IndyCar history runs ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas’

0 Comments

AUSTIN, Texas – From A.J. to “Lone Star J.R.”

From “Hard Luck” Lloyd Ruby to Jim McElreath.

From famed car builders and former racers Carroll Shelby to Jim Hall and even NASCAR’s “Texas Terry” Labonte.

Throw in a few racetracks with names such as “Playland Park” in Houston or the “Devil’s Bowl” outside of Dallas to the modern-day Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.

The racing heritage in the state of Texas is as rich as the “Sweet Crude” oil that is pumped from the ground that has made “The Republic” one of the richest and proudest lands in the nation.

“Texas is big and so were its race drivers,” the legendary A.J. Foyt told NBC Sports.com.

Deep in the Texas “Hill Country” is the state’s latest contribution to auto racing, and in particular, the NTT IndyCar Series.

It’s the lavish Circuit of the Americas, a racing venue that has all of the trappings expected of a Formula One circuit when it was completed in 2012 to become the host of the United States Grand Prix that same year.

The 20-turn, 3.41-mile permanent road course brings some of the great aspects of a European road racing venue with its own unique trademark – a massive tower that rises far above the Texas landscape that can be seen 10 miles away.

On at 1 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN, the next great racing venue in Texas will host the INDYCAR Classic and the NTT IndyCar Series.

With legendary names such as Foyt of Houston, the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 who remains a rascal at 84 years old, to three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford of Fort Worth and other fast drivers such as Ruby from Wichita Falls and McElreath from Arlington, the history runs deep.

Why has Texas had such an impact on IndyCar?

“We’re just tougher than the rest of them, I guess,” Rutherford told NBC Sports.com.

It takes toughness to grow up in Houston before air-conditioning, as Foyt did. Fort Worth isn’t much better in the summer, either, and Rutherford believes Texans could handle the heat of a race car because of that.

“That is the way we all were,” Rutherford said. “I can remember running Salem or Winchester in Indiana, and it always got hot at those tracks. I can remember 30-lap features with Sprint cars and 20 laps into it, the drivers were backing by me. I was able to keep steam up.

“It did help us be stronger on a hot day. The other guys that lived up there couldn’t handle that. That is something we used to our advantage.”

Foyt’s father was a racer and a mechanic named Tony Foyt. He wasn’t a bad Midget racer, either.

Growing up as Tony Foyt’s son wasn’t easy for young A.J. His father demanded excellence from A.J. because the boy had to earn it.

“I started at Playland Park, a quarter-mile dirt track near Houston,” Foyt recalled. “My daddy had Midgets before I started racing. They ran it at the Little 500 one year up in Anderson, Indiana before the Indianapolis 500. Back then, you could run in Austin, San Antonio and those were about the only tracks around here. I won at San Antonio; it was called Pan American Speedway. Playland was a dirt track and then they built a paved track.

“Devil’s Bowl was a little quarter-mile dirt track near Dallas.”

Despite their deep Texas heritage, both Foyt and Rutherford knew if they were going to hit the big time, they needed to run in the “Heartland” – the great Midwest.

“I decided to go to the Midwest and run Midget races,” Foyt said. “I borrowed money from a bank. My mother-in-law signed for it. I took off and decided to go racing. Cecil Bain was from here, too. My dream was to one day make the Indianapolis 500; much less be lucky enough to win it.

“That was my dream come true.”

Rutherford’s tale is fairly similar to Foyt’s.

He was born in Kansas, but his family moved to Fort Worth when he was 12. His interest in racing began a few years before the move to Texas.

“My Dad took me to a Midget race when I was 9 years old in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” Rutherford recalled. “There was something about Midget racing for a 9-year-old, and I was hooked. I wanted to be a Midget racer when I grew up. It seemed like a natural to me.

“I built my own car to race at the Devil’s Bowl in Dallas. It was a modified stock car. A 1932 Chevrolet Coupe. I raced that first year and the guy wanted me to drive his car for a second year in 1960. It had a 1938 Chevrolet frame, an International six-cylinder pickup truck engine and a 1949 Crosley body on it. I drove that until McElreath, and I left to go to the Midwest and drive Sprint Cars.

“The original Devil’s Bowl that I started on was in a rock quarry on the edge of Dallas. We would run there and race at Waco, Texas. Texarkana had a track. There weren’t any race tracks out west then, but we raced wherever there was a track and we could race.

“They eventually build a paved track in Houston and I went to the first one there in 1959 or 1960. But if we wanted to race, we had to go to Indiana and Illinois and Ohio and Pennsylvania to have big-time Sprint Car racing.”

