Monday, April 3, 2023

1966 – Knepper Wins Eldora; Rutherford Injured

Things were flying at Eldora – sprint cars, dirt clods, etc. Winner Arnie Knepper holds up a railroad spike that somehow flew into his sprint car during the wild 30-lap USAC feature. 

Rossburg, Ohio (April 3, 1966) - The two faces of fate were in attendance for the United States Auto Club’s opening Midwest sprint car race here yesterday.

It was a smiling face the fickle lady beamed on Amie Knepper as he drove his Chevrolet-powered sprinter to victory in the 30-lap feature. It marked the first time the 35-year-old veteran from Belleville, Ill., had won a USAC feature, and it was a happy Arnie indeed who received the plaudits of the crowd.

For last year’s USAC sprint champion, Johnny Rutherford, fate cast a frown and one of the most popular race drivers on the circuit found himself in serious trouble.

The dirt surface of the Eldora Speedway began to develop some bad ruts during the running of the feature race and Johnny had the misfortune to hook his front wheel in one of these coming out of number two turn.

Johnny’s speeding sprinter was hurled over the outer wall of the high banked track nose first and did a complete somersault in the air before landing in a ravine, about 40 feet deep, outside the backstretch.

It was in the landing that fate’s frown turned into a smile as the flying race car hit nose first and bounced to a stop on its wheels. He was conscious when help arrived on the scene but severely injured. If the car had landed upside down…

In minutes - they seemed like hours to this observer – Johnny was on his way to the hospital in Greenville, Ohio. After a preliminary examination he was transferred to Saint Mary’s Hospital, Dayton, Ohio, where special treatment was available. He was listed in ‘‘satisfactory” condition by hospital spokesman last night at press time after having an extensive x-ray examination.

The extent of his injuries was not released but a track spokesman said there would be a new condition report this morning.

The 28-year-old Rutherford, who makes his home in Fort Worth, was scheduled to drive the A.J. Watson built Leader Card rear engine Ford - powered car in this year’s Indianapolis 500.

The accident halted the race in the 13th lap, and it was re started from that point after Rutherford was on his way to the hospital.

First place turned into a two-way battle between Knepper and Roger McCluskey. It was a slam-bang affair that had the nervous fans - and reporters - on their feet for the remaining 17 laps.

McCluskey managed to get the lead from Knepper going through number one turn on the 21st circuit but Amie squeezed back in Ironton the backstretch and held off the hard charging Roger for the rest of the way home.

Everyone heaved a sigh of relief when the checkered flag fell.

Jud Larson, the Kansas City earth mover, made an early bid for his second feature win of the young season but a flying clod of dirt broke the windshield out of his Offenhauser powered sprinter.

Jud said after the race, “That piece hit me in the face and when I threw it out of the car, damn if it didn’t blow back and hit me again. That’s when I decided I’d better slow down before I threw it out next time.”

Larson was never able to make up the distance he lost trying to get rid of the errant piece of plexiglass.

Don Branson gave the crowd a thrill when he set a new track record making his qualifying run. Rutherford had set the record last fall when he circled the half-mile oval in 17.92 seconds. Branson calmly slammed his Leader Card Sprinter around the high banks in 17.81 seconds.

Rutherford was awarded a jacket before the feature race began for being the only man to circle the track at an average speed of over 100 miles per hour. The management promised to buy Grandpa Branson a jacket to match Johnny’s. Branson’s speed figured out to an even 101 miles per hour.

Larson won the first 8-lap heat race and was followed across the finish line by Branson and USAC national driving champion Mario Andretti.

Larry Dickson set a new 8-lap record in winning the second heat. Dixon drove the eight laps in 2 minutes and 30.52 seconds. Knepper finished second with Wib Spaulding third.

McCluskey won the third heat followed by Bobby Unser and Al Smith. Red Riegel was hit in the right eye on the fourth lap by a flying hunk of Ohio. Riegel managed to keep his car under control until he could get it stopped - he received a king-sized shiner.

Rutherford won the 10-lap semi-feature without too much trouble with Greg Weld taking second and Dick Gaines finishing third.

Finishing behind Knepper in the feature were: McCluskey, second; Larson, third; Unser, fourth and Branson, fifth

Results –

1. Arnie Knepper
2. Roger McCluskey
3. Jud Larson
4. Bobby Unser
5. Don Branson
6. Larry Dickson
7. Mario Andretti
8. Ronnie Duman
9. Dick Gaines
10.Al Smith
11.Wib Spaulding
12.Greg Weld

Johnny Rutherford takes a ride out of the park at Eldora. 

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