had passed away. Bruce had been intimately involved with the M15 and we knew we had to make it better, and there was a question mark about what sort of company we were without our very charismatic superstar. We needed to make an impression. That’s what we did.’