Before Rutherford became an IndyCar winner, however, he drove to victory in a NASCAR Cup race. It was in Smokey Yunick’s Chevrolet in the 100-mile qualifying race for the 1963 Daytona 500. Back then, victories in the qualifying races counted as Cup wins.

“I am the only driver in the history of NASCAR that has ever won a race with car No. 13,” Rutherford said.

His true love, however, was in open-wheel racing machines. It wasn’t always easy for Rutherford, however.

He drove out of the ballpark at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, on April 3, 1966. He broke both arms and wore casts while the injuries healed.

“That’s when you find out who your true friends are when you have to go to the bathroom to the bathroom with two broken arms,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford was a rookie at the Indianapolis 500 in 1963. He missed the race in ’66 with the broken arms and struggled at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in his first nine Indy 500s with six finishes lower than 25thplace.

His big break came in 1973 when he was hired by McLaren and won the Indy 500 pole. He finished ninth in that godawful Indy 500 during a month of May that claimed the lives of drivers Art Pollard and Swede Savage and pit crew member Armando Terran, who was killed when he was struck by a safety vehicle speeding the wrong way down pit road after Savage’s brutal crash in the race.

Terran’s death came in full view of the main grandstands and in front of the Indianapolis 500 Festival Queen and Princesses. Several of them fainted from witnessing the horrific site that occurred right in front of them.

Also in that race, numerous spectators were badly burned at the start when Salt Walther’s car pierced through the fence in a massive crash, spewing hot, flaming Methanol into the crowd.

It remains one of the grimmest “Months of May” in Indianapolis 500 history.

But Rutherford’s ray of light at Indy would come the following year.

Despite starting 25th, Rutherford’s McLaren was fast – very fast – in the race. He worked his way through the field to the lead and led 122 laps in the 200-lap race. He scored the first of his three Indy 500 wins that year.

“I had struggled for 10 years before I finished the Indianapolis 500 and when I finished it, I won it,” Rutherford recalled. “That is in 1974 when I drove for McLaren. It was good to finally find the right people and the right team. McLaren was it for me.”

Rutherford started on the pole and won the race at Indy in 1976. His greatest Indy 500 triumph was in 1980 when he teamed up with team owner Jim Hall of Midland, Texas who had developed the first true “ground effects” car to compete in the Indy 500 – the revolutionary “Chaparral.”

The undertray of the car combined with the design of the wings created a vacuum that kept the Chaparral stuck to the racing surface at high speeds. That allowed it to race through the corners faster than any other car in the field.

Because of its bright yellow Pennzoil sponsorship, the car was called the “Yellow Submarine.” Rutherford drove that “Yellow Submarine” to victory after leading 118 laps in the 1980 Indianapolis 500.

“That was one of the things that I enjoyed most about Jim and the Chaparral team is that he had been a successful driver in his own field,” Rutherford said. “He was easy to talk to. We talked the same language as Tyler Alexander and I at McLaren. I knew what he was going to do with the car, and he knew what the car was doing. It was a great opportunity.

“The car was based in Midland, Texas and it was an all-Texas team.

“I felt Texas pride with Jim Hall. It was good. There are things you think about and dream about. I had been with McLaren for seven years and they had to get out of IndyCar because of finances and they decided to stick with Formula One. I thought, oh no.

“Tyler Alexander called Jim Hall. Jim and Al Unser had a falling out and Jim called me. We hammered out a deal and it was perfect. The timing for me was everything.”

Rutherford won 30 races in his IndyCar Series career and earned the respect of Foyt, the all-time winningest driver in IndyCar with 67 wins. Foyt is the only driver to win the Indy 500, Daytona 500 (1972) and 24 Hours of Le Mans (1967).

Foyt had deep respect for all of the drivers from Texas.

“Johnny was a good all-around race driver,” Foyt said. “One of the hardest guys to get by when you were racing was Lloyd Ruby. He was a clean driver, but tough to get by. Rutherford and McElreath were really clean. I don’t think people recognized how good McElreath was. He was a lot better than people thought.

“I’ve known all of them really good and they were all good racers. Luck didn’t fall Lloyd Ruby’s way and you couldn’t count Jim McElreath out because he won the first race at Ontario Motor Speedway for me. Luckily enough, I won my share.

“All of them Texans were pretty good race drivers.”

Foyt gained a reputation as being a man that shouldn’t be crossed. He was as famous for his rage outside of a race car as he was for his victories. But inside the cockpit, Foyt was as cool and clean as any driver that has ever competed in racing.

“He was an extremely clean race driver,” Rutherford said. “At Indianapolis in 1974, he had just enough grunt with his four-cam Ford engine that he could handle me down the straightaways, but I could have put the wheel to him in the turns and passed him. My car handled all the way around the race track. He would have raced me that way and I raced him that way, gave him every break and not crowd him or put a wheel inside to him. It just wasn’t worth it.

