Corvette Rutherford Pacing IRL
March 28, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
But while teams are busy working out sponsorship and driver deals for the Memorial Day-weekend classic and trying to figure out how to qualify for one of the 33 starting spots, one car is already guaranteed a spot at the head of the field on May 26 – the pace car.
This season, the Chevrolet Corvette got the call to perform one of the most-overlooked (but most-necessary) duties in racing. And after the third race of the season last weekend at California Speedway, it’s clear the Corvette is up to the role.
The IRL’s pace car pilot is three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, who is the primary driver of the Corvette except in the Indy 500. Rutherford is also in charge of special projects for the IRL and is a driver coach and consultant.
“I drive the car for the entire race,” Rutherford said. “We start the race and then we stage in an area with one of the safety equipment, and when we get the call ‘yellow, yellow, yellow’ then we move and pick up the leader at that particular time of the race and do the pacing until it’s time to come off of the track and then get ready to restart the race.
“The pace car’s job is not brain surgery or anything like that. It’s just being able to be able to have the car that will do the job for you and go fast when you need to go fast to catch up. It’s not a high-speed job by any means.”
In fact, the leaders often dictate the speed of the pace laps.
“I’ve been back there behind the pace car before when the yellow comes out and the guys don’t want to go fast anymore - they want to slow down,” Rutherford said. “So you kind of go as fast as they want you to so they can kind of relax, wiggle their fingers, and move around in the cockpit as much as they can and try to get the blood circulating, get comfortable if they can and get ready to go for a green flag.”
Rutherford won’t be in the pace car at Indianapolis this year, but he’s been there before in the celebrated race.
“I drove the Oldsmobile Aurora pace car at the Indy 500 (in 1997) and it’s a great thrill obviously to be involved with that. But I’ve followed it for 24 years and responded to it for that many races at Indy.
“The pace car driver just drives it on the start of the race and then turns it over to Don Bailey. He has driven the pace car for probably close to 20 years at Indianapolis and he responds to all of the cautions with the car because of his experience.
“So, it’s a different kind of a job and it would be an honor to be selected obviously by Chevrolet to drive the Corvette but it’s not something that I am pursuing. I also do the radio broadcast color commentary on the radio for the Indy 500. So it would mean that I would do the pace, the race, and then run upstairs and get on the radio. Chevrolet will no doubt pick somebody like Leno or Gen. Yeager (former celebrity drivers) to drive the car.”
After driving the pace car for the races thus far, Rutherford likes the Corvette’s abilities.
“It fills the bill,” Rutherford said. “There are things that you need to do occasionally - you get caught up, the field catches you a little quicker when you go out for a caution or something. Then you’ve got to really lay into it and it responds well and does the job.
“When you want to go it’s ready to go and it gets the job done. So, I’m very pleased with the Corvette and the fact that we’ve got something a little bit quicker and a little more responsive and pretty sporty.”
The IRL has manual and automatic-equipped Corvettes at the track on race day, but Rutherford sides with the slush box in light of the pace car’s role in the race.
“We have one each, but I prefer the automatic because it’s a little easier to deal with when you’re out there pacing the field.
“The six speed would be something for the purist that wanted the hot rod feature of the car in the manual transmission to be able to feel that sort of power, and I’m sure that it may be a little more responsive.
“But we’re dealing with keeping the field in line and pacing them so it’s a little bit different ball game for the pace car and I like to use the automatic transmission in the Corvette as our primary pace car.”
In pace-car trim, some safety and cosmetic modifications are done to the car.
“The only thing that is different is they put in some competition seatbelts,” Rutherford said. “They don’t use the three-point seatbelt that’s stock in the car.
“We have lap belts that are racing-type, high-quality seatbelts that we use, and to my knowledge that’s the only thing that’s been done to the car other than the trick paint job that’s put on it.”
For Rutherford, driving the pace car is a way to stay out on the track.
“Every time they fire up an engine at the race track I want to get back in a race car. But I am retired, that’s what I’ve chosen. ‘Course I’m 64 years old now so that’s a little bit different from that.
“But you still get the itch, and it’s something I did for so long and enjoyed so much. I guess driving the pace car would be considered the next best thing because I still get to get out and lead a few races.”
Rutherford will be leading the pack on April 21 in the Firestone Indy 225 at Nazareth Speedway.