Gordon Johncock has been driving race cars for 22 years, and despite the fact that he is the current USAC champion in Indy cars, he is known mostly as the quiet little guy who won the wrong Indianapolis 500, the infamous 1973 race that started with a disaster and ended with a downpour. During the coming year, however, Johncock may be known as the quiet little guy who almost won the right Indy 500—this year's fast and trouble-free race. Johncock led and controlled most of the race until the 185th of 200 laps when his engine went up in a small puff of smoke that carried away his—and every other Indy driver's—perennial dream.
Johncock is a man who has been in the right place at the wrong time all his life. Take Indianapolis. It is a place that has done little more than tease him. In addition to snatching this year's 500 from him mere minutes before it ended, the Brickyard allowed him to turn the first 200-mph lap in its history, then buried that feat because he was two months early. Johncock's 200-mph lap came during tire tests in March, but because it was recorded with stopwatches instead of electronic timers, it doesn't count. It's as if it never happened.
Even Johncock's 1973 Indy win doesn't count for much. If someone were to offer him the chance to give it back, he might be tempted. "That May was one of the worst months of my life," he says.
Two drivers (one of them Johncock's teammate Swede Savage) and a mechanic (Armondo Teran, also a member of Johncock's team) died as a result of race injuries; another driver, Salt Walther. was badly burned; a dozen spectators were injured by the debris and flames spewing from Walther's car. The race was postponed twice by rain, and it finally ended in rain two days after the starter's green flag had fallen, with a total of only 332.5 miles run. The traditional victory banquet was canceled; no one felt like celebrating.
The payoff that year for the winner was $236,022.82. Johncock's share was 38%, or about $90,000, an average cut for a driver. But Johncock was in the middle of both a divorce from his second wife and a personal bankruptcy case; his debts totaled $369,000. Johncock's share of the purse was withheld by a federal bankruptcy referee, and most of it was later divided among his creditors and his first wife and five children. Since then Johncock has paid off the remainder of the debts.
Even the car that came with the prize money figuratively turned to dust. It was a Cadillac Eldorado convertible, white with red leather upholstery. Today the car sits in the driveway of Johncock's modest tract house in Phoenix. He is being sued for a quarter of a million dollars over a minor fender-bending incident while driving it.
The other party in the accident was likely surprised when he discovered that the man in the Cadillac was a race driver, for Johncock doesn't look like one. Sometimes he wears a polo shirt with cowboys on it, a design that might be found on wallpaper in a boy's bedroom, and he often wears an expression that seems to say he's not sure if he should tuck the shirt in or not. The impish grin alone separates him from other drivers, who wear masks of stone a lot of the time. On the track Johncock wears a crash helmet with an especially narrow window for his eyes, a slit barely two fingers wide, and the helmet always seems to be dropping down and pushing the window over his nose, which makes him look like a little boy wearing a hat three sizes too large. He drives with his head cocked back so he can see through the slit, and that makes him look like the same little boy in the big hat trying to peer over the top of the kitchen table.
Johncock is about 5'7", and his arms are not long enough to boost him out of his car smoothly; sometimes he gets stuck. As he pulled off in Turn One at Indy this year, TV commentator Jackie Stewart, believing Johncock was dizzy from the heat, cried, "He's struggling to get out of his car!" Johncock always struggles to get out of his car.
It is no surprise that people with a soft spot for the underdog are attracted to Johncock. One woman, upon viewing the Indy 500 on television last month, became a Johncock fan by watching him during the moments immediately after he pulled off the track. "There was something so endearing about him," she said. "The poor fellow had come so close to winning, and there he was, standing in the creek in the infield to cool off. He just looked so forlorn."
The truth is, Johncock is embarrassed by attention, and doesn't talk much. "Don't tell him I said this," says a friend who knows him well, "but the reason Gordy has so little to say is that he's afraid he'll say the wrong thing. But it's not as bad as it used to be. He never used to say anything."