How Johnny Rutherford’s 1974 Indy 500 Win Kicked Off McLaren’s Triple Crown

Rutherford’s first of three Indy 500 victories solidified him as one of the greats, but also helped McLaren achieve something no other team has.

byJerry Perez|
Racing photo
Jerry Perez

"I refer to this race track as the 'Old Lady,' and this Old Lady can throw curves at you like you wouldn't believe," three-time Indy 500 champion Johnny Rutherford told me as we reminisced on his 1974 win.

Looking back, that first victory at the Brickyard wasn't just groundbreaking for the Texan, who was 36 years old at the time. It also earned McLaren the first of three milestones that make up motorsport's Triple Crown, a feat that not even Ferrari, Mercedes, or Porsche have managed. The second came in 1984 at the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix with Alain Prost, and the third in 1995 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with JJ Lehto, Yannick Dalmas, and Masanori Sekiya behind the wheel of an F1 GTR.

To celebrate its status as the only racing manufacturer to wear the Triple Crown, the Arrow McLaren IndyCar Team is running four race cars with special liveries at the Indy 500 this year. And to make an even bigger splash, it also shipped four McLaren GT supercars to Indianapolis with four different liveries, one commemorating each of the three historic wins plus one combining all three. (It's also doing something similar in F1 for Monaco.) These GTs were then given to team drivers to wheel around Indy for the month, seriously one-upping other drivers who got Chevy Tahoes and Honda Pilots as their team-issued rides.

The 1974-liveried GT is the crown jewel of the three, per se, given its significance to the local race. It was issued to 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi, but McLaren offered it to me for a couple of days. Of course, I didn't mind.

Jerry Perez

This GT is mechanically identical to the one I reviewed back in 2020, so nothing new there. Same 612-hp, 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8, same fighter jet-like cockpit, and the same doors that make people go "woah!" What is very different about this GT is its exterior and the story behind it. The Papaya Orange GT never stood a chance of flying under the radar, but the new livery makes it an even bigger target on the streets. Across the top of the windshield is a McLaren Cars decal in blue lettering, just like the one on Rutherford's race winner. On the sides, it wears blue racing numbers in the same font as the original car, though this time it has a 7 for Rossi rather than a 3 for Rutherford. And adding to a design already heavy with nostalgia, there's a kiwi motif paying tribute to founder Bruce McLaren, who was from New Zealand. Despite being a British team, McLaren's cars sported these decals up until the '80s.

Rutherford, now 85, had just arrived in Indianapolis a day or two before we met, but unlike today's IndyCar stars, he didn't take a private jet or even a first-class seat to get there. Rutherford drove himself in his pickup truck all the way from Fort Worth, Texas—"straight through," he said, only stopping for fuel. Rutherford's experience earned him a consulting role within Arrow McLaren, where he offers advice to staff on both sides of the pit wall.

After a couple of days filled with passersby breaking their necks to get a glimpse of the McLaren GT and random people snapping photos of me—not the car—around town, I had the opportunity to sit down with Rutherford for a chat. I asked him to take me back to May 1974, an admittedly life-changing month not just for him but also for McLaren.

Jerry Perez

"1973 was the first year I drove for McLaren and we qualified with a four-lap average of 198 mph and started on the pole here at Indy. It was also a new track record," Rutherford told me. "That success carried over to 1974. We knew we were fast but we knew [A.J.] Foyt was also fast. We were racing Foyt for pole and we thought we had it covered, but we scuffed a piston in practice on Saturday and had to take the car back to the garage. McLaren did a great job changing the engine, oil lines, and everything in just 58 minutes. We went back to do another qualifying run, but the new Chief Steward Tom Binford interpreted the rules a little differently than the previous one."

"Binford sent us all the way to the back of the line so we ran out of time [to qualify] and were out of contention for the pole," Rutherford added. "We ended up starting in 25th place in the ninth row despite having the pace for pole. Al Unser had the same problem, so he started right beside me. When the green flag dropped my car was so good that in 12 laps I was running third after starting 25th. That's when I started battling A.J. [Foyt]. My McLaren was excellent. A.J. was a little stronger down the straightaway and could hold me off, so I just let him, but my McLaren was so much faster in the turns. So we put on a duel—and I thought, you know, the fans really gotta like this! The two of us constantly trying to pass each other.

"Suddenly, one of Foyt's oil lines came loose and started spraying oil. I'm surprised I didn't spin out because it totally covered me up in oil. I always carried a shop towel beside my leg in the cockpit and I had to get it out and clean my visor. We kept fighting until Foyt was black-flagged because he was spraying so much oil, and I won the race. And that was good. It was very good."

Rutherford went on to win the 500 with McLaren once more in 1976, and then again in 1980 in the famous No. 4 Penzoil-liveried Chaparral. But while JR has experienced a lot of cars in his lifetime, there was actually one he hadn't yet seen, much less driven: the McLaren GT modeled after his own racer.

In a cheery sequence that involved assumptions and some slight miscommunication, I didn't know Rutherford hadn't seen the car, and he didn't know I had been driving it. So, after clearing that up, we left the team's hospitality tent and walked over to where I had just parked the McLaren. His reaction was priceless—and for me, it was an equally priceless memory to store inside the ol' mental filing cabinet.

"Wow, this is it," said Rutherford as he walked around the car. "It's even got Texas plates for me!"

I gave him some space and a few moments to take it all in. He quickly went for the door, swung it open, and started checking out the cockpit before asking me a few questions about the car. He asked how much it cost, what it was like to drive, and if there was enough room for his luggage. I answered all his questions, of course, though it was kind of odd. It's usually me asking a pro racer how a car drives, not the other way around.

I told Rutherford how my dad and I had actually taken an identical McLaren camping once, and how I had filled the frunk with fire wood. His jaw dropped, then he started laughing. He argued that if I could do that, then he could likely fit all his stuff in it too and drive it back to Texas.

"I don't know, Johhny, I'm sure Alex [Rossi] wouldn't mind," I told him. "And if you ask me, I think Zac [Brown] owes you a favor or two. This whole Triple Crown thing wouldn't exist without you."

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