Photo Above: Johnny Rutherford in the iconic Yellow Submarine Chapparal.
Dreams die hard, even for a three time Indianapolis 500 champion. In 1989, 51 year old Johnny Rutherford attempted to qualify for his 25th 500 mile race. 54 year old A. J. Foyt, Jr., was trying to get into his 32nd. This race seemed headed to be the Senior Citizen 500.
While Foyt easily made the race, starting 10th, Rutherford was behind from the start of the month. The chassis did not arrive to the Menard team until May 1. The crew had to scramble to put it together, losing valuable track time. The first qualifying weekend wasn’t even a consideration for them to try to put the carin the race.
On the third day of qualifications, Rutherford entered the qualifying line three times and took to the track. Each time the crew called him in before the green flag waved . The rule in 1989 was that each car could have three qualifying attempts for the month. An attempt meant the driver took the green to begin a qualification run. Rutherford had all three attempts available for Sunday.
The Menard’s car took the track Sunday at the beginning of qualifications. Rutherford began his first official attempt. His first three laps would have put him safely in the field with a solid 213 mph average. On the final lap, the car developed a push, as it had all month, slowing the lap to 212. His four lap average of 213.097 had in the field for the moment, but the team was skeptical of the time holding up.
Rutherford was puzzled as to why the attempt wasn’t called off. They did have two more chances. He was given permission by car owner John Menard to see if he could make a deal with Foyt. Rutherford spent the next hour in the Foyt garage.
Meanwhile, Rich Vogler was having issues with his entry. The car, identical to teammate Kevin Cogan’s machine which had qualified at more than 214 mph, could not get up to speed. The Machinsts Union team readied Cogan’s backup car. Vogler went out for one lap of practice and then drove the car to the qualifying line. With about 20 minutes left in qualifying, 213.239 averaged bumped Rutherford and gave Vogler the final spot. In 1988, Vogler’s last minute run had bumped two time race winner Gordon Johncock from the field. He is probably the only driver to bump two former winners from the starting lineup.
Rutherford, however, was not quitting. The deal to drive Foyt’s backup car complete, he left the pits at 5:58 pm and had a warmup lap at 217 mph. The green flag waved. As he headed to turn 1, smoke poured from the back of the car. The quest for his 25th 500 was over. The link below shows Rut5herford heading back to Gasoline Alley after failing to make the field for the 1989 500. (Photo from Indianapolis Star archives)
Neither Rutherford nor Vogler raced in the 500 again. They were both entered in 1990 but didn’t qualify. Rutherford became a driver coach and drove the pace car for Indycar. He has become a great ambassador for racing and the 500.
Vogler died in a sprint car race at Salem, Indiana, on July 21, 1990. He was leading the race and made contact with a lapped car in the last turn of the final lap. Vogler was declared the winner of the race.
Postscript- in researching information for this piece in the archives of The Indianapolis Star, the writrt noted estimatre attendance of about 50,000 for Bump Day. How times have changrd
The final edition of “Bump Tales” next week tells of a driver who did make the race at the last minute. Look for a qualifying preview Friday and of course update all weekend long.