“AJ was a hot head out of the car but did not have that anger in the cockpit. That was the difference in competitive nature. When you are in the race car, it’s competitive, you race them clean and don’t create any problems. That’s the way it was then, it was competitive.”

Rutherford admitted there was one race at the old Texas World Speedway in College Station, Texas where Foyt pulled a fast one on him using the pace car as a pick.

“Foyt pulled one of the slickest tricks I’ve ever had pulled on me in an IndyCar,” Rutherford recalled. “Bill Simpson was driving the pace car for some reason, and we were in Turn 4 for the pace car to pull off and get the green. At the last instance, Foyt pulled off beside him so he could not turn into the pits and go off the race track. Foyt dived into the pits, and I missed it, and I had to go around with the pace car.

“That ended up being his margin of victory.”

In more recent times, Texas Motor Speedway has been a showcase of IndyCar racing at its best with its annual Saturday night race on the high banks every June.

The “COTA Era” begins for IndyCar on Sunday, and Rutherford is confident the Formula One road course will provide a great venue for the Indy cars to shine.

“I think it’s going to be really good,” Rutherford said. “We need facilities like that. Hopefully, it will catch the attention of the fans. Formula One draws big crowds there. We have seen that. But the Indy cars will be slower than the Formula One cars.

“Time will tell. It should be a good race with a lot of cars there. It will be exciting to see.”

Auto racing is a sport for modern cowboys. Instead of riding “Bucking Broncos” these modern cowboys have to tame the automotive thoroughbreds that are the fastest cars that race on closed circuit race courses – today’s Indy cars.

“Rider up,” Rutherford said.

2023 SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Houston: Eli Tomac retakes 450 lead, Hunter Lawrence tops 250s

0 Comments

After his Anaheim 2 crash, Eli Tomac was surprised he was not injured, but despite getting knocked down momentarily, he picked himself up, rode to last week’s win and reascended to the top of the SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Houston. This is the third time in three weeks Tomac has topped the rankings.

SuperMotocross Power Rankings Houston
Jason Anderson has back-to-back podiums to his credit and sits second in the Power Rankings. – Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Last week, Tomac finished second in his heat before winning the Main – and that translated to near-perfect points in the Power Rankings, which award 100 for a win in the feature and 90 for a heat victory. Tomac’s average was marred by the Houston accident when he finished 13th in that heat before settling just outside the top five in overall standings. Racing is about bouncing back and last year’s Supercross and Motocross champion Tomac did just that as he chases a third consecutive title.

Jason Anderson earned his second consecutive podium finish with a third at Houston. He momentarily rolled past Aaron Plessinger into second during a restart following an accident involving Dylan Ferrandis and held that position for four trips around the track until he was tracked down by Chase Sexton. Afterward Anderson faded and finished 12 seconds off the pace, but along with a heat win, he easily leapfrogged Ken Roczen and Cooper Webb, who struggled in the fourth race of the season.

MORE: Eli Tomac rebounds from Anaheim 2 crash with Houston win

Webb held his position by passing Roczen in NBC’s SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Houston. Webb has been solid in 2023 with a worst moto result of seventh in the first Triple Crown race at Anaheim 2, but in order to be considered a solid challenger to Tomac he needs to win either a heat or main this week in Tampa.

Roczen was involved in the incident that sidelined Ferrandis in Houston. Racing for eighth at the time, his bike may have sustained some damage when Ferrandis landed on his back tire, but he was not overly impressive in his heat either with a fifth-place finish. That was enough to drop him three positions in the standings, but he still has Tomac in sight.

After his disappointing heat in San Diego when he crashed and sustained enough damage to place him last, Sexton has roared back. He won the overall in Anaheim 2’s Triple Crown format and narrowed the points’ gap slightly on Tomac. Last week he yarded the field in his heat race and won by a wide margin. A modest start in the Main kept him from getting to Tomac’s back wheel early in the Houston round, and he lost a little ground in the championship.

