Gordon Johncock was part of the stellar rookie class that filled one-third of the field for the 1965 Indianapolis 500. The Michigan native remained one of Indy car racing’s top stars into the 1980s, winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1973 and 1982 as well as the 1976 USAC National Championship.
In what was effectively the last year for front-engine cars at Indianapolis, Johncock scored the top finish for a roadster in fifth place, though 1965 Rookie of the Year honors went to third place finisher Mario Andretti.
“That was a time of transition,” Johncock recalled. “There weren’t too many more roadsters after that because the rear engine cars were so much quicker.”
In a rear-engine car, Johncock improved to fourth place in 1966 but failed to finish the ‘500’ for the next six years.
After qualifying third in 1967, “I was well on my way to third place when a car blew its engine in front of me and a bunch of us wrecked,” he said.
The man known as ‘Gordy’ made his Indianapolis breakthrough in 1973, but his victory in the ‘500’ will always be overshadowed by the tragic events of the entire month of May.
One of Johncock’s Patrick Racing teammates, Art Pollard, was killed in a practice crash. After the start of the race was delayed by four hours due to rain, a multi-car wreck almost sent Salt Walther’s burning car into the crowd. Before the event could be restarted, it began to rain again.
Two days later, the 1973 ‘500’ finally began in earnest. But there was more tragedy to come. Johncock’s other teammate, Swede Savage, crashed on the 58th lap and later died from his injuries. Meanwhile, Patrick crewman Armando Teran was killed instantly when he ran up the pit lane toward Savage’s Turn 4 accident and was struck by a fire truck.
When the race was restarted, Al Unser led until his engine broke on Lap 73. Johncock took over at the front and was never headed until rain forced the red flag to be thrown after 133 laps (332.5 miles).
“That was a bad year - everything went wrong,” Johncock said. My teammate got killed…the race was delayed so many times and it was a short race. We led more laps than anybody and happened to be in front when they stopped the race. We didn’t fall into it.
“I never even received the checkered flag,” he added. “Winning the race was the main thing.”
After finishing fourth in 1974 and third in ’76, Johncock appeared headed to victory in the 1977 ‘500.’ Gordy was leading eventual winner A.J. Foyt by eight seconds when his engine expired with 15 laps to go. “I thought we had it in the bag,” Johncock lamented.
Johncock enjoyed a series of consistent results at Indianapolis in the late ‘70s, never finishing lower than 11th and completing third (1978) and fourth (1980) place runs. His second Indy victory in 1982 featured one of the most thrilling finishes in the 100-year history of the great race.
Rick Mears dominated practice and qualified on pole position, but Johncock retook the lead on Lap 160. Although Mears had a faster car, the Penske team made a tactical error when they gave him a full tank of fuel during his final pit stop on Lap 183. Johncock’s “splash and go” stop three laps later was executed some five seconds faster than Mears’ stop.
Mears made up an 11-second deficit to Johncock and tried to set up a pass into Turn 1 on the 200th lap. Rick got his car’s nose to the inside, but Johncock shut the door. Mears lost momentum and dropped back; he made one more desperate attempt in the sprint to the checkered flag but Johncock remained ahead by 0.16 second in what at the time was the closest Indianapolis 500 finish in history.
“Rick was running a lot better than I did the whole race and at one time if it wasn’t for a yellow he would have lapped me,” Johncock noted. “But as we made some adjustments on the car it got better and better. When it came down to the end of the race we were working a whole lot better than we had been. It was a great ending and an exciting finish.”
Johncock abruptly announced his retirement during the first week of practice for the 1985 Indianapolis 500 and spent the rest of the month working for the IMS Radio Network. It was a short-lived retirement; he came back to run four more times at Indianapolis between 1987 and 1992, capping his Indy career by coming from 33rd on the grid to finish sixth in 1991.
Johncock has generally distanced himself from motorsport since his final retirement to manage his farming and sawmill operations in Michigan. But he still retains fond memories of his racing career - especially the Indianapolis 500.
“You would be more recognized and get further from winning Indianapolis one time than all the rest of the races,” he said. “I felt we earned both of our wins.”
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