By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
In sharp contrast to some of his contemporaries, who can be found at the race track week-in and week-out, two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Gordon Johncock rarely speaks about, or even thinks about, racing these days. He makes precious few personal appearances, only occasionally grants interviews, and is likely to refer you to IMS historian, Donald Davidson, for questions about his racing stats.
Now 80 years old, Johncock routinely puts in a full day of work at Quigley Lumber, the business that he owns in South Branch, Michigan. The sawmill keeps him busy, and he downplays his racing past as “That job I used to have.”
This doesn’t change the fact that Gordon Johncock, affectionately known as Gordy, has carved out an indelible place in motor racing history.
Born in Hastings, MI, Johncock was raised on a farm and the thought of racing never crossed his mind as a youngster. When he was 18, his cousin built a modified car and suggested that they take it to the local dirt track. Johncock, as it turned out, had a natural talent for racing, and he spent the next ten years tearing up the tracks in Southern Michigan running modified cars and USAC sprints.
He first arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1965, part of a rookie class that included Al Unser, Mario Andretti and Joe Leonard. With the Weinberger & Wilseck Team, he qualified his Watson/Offenhauser roadster 14th and brought it home in fifth place, narrowly losing the Rookie of the Year award to Andretti.
Later that same year, Johncock would go on to take his first series victory in Milwaukee, finishing ahead of A.J. Foyt and Lloyd Ruby. Over the next several seasons, he became a regular fixture in the series, campaigning his own car with support from Gilmore Broadcasting. Looking to race as often as he could, he would also show up on the NASCAR circuit, racing for the likes of Junior Johnson and Bud Moore, and working with legendary crew chief Harry Hyde.
After taking six USAC wins in the latter part of the Sixties, Johncock hit a dry spell as the 1970s dawned. He shut down his race team, and signed on to drive for Pat Patrick. With brand new Eagle chassis’, support from STP and teammate Swede Savage, Patrick and Johncock looked for big things to happen in 1973.
While the association with Patrick did put Gordon Johncock’s image on the Borg-Warner Trophy for the first time, the circumstances surrounding the race have made 1973 the darkest Month of May in Speedway history.
With the addition of turbochargers and bolt-on wings, speculation that the 200mph barrier would be broken dominated the headlines. Gordon Johncock had recorded an unofficial lap at 199.4 mph during a test in March. When the Speedway opened for practice, the speeds were indeed quick as many drivers laid down laps tantalizingly close to 200 mph.
Excitement over the speeds turned to concerns over safety when Art Pollard was killed on the morning of Pole Day. Qualifying went on just the same, as Johnny Rutherford took the pole with a speed of 198.413. Gordon Johncock put his car into the show and lined up 11th on race day.
On Monday morning, rain delayed the start for more than four hours. When the green finally waved, the race was immediately stopped as a horrifying scene unfolded. Eleven cars piled up on the front straight and the spinning car of David “Salt” Walther spewed a shower of burning fuel into the grandstands, injuring more than a dozen spectators.
Before the cleanup could be completed, rain began to fall over the speedway and continued until Wednesday afternoon. A local newspaper reporter dubbed the event as the “72 Hours of Indianapolis.”
When the race was restarted, two days late, with rather empty grandstands, Gordon Johncock ran comfortably in the top five. On the 59th lap, the race was stopped for a massive crash involving his Patrick Racing teammate, Swede Savage. In the melee that ensued, a crewman was struck and killed by a firetruck on pit lane.
Savage was transported to the hospital, and racing resumed after a lengthy cleanup. Johncock’s car remained strong and he was leading the event when the skies opened up once again shortly after half-distance. The race was stopped for good and called official after 133 laps of 200 scheduled.
