Johnny Rutherford impressed by Alonso’s first week in Indianapolis

Doug Matthews/INDYCAR

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

SPEEDWAY, Ind. – With three Indianapolis 500 victories – including two for McLaren in 1976 and ’78 –  and a wealth of experience in multiple forms of motorsport, Johnny Rutherford is as qualified as any to evaluate a Verizon IndyCar Series prospect.

Given Rutherford’s pedigree and connection to the team, McLaren brought the legendary talent back to the paddock to evaluate and advise Formula One great Fernando Alonso in his IndyCar debut.

After one week, the Texan is impressed.

“He is a professional race driver,” Rutherford said. “He’s won the (Formula One) world title twice and it shows. He’s done very good in his tests – he just whistled right through his driver’s test.”

Alonso, 35, caught the eye of the entire motorsports world when he was announced as a shock entry for the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 in a McLaren Honda Andretti entry last month. An active driver in the F1 paddock, Alonso is the first driver in decades to forego the Monaco Grand Prix in favorite of an Indy car in Indianapolis.

The learning curve has been steep, but Alonso’s caught on as quick as an driver in recent memory, avoiding the wall and sitting as high as fourth on the speed charts leaving practice days in the Month of May’s first week.

Thus far, Rutherford has been impressed by the Spaniard’s ability to adapt to the 2.5-mile oval.

“From experience of watching here, you don’t just come here and drive,” Rutherford said. “I’ve been all the way around this track many times with different observers. Watching cars, and watching their lines, attitudes and things.

“Watching (Alonso’s) line, it’s perfect. He’s right on, where he needs to be. Sometimes he gets a little under the white line with his left-side tires, and that can be tricky. But he handles it well, and so does everybody else that’s running around out there. They’re all cutting corners a little bit.”

While he’s excelled thus far, there’s still much left for Alonso to learn. According to Rutherford, one of the biggest lessons remaining lies with consistency.

“I can remember going out when I was driving for McLaren in the M16 and in one day I was probably out on the track six different times throughout the day,” Rutherford said. “The car was never changed. It was the same every time, but it was different.

“This place has so much like that. It can be different. You can go out and have a car thinking, ‘that’s perfect!’ Go out (again) and it’s terrible a couple hours later. That’s part of learning this place. It has a lot of ground rules, things that you need to learn.”

One thing Alonso may not be prepared for come race day is the pomp and circumstance. One of the world’s grandest races, the Indy 500 has come to be called ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ due to the cacophony of noise and action that plays out both on and off-track.

While the crowds had dipped in the last generation, the build up to 2016’s 100th edition of the race saw the masses return to Speedway, Indiana for the 500. With early indications of strong ticket sales from IMS officials, Rutherford hopes Alonso can enjoy the festivities at their finest come race day.

“Last year was a throwback [in crowd size], and this year I hear it’s looking good,” Rutherford said. “This place is incredible. When I first came here Indianapolis was the largest attended day sporting event in the world. Second on that list was the first day of qualifying.

“Times change and things change, but I really hope we have a big crowd and Fernando can be in awe of it. He runs all over the world in Formula One cars and each country has large attended races, so we’ll see what he thinks about this.”

Through it all, Rutherford just hopes for Alonso and McLaren, a team he brought much success in the 1970s, to enjoy a positive return to the IndyCar paddock.

“I’d love for him to do very well,” Rutherford said. “I haven’t had a chance to sit down and talk with him yet – he’s had other mentors trying to guide him – but I have a couple of things I want to tell him about racing around here. I look forward to that.”

And as for what exactly he intends to tell Alonso?

“That’s a trade secret,” Rutherford joked. “No, it’s just little things that he needs to think about. He’s a good race driver, so he just needs to think about traffic and some things that can happen. This is a long race – 500 miles, right at three hours. You’ve gotta really pace yourself and be in the right place at the right time at the end.

“I’ve always told the rookies, if you can have a good steady race all day, and have good pit stops without any major problems happening, you can finish in the top five pretty easily by just being there. That’s the way it unfolds when you look at the records.

“If you run a steady race all day with good pit stops, you’ll be up front.”

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