Written by Phil Cerroni
By Raven Stevens
Some say auto racing is one of the true American sports, making the men who have won in all types of racing events American heroes.
One such hero, John “Johnny” Sherman Rutherford III, known to locals as “Lone Star JR,” calls DFW home. He has lived in Fort Worth since 1951. Nearly 200 fans, friends, and former competitors, traveled from nine different states to pay tribute to him on Sep. 22 at the Racers Reunion Banquet in Irving.
From Lone Star JR’s humble beginnings, first racing in 1959 at a Dallas rock quarry known as Devil’s Bowl Speedway, he entered into the big time in September, 1962, when he began racing the Championship Trail. Johnny and his buddy, Jim McElreath from Arlington, made the trek from Texas to the Midwest, chasing the United States Automobile Club (USAC) and International Motor Contest Association (IMCA) circuits in the early 1960s.
Johnny rose quickly in the racing world, and racked up wins at tracks across the United States in the USAC, NASCAR and IMCA divisions. When Johnny finally retired, he had three Indianapolis 500 wins, an Indy Car Championship, and a USAC Sprint Car Championship, to name a few.
Bob Baker, the Executive Director of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum located in Knoxville, IA, traveled to the Las Colinas area to show his respect to Rutherford, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995.
“Johnny is a true champion on and off the track,” said Baker. “He and Betty are constantly on the road or at community functions.”
In 1980, Johnny teamed with another Texan, Jim Hall of Midland, and had his most successful Indy Car season. They won five races that year, including the Indy 500, which lead them to the Indy Car Championship. Jim, along with his wife Sandy, came to the Racers Reunion to help honor one of his most successful drivers, as well as his close friend.
“Johnny is just a wonderful person. I’m glad I could be a part of this tonight,” Hall said.
One of Johnny’s favorite competitors traveled from New Mexico to pay tribute to him. Al Unser, winner of four Indy 500s, was delighted to share racing stories about Johnny, and reminded Johnny that he has had many more wrecks than Unser has. The crowd roared with laughter at his version of their on-track encounters.
Cindy Elks came all the way from San Diego, CA for the weekend to see old friends and to talk with folks she used to compete with in San Antonio.
“I was looking forward to seeing McBride, Bragg and some of the other guys I used to race against when we were kids racing the quarter midgets in the Los Palmas Shopping Center parking lot,” Elks said. “Plus, to be in the room with American heroes such as Rutherford, Hall and Unser was too good to be true. I had to be here!”
Those who attended the event were not the only ones celebrating Johnny’s career. Three congratulatory items were presented to Johnny: a Letter of Congratulations from Kay Bailey Hutchinson, U.S. Senator from Texas; a Letter of Congratulations from John Cornyn, U.S. Senator from Texas; and, a Proclamation of Congratulations from Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, on behalf of himself and First Lady Anita Perry.
Doug Schiller, an expert on quarter midget race cars, delivered a very informative and entertaining presentation. He pointed out how in the 1950s quarter midget race cars were being developed on the West Coast and East Coast simultaneously, but to different specifications. Schiller’s father manufactured over 300 Offyettes in a span of seven years.
In addition to tables of memorabilia, scrap books, photo albums and trophies, there was also a display of vintage race cars. Event organizer, Bart Stevens, brought a variety of cars together to be part of the event.
“Having a display of vintage race cars from the era we are featuring really adds to the vibe of the whole event. This year since one of our features was the quarter midgets, I rounded up a group of cars to show some of the different types that were being built across the United States in the 1950s. Between the quarter midgets and the full-size race cars, we had 25 cars tonight showing the great diversity in the styles that used to race weekly on local tracks across America.
“When I was younger I fell in love with the open wheel race cars,” he said. “The car builders of yesteryear were true craftsman. Some of them hand-formed the body panels, much like an artist would build a sculpture.”
This was the third Racers Reunion Banquet that Stevens has hosted. The event was held for years in San Antonio.
“It just made sense to move the event to the Dallas/Fort Worth area. When we did that back in 2010, we saw a much larger participation from people from Oklahoma and other parts of the Midwest.”