How the 1974 Indy 500 sparked our Triple Crown obsession - Presented by SmartStop
The race that reduces American footballers to tears and leaves Olympians gobsmacked
Before McLaren’s first Monaco Grand Prix victory, before our first 24 Hours of Le Mans win, came the Indianapolis 500, the race win that awakened our Triple Crown obsession. It was nearly 50 years ago, but as Johnny Rutherford sits in front of us at the Nearburg Racing shop in Dallas, he remembers it like it was yesterday.
“What do I remember the most about the race in '74? I won it,” smiles three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford. If the interview had been stopped there, this would have been a short feature. Thankfully for us, what Johnny remembers the most, is far from the only thing he remembers.
Fifty years on, and he can recall every noise and every smell, as well as every name who played a role in his first victory. He could probably remember what he had for breakfast if you asked him.
The foundations of our Triple Crown win were built on Bruce McLaren’s love of racing in anything and everything he could get his hands on. Like his mentor Jack Brabham, Bruce was every bit the multi-series racer, but Johnny Rutherford was cut from a different cloth, laser-focused on one challenge in particular.
In a career that spanned more than three decades, he won 27 races across various American series, but none of those came close to his three Indianapolis 500 triumphs. Rutherford first attended the race as a fan when he was 17 and became infatuated with it.
In his mind, it is, without doubt, the greatest race in the world, bar none. “It’s a great time,” he says with a glint in his eye when asked why.
“What is the Indy 500? It's the top of the mountain. It's the greatest race in the world. It is just incredible,” he continues. “I have seen pro [American] football players, linemen, big, very strong guys, with tears running down their cheeks at the start of the Indianapolis 500.”
If Monaco is F1 in a microcosm, the Indy 500 is INDYCAR on a massive scale.
At 257,325, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the highest-capacity sports venue in existence, and it proudly boasts that “Churchhill Downs, Yankee Stadium, the Rose Bowl, the Roman Coliseum and Vatican City” can all fit inside.
At 257,325, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the highest-capacity sports venue in existence.
“There's no other track in the world like it,” explains Lyn St. James, who in 1996 became the first woman to win the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award. “The immense size of it, the long straightaways, the four corners that no matter how much they say that they're each nine degrees and they're the same, they are not the same.
“You get people that have competed in the Olympics, the Super Bowl, or any other prestigious sporting event, they come to the Indianapolis 500, and that very first lap, their jaws drop. And no matter where I go in the world, if I say that I have raced in the Indianapolis 500, people will instantly have this glow in their eyes and reply along the lines of ‘Oh my God.’ Suddenly, you are extraordinary.”
Having debuted at the race in 1963 - the same year Bruce McLaren founded his own racing team - Rutherford will have enjoyed several of those “oh my god” moments when meeting fans.
It is the supporters who put the three Triple Crown races on a pedestal in the first place. The Indy 500, along with the Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, were selected by the public as motorsport’s three most prestigious races, and if you’ve ever stood on the grid at any of them, you can feel the energy and the excitement they generate.
But as the largest of the lot, with an attendance of more than 220,000, it is at the Indy 500 where you can feel it the most. The crowd bring the race to life, creating a Roman amphitheatre-like experience. It’s like being surrounded by a giant speaker, and the soundtrack it’s playing is anticipation.
“'I’ve seen some other amazing races,” St. James adds. “I've been around the world, and I’ve raced in Le Mans and at some very famous places, but there is nothing like the sound and the feel you get at the Indianapolis 500, particularly at the start. If you go as a fan, you'll never forget it. You will never forget going to an Indianapolis 500 race. The experience is like none other.”
Three years after his debut in the 500, Rutherford suffered a terrifying crash at Eldora Speedway, breaking his arms when his car flipped off track.
For several years after, his reputation was tarnished. Despite making a full recovery, Rutherford was considered to be “damaged goods.” McLaren boss Teddy Mayer knew better than to doubt him.
“People said, ‘Boy, I don’t think he’ll ever be back,’ but I couldn’t wait to get back,” Rutherford recalls. “If you're scared or afraid, you shouldn't be in there.”
Following success in Can-Am and Formula 1, McLaren had been feeling their way into the 500-mile racing scene, initially only competing at the major events, such as the Indy 500. When the time came to embark on a full INDYCAR programme in 1973, Rutherford was seen as the ideal candidate to take it on: an experienced oval racer with a point to prove.
“Most of the teams I had driven for before then were the preserve of car owners. Guys who had other business interests,” he says. “Racing was their hobby, and they hired a crew and a driver to run their car. Well, racing was Team McLaren’s business.
