(TOLEDO, Ohio – February 5, 2015) – Joe Ruttman was but a wee lad when he witnessed first-hand the tragedies that go with the territory. Yet he followed in his famous brother’s footsteps – 1952 Indy 500 winner Troy Ruttman – and set out in pursuit of his dreams. For the most part, his plan worked. The Upland, California native, via ARCA, made it all the way to the top tiers of NASCAR where he was, briefly, a teammate with Dale Earnhardt and nearly won the Daytona 500 on more than one occasion.
However, considering what he experienced that awful day at Winchester Speedway on July 29, 1951, a day in which the press dubbed “Black Sunday”, it’s a wonder he wasn’t scared off right from the start.
“The last thing I remember seeing was the belly pan leaving the track,” said Ruttman, who was three months away from his seventh birthday at the time. “I helped retrieve the car and put it back on the trailer. But memories like this never leave you and parts of it I can remember like it was yesterday.”
Ruttman is referring to the AAA-sanctioned (predecessor to USAC) sprint car race at Winchester during which two drivers lost their lives in pursuit of their passion. At about the same time this was going on at Winchester, Walt Brown was killed in an AAA Champ Car race at Williams Grove (PA) Speedway on the same Sunday.
“I was, in fact, there (at Winchester) with my family. My dad (Ralph Ruttman) was there taking care of JC Agajanian’s 98 sprint car…they called it 98 Junior. His 98 Senior was the Indy car. My brother Troy normally drove it, but he flipped a sprint car the week before and broke his arm. Troy wanted to give Cecil Green (pictured) an opportunity. The most amazing thing to me that I remember was that Cecil spun the car off turn four in warm-ups. I was standing next to them when my dad asked him about the possibility of the car needing some further adjustments…to make it handle better. Cecil said no…that ‘everything’s perfect.’”
Green went out to qualify, spun in turn one, and backed into the guardrail and flipped outside the track. He was pronounced dead on the way to the hospital. Green, a rising star, had just finished second to Lee Wallard in the 1951 Indy 500 two months before.
Bill Mackey, who finished 19th in his Indy 500 debut that year, was the next to qualify. He spun in the exact same spot as Green, backed up the banking following in the same skid marks…making contact with the fence in the same spot as Green. Mackey then tumbled over and outside the track to his death.
“It’s a phenomenal thing. It’s like one was a replay of the other. Of course, there were no roll cages then…not even a roll bar, so drivers were very much exposed. Hell, back then there wasn't even a pit wall to separate the frontstretch from the pits at Winchester; it was all wide open.”
Duane Carter, who was fully aware of what just happened, was the next to qualify. He got pushed away, climbed the high-banks, mashed the gas, and set a new one-lap track record along the way. Talk about an extra helmet bag for you know what. Without pause, the event marched on with Carter taking the win in the afternoon feature event.
The following year, Ruttman got to celebrate with his hero and brother Troy, who won the Indy 500 in Agajanian’s Offenhauser-powered 98 Senior car. Ruttman’s father Ralph crew-chiefed the winning Brickyard car.
Now fast-forward the clock more than 60 years...Ruttman finds himself alive and well today, spending most of his time in sunny North Port, Florida, just a few hour’s drive from Daytona. However, the 70-year-old racer, who still feels like he could get the job done with the right equipment, opts to stay away from stock car racing’s most famous course.
“I put it in terms of being an alcoholic…the world’s worst place is a bar. Alcohol is like racing so the worst place for me is Daytona. Now, if there was truly a quality ride waiting there for me, I couldn’t get there fast enough…it’s the greatest high in the world. But, at some point, your brain has to justify that that’s not going to happen…so the best way is to stay the hell away.
“Racing’s for younger guys. Getting old gives us the chance to admit it, and make way for the new guys to come along. Now I still feel like I could race with them if I had a competitive car, but that just may be in my mind.”
Ruttman doesn’t look back much on his racing career…in fact, he doesn’t tend to look back at all, but when asked to recollect his career, he breaks it up into phases.
