A hundred miles before he won the Indianopolis 500 for the third time, Johnny Rutherford snatched his magic Yellow Haze racer from off Tom Sneva's tailpipe today.
At 200 miles per hour on the front straightaway of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the flying Texan whipped alongside Sneva the way you'd put your family sedan up next to a slowpoke semi puffing uphill.
Then faster than you can say "A. J. Foyt is really steamed this time," Rutherford jerked his car back in front of Sneva to get ready for the scary entrance to Turn One, a deadend today for six cars that bounced off the wall there.
And at 200 mph, with Sneva's schoolteacher visage receding in the rearview mirror, Rutherford did this: He waved bye-bye. He took his right hand off the wheel and raised the orange fire-gloved mitt in a farewell to Sneva.
Bye-bye, for sure. On a gorgeous Midwest day of sun and soft breezes with 350,000 spectators high on the thunder and sweet-sour fuel and rubber smells of racing, Johnny Rutherford and the Jim Hall-built ground effects Chaparral were by far the best.
Rutherford won the $300,000-plus first-place share of the $1.3 million purse by 30 seconds over runner-up Sneva, who was so happy about rising from the 33rd and last starting position that he confessed he never thought of winning. "Rutherford was too strong all day," Sneva said. Gordon Johncock was fourth. It was a lap back to Rick Mears, the defending champion, who seemed a threat to repeat until a tire went flat with 20 laps to go. Even Mears said the flat tire made little difference: "No, I couldn't beat Johnny today. He was working the best."
Rutherford's victory, anticipated since he won at Ontario last month and then qualified fastest here by a full mile per hour, was made easier when several expected challengers fell out early. With various mechanical maladies, Al Unser quit after 33 of the scheduled 200 laps, Mario Andretti lasted only 71 laps, Bobby Unser 126 and A. J. Foyt 173.
Steaming in inglorious defeat, Foyt, the only four-time winner, snarled into the public address system his disenchantment with United States Auto Club rules that effectively slowed the Indy cars maybe 15 mph on the straightaways.
"It's a shame to see these restrictions," Foyt said after three hours of running in mid-pack. "We were like turtles out there. I don't think people like to see a race where everybody's going 30 miles per hour."
Not everybody, A. J. Not Johnny Rutherford.
So strong is the Hall Chaparral down the straights . . . so secure is it in the nine-degree banked turns here . . . so efficient in every way is this exotic ground effects machine -- the ground effects label means the car produces a vacuum under it, that vacuum gluing the car to the track -- so all-fired fast was the shining yellow racer that a rookie driver, Dick Ferguson, called it "the Yellow Haze."
Behind Sneva, with a hundred miles to go, here came the haze, a blur of motion, and there it went, Rutherford's orange hand held high. The Texan, 42, as corky as anyone brave enough to drive these matchboxes while strapped between 20-gallon tanks of explosive fuel, first tried to explain the wave by saying what it wasn't.
"It wasn't a defiant gesture, like, Ha, ha, I'm passing you,' or anything like that," Rutherford said sheepishly. "When things are going right and I pass somebody, I acknowledge them."
You don't drive at Indianapolis 17 times without a streak of mean competitiveness, though, and try as he might Rutherford couldn't resist a gentle needle at his contemporaries.
Waving to folks he has passed, Rutherford finally said, is a way of saying "thanks for not getting in the way -- or, 'See you in a lap.'"
"Sheer bravura will get you between white sheets at Indy," Mario Andretti has said, but Rutherford's bravura today was born of confidence not daredeviltry. Whatever he asked of the Chaparral, it delivered. His considerable driving skills -- in 205 Indy-car races, he ranks sixth all-time -- made the Rutherford-Chaparral combination unbeatable today. And the Texan knew it.
He had only one worrisome moment.
There were 13 yellow flags for 60 laps. Dick Ferguson broke a toe and Bill Whittington fractured his lower right leg in spin-outs. No one else was injured. This was great good luck and, to use Rutherford as an example, tribute to bravura restrained.
It happened around Lap 75. By then Tom Sneva and his brother, Jerry, were running first and second. Here came the haze. Rutherford passed Jerry. But as he came up against Tom's tailpipe, Rutherford could go no further.
"When I was following Tom there for a while, I didn't pass him because the car wasn't handling," he said. "The turbulence off Tom's car turned me loose. We had to stop to make a change. We raised one of the front wings."
With that adjustment in aerodynamics, the Rutherford Chaparral took to flying again. It was no contest.
"The car is phenomenal," he said. "The car does everything I want it to do. But it's not black magic. I take it to the limit.When something is wrong and it won't let me go to the limit, I don't. But I am always taking my cars to the brink, to the edge, and this one does it perfectly."
The defending champion, Mears, was never a factor, according to testimony from both Rutherford and Mears. Yet with only 22 laps to go, Mears was running 12 seconds ahead of the eventual winner.
"But something was going wrong," Mears said. "I radioed my pit to tell them."
Mears still had a pit stop he would have to make, anyway, to get fuel for the last 70 miles. So he planned to make this unscheduled stop for a consultation with his crew while at the same time taking on fuel for a final 20-lap trophy dash to Victory Lane.
No such luck.
The "something wrong" was a tire going flat. That first pit stop didn't find the leaking tire. Mears had to stop again five laps later. This time the Roger Penske crew -- already disappointed with the withdrawals of Andretti and Bobby Uncer -- changed all of Mears' tires.
Could be, if everything had gone right, have chased down Rutherford in those last 20 laps?
"No, particularly not Rutherford," Mears said. "I might have been second or third, but I couldn't have caught Johnny."