450 Rankings

This
Week
Rider Power
Avg.
Last
Week
Diff.
1 Eli Tomac
[3 Main; 3 Heats Wins]
85.20 2 1
2 Jason Anderson
[2 Heat Wins]
82.60 4 2
3 Cooper Webb 82.10 3 0
4 Ken Roczen 81.70 1 -3
5 Chase Sexton
[1 Main; 3 Heat Wins]
80.70 6 1
6 Dylan Ferrandis 71.60 5 -1
7 Aaron Plessinger 71.30 8 1
8 Justin Barcia 70.10 7 -1
9 Justin Cooper 68.00 NA
10 Adam Cianciarulo 67.40 9 -1
11 Joey Savatgy 61.20 10 -1
12 Marvin Musquin 61.00 10 -2
13 Malcolm Stewart
[1 Heat Win]
58.75 11 -2
14 Christian Craig 57.20 13 -1
15 Colt Nichols 56.50 14 -1
16 Dean Wilson 49.30 15 -1
17 Justin Hill 39.67 18 1
18 Shane McElrath 36.33 22 4
19 Brandon Scharer 34.00 21 2
20 Logan Karnow 33.33 19 -1

Supercross 450 Points


The 250 East division debuted in Houston and with only one race – and therefore no chance yet to stumble – three of their riders jumped to the top of the chart.

Hunter Lawrence had a perfect week with wins in both his main and heat. It wasn’t without drama, however, as he was forced to jump wide early in the feature to avoid contact with Tom Vialle, who was making his Supercross debut. Without a former 250 champion in the field, it is guaranteed someone new will grace the top of the box at Salt Lake City after the season-ender and it looks like it’s going to be Lawrence’s to lose.

SuperMotocross Power Rankings Houston
Jordon Smith’s last podium before Houston came four years ago in Detroit. – Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

It was more than four years ago that Jordon Smith scored his last Supercross podium in Detroit. Despite finishing second that afternoon, he was battling a wrist injury that eventually sidelined him. More injuries have followed, but Smith was a favorite to win the title in 2019 and he’s shown how well he can ride when he’s healthy.

Debuting third in the Houston SuperMotocross Power Rankings, Max Anstie moved from the 450 class last year to 250s in 2023 and the change has gone better than he anticipated. Finishing second in both his heat and main, Anstie was edged by Smith because he finished second behind that rider in their heat. That is Anstie’s first top-10 since finishing sixth at Southwick, Massachusetts last year on his 450. In that race, he scored fifth-place results in both motos.

Supercross 250 Points

Haiden Deegan proved the hype surrounding his graduation into the 250 class was well deserved and he landed fourth in his division and fifth overall in the SuperMotocross Power Rankings. In his first professional Supercross race, he finished fourth in his heat. In a field with twice the talent, he finished fourth again in the main. At Houston, he balanced aggression with patience. Now that he has a taste of that success, everyone will be watching him closely at Tampa to see if he can continue tiptoeing on the line.

Michael Mosiman, Jeremy Martin, and Vialle are tied for fifth in the 250 East division and seventh overall.

Vialle is the most notable of these three because he challenged for a podium position during the Main before making a mistake and falling in a turn. Significantly, this was not only his 250 debut, but his first time in Supercross. As with Deegan, he has generated a lot of attention for the coming weeks.

250 Rankings

This
Week
Rider Power
Avg.
Last
Week
Diff.
1 Hunter Lawrence – E
[1 Main; 1 Heat Win]
95.00 NA
2 Jordon Smith – E
[1 Heat Win]
90.50 NA
2 Max Anstie – E 90.50 NA
4 Jett Lawrence – W
[2 Main; 2 Heat Wins]
89.13 1 -3
5 Haiden Deegan – E 81.50 NA
6 Cameron McAdoo – W
[1 Heat Win]
77.63 2 -4
7 Mitchell Oldenburg – W 77.00 3 -4
7 Michael Mosiman – E 77.00 NA
7 Jeremy Martin – E 77.00 NA
7 Tom Vialle – E 77.00 NA
11 Stilez Robertson – W
[1 Heat Win]
76.75 4 -7
12 Chance Hymas – E 74.50 -12
13 Levi Kitchen – W
[1 Main Win]
73.75 5 -8
14 RJ Hampshire – W
[3 Heat Wins]
70.00 6 -8
15 Max Vohland – W 69.29 7 -8
16 Cullin Park – E 66.00 NA
17 Chris Blose – E 65.50 NA
18 Derek Kelley – W 63.75 8 -10
19 Enzo Lopes – W 63.25 9 -10
20 Pierce Brown – W 61.29 10 -10

* The NBC Power Rankings assign 100 points to a Main event winner and 90 points for each Heat and Triple Crown win, (Triple Crown wins are included with heat wins below the rider’s name). The points decrement by a percentage equal to the number of riders in the field until the last place rider in each event receives five points. The Power Ranking is the average of these percentage points over the past 45 days.

POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 3 AT ANAHEIM 2: Consistency makes Ken Roczen king
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 2 AT SAN DIEGO: Roczen moves up, Chase Sexton falls
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 1 AT ANAHEIM 1: Eli Tomac, Jett Lawrence gain an early advantage