“For me, it went in stages. I lived in Westland, Michigan when I came out this way to race. The best local guys racing I thought were Joy Fair, Danny Bryd, John Anderson, and all those guys that raced at Flat Rock, Toledo and Mt. Clemens. So, for me, that was stage one…beat all the big guys at the local level. The Glass City 200 (Ruttman won in 1969 and 1973) was the Daytona 500 for me. I used to read about that race in the paper and wondered how I would do if I raced against them. I paid 2500 bucks for a car, trailer, wheels, everything and we won it. I was reading one time and saw that I finished second twice in the Glass City, but, honestly, I don’t remember that, but I do remember winning. But, more often than not, I couldn’t beat Joy Fair…he had such a big reputation. He was whipping me all the time, but that’s what makes you a better racer…race against the best in the Midwest.“Then my next transition (stage 2) was to start racing a few ARCA races and USAC. Got the chance to race against AJ Foyt, Rusty Wallace, Alan Kulwicki, and all those guys.”
Ruttman not only raced against ‘all those guys’, he beat them too…winning the 1980 USAC National Stock Car championship. Behind Ruttman in the standings that year were Wallace, Bay Darnell and Ken Schrader, respectively.
“And of course stage three was the opportunity to go to Daytona and race NASCAR.
“I was born and raised in southern California so I moved back to help that stage two phase, not knowing the third dream would come along. I thought that if I moved back home, where the weather was nicer, I could race three and four nights a week, but, back then, all the tracks started going to Saturday nights, so that part of my decision process wasn’t the brightest.
“In the very early 80’s, NASCAR was coming to Ontario Motor Speedway, which is where I lived. Jim Stacy was a car owner and his driver, Jimmy Insolo, got hurt, so Jimmy told Stacy that there was a guy out there named Joe Ruttman who could drive the car at Ontario. After Stacy exhausted all his areas down south, and as the race got closer, I became his last resort. I couldn’t say yes fast enough. ‘What time do you want me there?’ He’s (Stacy) the guy who gave me the chance to break into NASCAR for good.
“As it turns out, Stacy liked me and bought a team. A guy by the name of Dale Earnhardt was racing for the team at the time, so I guess you could say that Dale and I were teammates; in fact I think I was the first teammate he ever had in NASCAR. Our first race as teammates was Talladega. After that Earnhardt got together with Richard Childress.
“I remember at the next race, Dale walked up to me and said, ‘Hey Ruttman…I just want to tell you it wasn’t because of you that I left. I wanted to be the one and only driver, but it wasn’t because of you.’
“I guess Dale felt compelled to tell me that, but I told him that it was no problem because that when you quit, I became number one driver here. I was second until you walked away. Anyway, he felt obligated to tell me I wasn’t the reason he quit.
“I never saw him (Earnhardt) as a celebrity…I saw him as a race driver…just another competitor I had to beat. I thought he was actually a little bashful. He came from a little town…Kannapolis (N.C.)…and I think it was tough on him dealing with all the accolades everyone put on him. He certainly wasn’t bashful in driving…just his personality. I think his persona changed over time…to this intimidator image. And there was a period of time when he’d try to intimidate you, and if that didn’t work, he’d nudge you out of the way, but he didn’t just knock people out of the way. He raced 110%, and he wanted someone to race the hell out of him the same way.”
As Ruttman transitioned to NASCAR, he continued to dabble on ARCA’s national tour, winning the inaugural ARCA race at Michigan Int’l Speedway from the pole in 1980 and at Daytona in 1982, driving for Stacy. He also made a guest appearance in the Roulo Brothers 39 car at Flat Rock Speedway in 1995, winning on the quarter-mile track.
Of course, Ruttman had bigger dreams and pursued his NASCAR career in earnest, making 225 career Sprint Cup Series starts up through 2004. He twice finished third in the Daytona 500 (’82 & ’91), and fourth in ’83.