Gordon Johncock had just won the biggest race in the world, but he could find no reason to celebrate. Along with team owner, Pat Patrick, Johncock quickly left the Speedway grounds to check on his young teammate in the hospital. Finding Savage in reasonably good spirits despite multiple injuries, the team’s victory banquet consisted of hamburgers and Pepsi Cola from a local fast-food joint. Sadly, Savage passed away a little over a month later as a result of complications from his injuries.
Gordy remained with the Patrick Team, becoming a consistent winner on the circuit taking the National Championship in 1976. In the ensuing years, Pat Patrick became one of the founders of the CART Series that would eventually replace USAC as the dominant sanctioning body for Indy Car racing.
The first race sanctioned by the fledgling CART series, at Phoenix in 1979, was won by Gordon Johncock, putting another interesting stat on his resume.
A much as the 1973 Indianapolis was an affair that many would like to forget, Johncock’s second Indianapolis 500 win was truly something special. By 1982, nearly all of the teams and tracks had switched their allegiance to CART and sleek ground-effects cars had replaced the machines of the 1970s.
The Penske cars were the class of the field with Rick Mears and Kevin Cogan both breaking the track record and taking the first two starting positions. Johncock and his Patrick Racing teammate, Mario Andretti, were not far off of the mark, both starting on row two.
Gordon Johncock was lined up directly behind Kevin Cogan when the young driver’s car suddenly veered to the right at the drop of the green. Johncock escaped trouble as Cogan hit the car of A.J. Foyt and was then T-boned by Mario Andretti.
When the race was restarted, the field got off cleanly (minus a few starters) and Johncock found his Gordon Kimball-designed Wildcat chassis to be a pretty decent match for the Penske in race trim. The latter stages of the race saw the lead bounce between Rick Mears, Tom Sneva and Johncock.
After a caution on lap 154, Johncock led Mears when the field returned to green. Mears made his final stop under green with 18 to go, but lost valuable time after getting bottled up behind the car of Herm Johnson on pit lane. Two laps later, Johncock peeled into the pits as his crew executed a flawless timed stop, taking on just enough fuel to make the finish.
Returning to the track, Johncock had a lead of more than ten seconds, but he could tell that his handling was deteriorating. Mears began catching him at an alarming rate, setting up a thrilling, edge-of-your seat battle for the final laps. With three to go, Mears was right up on Gordy’s rear wing. On the white flag lap, the two cars crossed the line side-by-side. Entering the final lap, Johncock chopped across Mears, blocking him going into turn one.
Going into turn three, Johncock nearly lost it after getting too low into the corner, allowing Mears to set up a final pass on the front stretch. Mears came agonizingly close to pulling it off as Johncock took the checkered flag just 0.16 of a second ahead; the closest finish in Speedway history at the time.
The dramatic conclusion of the 1982 Indy 500 caused the mainstream media to take notice of Gordon Johncock, labeling him as an ‘overnight sensation’ despite the fact that he was 46 years old, with more than three decades of racing, a previous Indy win, and a series championship already under his belt.
Proving that the Indy win was no fluke, Johncock visited Victory Lane again just two weeks later in Milwaukee. He took a third win on the season at the Michigan 500. The Michigan win made him eligible for the 500-mile triple-crown with the Pocono 500 slated for August. He came up short at Pocono, dropping out with gearbox issues just seven laps from the checkers.
1983 started off on a high note for Johncock as he won the season-opener at Atlanta. At Michigan, he crashed while leading, suffering injuries that kept him out of the cockpit for the balance of the season. Returning to the Patrick Team in 1984, Johncock had mixed results as the team seemed to have fallen behind the curve.
Gordon Johncock abruptly announced his retirement from full-time driving and walked away from the Patrick Team during Indianapolis practice in 1985. Over the next several years he participated in a variety of limited racing programs at the 500-milers before hanging up his helmet for good in 1992.
In the years since his retirement, he has been inducted into both the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.
However, with a secluded home deep in the forested area of Northern Michigan, Gordy now prefers the company of his wife, Sue, and the daily grind of the lumber business to the race track and its fanfare.