“Me and Teddy [Mayer] had breakfast, he hired me, and wow, I had a steady job. I had bounced around since my accident - it took me a while to recover from that and get going again. This was a great opportunity.”
Having been restricted to primarily one-off appearances for several seasons, Johnny had gotten the regular race programme he needed to recapture his best form, all with the ultimate aim of finally winning the Indy 500.
However, at that stage of Rutherford’s career, with many perceiving him to be finished, his best result in the Indianapolis 500 was 18th from nine starts. Externally, he wasn’t seen as a major contender.
Internally, a private test in that year’s challenger, the M16, had teased the potential for something special and lifted expectations within the team.
“We did a test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway early in  and tested it for three days, but we couldn’t get it to stop under-steering,” he recalls. “Tyler Alexander was one of the smartest crew chiefs I've ever had. Tyler and I tried everything we could think of to stop it under steering before it was sent back to England, but we couldn’t.
The M16 had a rocky start, but eventually Rutherford managed to reach 200mph on track.
“Gordon Coppuck had designed the car, and I didn’t find out until years later how he had solved the issue. He completely redesigned the back end of the car, and they brought it over for the month of May.
“I went out to shake the car down, and it felt pretty good, but I didn’t run it as hard as I could. So, I went back out and within five laps, I was hitting 200mph. It was the first time I'd ever gone around the speedway with my throttle foot flat on the floor. The car was something else.”
Felix Rosenqvist topped 234mph in this year’s Indy 500 qualifying, but in 1974, no one had ever broken the 200mph barrier. It would have been a huge deal if Rutherford had replicated his speed from the test in the Indy 500.
Although he didn’t quite reach 200mph, Rutherford converted that early promise into pole, but overall victory continued to allude him as the American finished ninth in the race due to a cracked exhaust header.
“I have referred to ‘The Indianapolis Motor Speedway’ as the old lady, and she can throw you curves that you can't believe,” he explains. “We had set a new track record in '73, right at 200mph: one lap at 199 and three at 198.”
Armed with several improvements, including a new F1-style cockpit, Rutherford and McLaren returned to the race in 1974 with renewed hope that this would be their year. Practice performances suggested a successive pole could be on the cards, but then the M16 suffered an engine issue.
Despite breaking the record for an engine change at the IMS, the team could not get Rutherford’s car ready in time for qualifying, meaning that he would have to start the race in 25th. It had been nearly 30 years since a driver had won from that far back. Yet again, his chances weren’t looking likely.
“The M16 was so good that they dropped the green flag, and within 12 laps, I was running third,” Rutherford recalls. “I just passed them as I came to them, it was incredible. I got up to A.J. Foyt, and we started to duel.”
Foyt and Rutherford are among six drivers to have won the Indy 500 on at least three occasions, but in 1974, Foyt had already won the race three times, whilst Rutherford was still chasing his first. Foyt wouldn’t be as easy to pass as the 23 before him.
They arrived at the first round of pitstops with Foyt first and Rutherford second, with an estimated six more stops to come. From there on, the duo went back and forth, trading the lead several times.
Foyt and Rutherford duelled for 40 laps between pit-stops.
“We duelled for some 40 laps,” Rutherford continues, “He had a little more speed than me down the straightaway, but not much. I could have forced the issue, but I raced him really cleanly and then he started having problems.
“He had an oil line that started leaking, which literally covered me with oil. I had to back off to get away from him, but he had to go to the pits to try and fix it, which couldn’t be done, so I went on to win my first Indy 500. It was a great thrill, great thrill.
“Having started from 25th, I think that proves that if you’ve got a good car and a good team, you can just keep marching ahead and win the race.”
Two years earlier, Graham Hill had become the first driver to complete the Triple Crown after winning the 1972 24 Hours of Le Mans. McLaren’s our journey towards motorsport’s ultimate accolade was only just beginning. He had just reached what he referred to as “the top of the mountain,” but McLaren still had two more to scale.
“It's all history now,” he says. “But boy, it was great history for me.”
How Prost's 'strange' win kickstarted McLAREN's Monaco dynasty
For 21 years, McLaren couldn’t buy a win in Monaco, but then everything changed
Our legendary Le Mans triumph told by those who lived it
No sleep, a little bit of saké and a lot of torque
Is the Triple Crown the greatest achievement of all time?
We look at how motorsport’s ultimate accolade stacks up against other sports
What is the Triple Crown?
You’ll see a lot about the Triple Crown: here’s why, and what it is
Sign up now
McLaren Plus is our free-to-join fan loyalty programme, bringing McLaren fans closer to the team with the most inclusive, rewarding and open-to-all fan programmes in motorsport.
Sign up now, or current members can amend their details in the form below if necessary.