All along the Indianapolis Speedway's Gasoline Alley there is a cast-in-concrete image of Gordon Johncock: a shy, likable little guy, one people are perpetually rooting for but only halfheartedly, because they know to wish too hard for Johncock to succeed is an exercise in frustration. He's hopelessly unlucky. If something can go wrong, it's sure to go wrong for Wee Gordy. Still, the sentiment and respect are undeniable. He's admired because he drives with his heart.
With 13 laps remaining in the 1982 Indy 500, Johncock was leading the race, having gotten there largely on heart. For the first 155 laps his STP Wildcat-Cosworth hadn't handled well at all, and he had had to wrestle it every mile of the way. Somehow he had kept the car in contention. Then, from Lap 155 to Lap 187, the Wildcat had turned perfect on him, and Johncock had moved from fourth into the lead, past Rick Mears, the heavy favorite, driving a Penske-Ford, whose 207-mph qualifying speed made it the fastest car in the history of the Brickyard. Now, after holding Mears off and gaining a few seconds in the pits, Johncock led by 12 seconds.
A 12-second lead with 13 laps to go is a big one for most people. But the 5'7" Johncock isn't most people and he, more than any of the 400,000 witnesses to this sprint to the checkered flag, knew it. Almost predictably, Johncock felt the handling of his car begin to deteriorate again. His left rear tire was overheating, causing it to expand and thus make the car "push" through the turns. Mears began to close on Johncock at the rate of one second per lap.
"I was running as hard as I could go," he said later. "I was looking in my mirror every lap and I could see Mears coming. I thought, 'Yep, here it is again.' "
Johncock had lost so many 500-mile races near the finish to bad luck—blown tires, dry gas tanks—that he had a right to feel the way he did. The more his car pushed, the bigger Mears loomed in his mirror. Johncock began thinking about the 1977 500, which he was leading by four seconds with 16 laps to go when his engine swallowed the crankshaft. The sight of Johncock standing hot and forlorn in an infield drainage creek as A.J. Foyt took the checkered flag aptly symbolized his fate at the Brickyard. "I started thinking about that '77 race with about 10 laps to go, especially when the car started pushing a lot," he said. "It just seems that throughout my career it hasn't been meant for me to run 500 miles."
With four laps remaining, Mears had pulled to within three seconds of Johncock. Both Mears's Penske crew and Johncock's Patrick team were frozen in suspense as the high-speed drama played out around them. With two laps left, Johncock's lead was .8 of a second. As they came down the front straight to take the white flag signaling one lap to go, Mears nosed up beside Johncock. "When I saw him coming up alongside me I thought, 'Well, that's all she wrote,' " said Johncock. "But I knew I would've gone into the first turn side by side with him because there was no way I was going to back off."
Because Johncock had the outside line into the turn, the better line, Mears had to back off and tuck in behind him. That was the last time Johncock saw Mears. "I had my hands so full I really didn't have time to look for him," Gordy said. "I was driving as hard as I could. The car was pushing so bad I had to drive all the way down to the bottom of the turns to keep it from pushing up into the wall. On the last lap, in Turn 3, I almost lost it; all four tires were below the white line."
Coming off the final turn, Mears chased Johncock down the straight toward the checkered flag. Mears swung out in a final, desperate attempt to slingshot past, but Johncock crossed the finish line slightly more than a car length ahead. As measured by the clock his margin was .16 of a second. It was the closest finish, and perhaps the most exciting, in the 66-year history of the 500.
Officially it was Johncock's second Indy win, but he doesn't count the first, which came in 1973. Johncock isn't alone—that was a race a lot of people would like to forget. But until last Sunday it typified Johncock's career at the Speedway. That race was postponed for two successive days because of rain. On the third day, it was finally run, but called at 332.5 miles, again because of rain, with Johncock in the lead. Thus he was the winner. In that race Johncock's teammate, Swede Savage, was fatally injured, as was Armondo Teran, one of the STP crewmen, who was hit by a truck on pit road as he ran toward the fiery car in which Savage was trapped. Safety crews cut Savage free. He died 33 days later.
To many, that race never really ended. There was a feeling that it had been called because of emotional fatigue rather than rain. As Johncock received the trophy hardly anyone was there to cheer him, most of the spectators having gone home. No one even wanted to bother with a victory banquet that year. Then Johncock's $90,000 slice of the $236,000 purse was withheld by a Federal bankruptcy referee, most of it to be divided among his creditors and his first wife and five children. At the time, his second wife was suing him for divorce.