Johncock, Mears produced finish for the ages 30 years ago
No one had ever seen anything like it before at Indianapolis.
It’s the 30th anniversary of the 1982 Indianapolis 500, and those who were there will never forget it.
Rick Mears was the pole winner and the young gun in the Penske camp. Gordon Johncock was the rugged veteran of the Indy car, sprint and super-modified wars. And they went at it at the end.
Johncock was herding an ill-handling car in front of the field, and Mears was gathering him up. Tom Carnegie was announcing the spread on the Public Address system going down each lap as the drama built with the pair flying around the Speedway. You could always tell where they were because the crowd in that particular area was going wild.
On the second lap from the end, Mears caught Johncock and went underneath him going into Turn 1. But Johncock held on and maintained the lead. Mears tried again off Turn 4 to the checkered flag and just missed, by .16 of a second, the closest “500” finish at the time.
“It sure doesn’t seem like 30 years,” Mears said. “Time flies when you’re having fun. I can remember the last few laps like it was yesterday.”
The spellbinding final laps built a new respectful relationship out of an ordinary good one between the two drivers, who toured the media together to all the talk shows and other outlets after the wild finish.
The drivers saw Mears’ dramatic move in Turn 1 differently.
“Hindsight’s always 20-20,” Mears said. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d wait till the checkered-flag lap. I got to him in Turn 1, and I didn’t figure out that I had almost a full fuel load and he was almost empty.”
A few years ago, Johncock said: “If we were going into Turn 1 at Indianapolis side-by-side at 200 miles an hour, that’s what we were going to do. He‘d have to try me on the inside if I was up high. I had to use the whole corner coming out. When I came out of Turn 3, I was lower than I ever had been because my car was pushing so bad, and I almost lost it. Rick will tell you the same thing. He thought I lost it.”
“Later in his career, I think Rick learned a lot that day. Several years later, he probably would’ve gotten around me. If he had 10 more feet on me when he made his move, he’d probably have won the race.
“That was the top of my career. He had a lot faster car than I did. My car wasn’t handling that well. At one time during the race, my car was handling so bad that if it hadn’t been for a yellow, Rick would’ve lapped me.”
Mears went on to a record-tying four victories at Indy and was .16 of a second away from a fifth.
“That race ranks right up there with my memorable ones,” Mears said. “It was early in my career. To be able to run him down like that … With another couple laps, maybe. When you can hear the crowd over the cars … all of that together makes it high on the list.”
Mears still talks about the race frequently. Johncock doesn’t.
“From time to time, it pops up,” Mears said. “When people talk about four wins, then they start talking about, ‘It could’ve been five.’”
Said Johncock: “I don’t even think about it, really. I took racing different than other people. It was my job, and I did it. Now it’s over and done. My new job keeps me busy all the time. I have a sawmill, and I’m in the lumber business and we started a mulch business this year. You were there to win. That‘s your job. Most people like to do their best at their job.”
In 1991, Mears again started on the pole. Johncock squeezed into the field in 33rd spot. He was sick on race morning, and the Hemelgarn team had Johnny Parsons standing by on the grid in case Johncock couldn’t go.
Mears went on to win his fourth “500,” and Johncock soldiered doggedly to sixth.
It’s customary for the winning driver to come to the media center the day after the race for a “conversational” press conference. Mears hadn’t started when Johncock walked in, shook his hand and said, “I hope you win six or seven of ‘em.”
Mears said later, “I don’t believe I could’ve done what Gordy did yesterday.”
Both drivers made the field in 1992 but finished undramatically toward the back of the field. It was the last time either of them would run the Indianapolis 500.
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