“The first year (at Daytona) we ended up third. The next year was probably my best chance to win the 500. There were three of us running together on the last lap. I thought to myself…I’m not gunna run 499 miles following Cale Yarborough. I made the wrong decision down the backstretch, and it killed my momentum. I remember Buddy Baker came up on us in the last corner. I made a move, going for the win, and went backwards…ended up fourth. I still kick myself over that…asked myself a hundred times…’why did I do that?’. I’m sure every driver in the world has hundreds of those stories.
“As far as getting to NASCAR, I have to credit Joy Fair for part of it. I had to get away from him…he was always beating me.”
Ruttman, in addition to his famous brother Troy, had two other brothers growing up – Jim and Jerry. Jerry was killed on a motorcycle at the age of 19 while his brother Jim, who died four years ago, was a successful business man.
“Big Jim was smarter than I was. He tried racing a little bit, but realized he could make more money in the manufacturing business. He made a lot more money than I ever did and retired at a much earlier age…he had the money to do it…retired at 50. I’d say that’s pretty smart.”
Ruttman gives much of the credit to his racing success to his older brother Troy.
“It was fantastic. Two things happened. Because Troy was such a great race driver, other owners automatically thought we had some sort of special blood…kinda like a race horse owner with a special breed that won all the time. Troy opened a lot of doors for me.
“Secondly, I watched him race from a young kid, and learned everything I knew from him. I was never the race driver he was. Parnelli Jones always said Troy was his hero, so I wasn’t the only one. I raced successfully, but I never surpassed him in success…he was a better race driver.”
Ruttman also made 172 career NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts from ’95 through 2007, winning 13 times. He also had one NASCAR Xfinity Series victory in 21 attempts.
Over a career that stretched nearly 50 years, he also won a ton of races at the local level, but the trophies that could remind him of his success, locally, and at the NASCAR national level, are not in his possession, if they still exist at all. In fact, he’s got no trophies to prove his success, except one.
“I didn’t keep any of my trophies, except one, and that was the car I won the USAC Stock Car championship in. The reason I did that...I figured if I actually had the car, there’d be no question of what happened. Some drivers tend to stretch out their accomplishments without the hardware to prove it, if you know what I mean. And, old people tend to live in the past, not the future. I didn’t care about the past. The only thing I wanted was to win the next race, and the next race. I didn’t want to get more involved with polishing trophies than the next race. I don’t miss any of them anyway. I live in the present, not the past.
“I think most drivers tend to think we’re greater than what we really are. The driver is only as good as the team around him and the people working on the car…the sponsorship…it’s a team sport all the way around. There are hundreds and hundreds of Jeff Gordon’s out there that will never get the opportunity to show it. Back when I was coming up, if you were okay with the risk, you could take the gamble…you didn’t need necessarily all the money in the world to do it back then…go out on a limb and have someone saw it off. I took the gamble.”
Ruttman is remarried these days to his wife Karen who gives not one hoot about racing.
“She has no interest in racing and doesn’t pretend to want to go…doesn’t know anything about it. That works in my favor because without her not knowing anything about it, I can tell her how great I was and get away with it.”
When Ruttman isn’t bouncing around the west coast of Florida, he spends a lot of time with his nephew Jimmy, ‘Big Jim’s’ son.
“He’s got a really nice shop two…three miles down the road, so I spend the majority of my time visiting with him…it keeps me busy. He’s got a great little business…he restores old pick-up trucks and I help a little with that. I enjoy the hell out of it. He takes these old pick-up trucks from the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, puts late-model fuel injection in ‘em, modern drivelines, rack and pinion, goes through the entire undercarriages so it’s all modern, yet he leaves the truck looking old and faded…barnlike. We’ve got a dually pick-up with a crew cab…we make trips all over the country buying and selling old trucks…travel up to the state of Washington. It’s beautiful and I get to see the countryside along the way. I love it.
“Overall, I feel great...doesn’t mean I won’t quit tomorrow, but, right now, I’m hitting on all eight cylinders. I try not to read too many of my old clippings. If you do that, you start thinking you’re great, and I know better.”