IRL: Indy 500 Parade of Champions: Gordon Johncock

JOHNCOCK TOOK UNCONVENTIONAL PATH TO INDY GLORY INDIANAPOLIS, May 11, 1998 -- Gordon Johncock won two Indianapolis 500-Mile Races, but you can't call it a dream come true. Growing up barely more than 200 miles north of Indianapolis, ...


INDIANAPOLIS, May 11, 1998 -- Gordon Johncock won two Indianapolis 500-Mile Races, but you can't call it a dream come true. Growing up barely more than 200 miles north of Indianapolis, Johncock not only didn't dream about winning Indy, he didn't even fantasize about racing there.

Reared on a farm by his mother outside the small town of Hastings, Mich., cows and crops were his world.

"My goal wasn't to make Indy," he said. "I wasn't brought up in racing."

Johncock, who will be saluted May 12 as part of the Parade of Champions at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, never sat down in any type of racing machine until he was 18 years old. That's when his cousin Nolan, 4 years older, built a modified racecar and showed it to Gordy. It may have been love at first sight though he had attended a few races with friend Wayne Landon.

"I got this chance," he said. "Some people are naturals, while others drive all their lives and never make it."

Johncock was a "natural."

But his move to Indy wasn't instantaneous. It was a 10-year trip as he specialized in supermodifieds around the southern Michigan area. His chance came in 1965 with the Weinberger Homes car. He became part of one of Indy's finest rookie contingents that also included Mario Andretti, Al Unser Sr., Joe Leonard, Jerry Grant and George Snider.

"I never even went to a (Indy-type car) race," Johncock said.

"The first time I ever saw a race, I was going through Indy. I stopped at the Fairgrounds (where the Hoosier Hundred was being run), peeked through the canvas in Turn 2, got back in my car and went on down the road. Some drivers lived and breathed racing. It was their life. To me, it was a job."

But the desire to win was there from the beginning. He says that if you don't have that desire, you'll never achieve success.

Johncock qualified 14th in his first "500" in 1965, finishing fifth and on the same lap with winner Jimmy Clark. But Johncock wasn't named rookie of the year because Andretti qualified fourth and placed third. Gordy finished fourth the next year but then went through a string of bad-luck finishes that stretched through 1972.

The 1973 race, as Johncock says, no one wants to remember. And that includes Gordy, who was declared winner of the tragic, rain-stricken "500" that took three days to run only 133 laps.

"To me, it wasn't a victory," he said. "They threw the red flag, and I happened to be the leader because the other leaders pitted. The next one (1982) was much more satisfying."

Johncock had begun his long association with sponsor STP in '73. The race ended with his car sitting in the pits being pelted by heavy rain. He never saw the checkered flag nor was there a Victory Banquet the next night to honor him.

It was different the second time around. This was a race that ended with a thrilling duel with Rick Mears to the finish line. Johncock did an incredible job of holding off Mears on the final circuit of the racetrack, winning in an American-built Wildcat chassis. And there was a Victory Banquet.

"The second one didn't start out good," he said. "The car wasn't working, but at each pit stop the crew made it better. I was so far behind if it hadn't been for the yellow, Rick would have lapped me.

"At the end, Rick still had the car that was handling better. I had a little stronger engine. I knew he was catching me a second a lap. I had to use all of the track, go high, come down low into the corner so I didn't have to come off the throttle. In Turn 3 of the last lap, I was so low I hit a bump. If you watch the tape, you can see the car jump sideways."

But Gordy the Natural never lost control of his magnificent racing machine and held off Rick for the final mile to become one of the 15-multiple winners at the Speedway.

Johncock could have been a three-time winner, at least, if the crankshaft on his car hadn't broken while holding a big lead over A.J. Foyt with only 12 laps to go.

In 1985, Johncock made what he calls one of his worse mistakes. He abruptly decided to retire while practicing for the race.

"I was just so fed up with Patrick Racing," he said.

"I remember seeing (crew chief) Jim McGee going out and looking at everybody else's car. I said, 'Oh, boy, there we go again.' I went home that night and decided I had had enough and should go to another team. It would have been nice to have had a dominating team like Rick did with (Roger) Penske or Johnny Rutherford did with (Jim) Hall.

"Only time Patrick had a dominating team was with Emmo (Emerson Fittipaldi in 1989). The man who put them on Broadway was their shock man (suspension specialist). I can remember going to the Victory Banquet and the shock man never got mentioned. I was ticked off."

The white-thatched Johncock rejoined the Indy field in 1987 and also drove in 1989, 1991 and '92. His name has shown up periodically since, even with the Pep Boys IRL, but he never got the right ride.

"The first year of the IRL I was thinking about running if I got a decent ride," he said. "After Scott (Brayton) was killed, I sat in the car and everything. John Menard said he had to go out on the line and talk to Larry Curry. The next day I was sitting in the STP room and was asked if I had heard the news that Danny Ongais was driving the car. I went to the Speedway Motel, packed my clothes and went home."

Johncock, 62, says he doesn't live in the past.

"I've got some trophies and stuff, scrapbooks my mother kept, in the attic," he said. "You go to Al Unser's home, and he's got trophies all over. I look at it different than a lot of people.

"If there's any recommendation I can make to the young drivers going to Indianapolis is to keep stuff, newspaper articles, whatever, so you can write a book."

Johncock farmed his land for several years in the 1990s. But last Dec. 7, he sold all of his cattle, bought a motorhome and headed west. He's back living on the farm, but is in the process of selling the equipment. Eventually, the farm will go under the auctioneer's block, too.

        "You've got to be so big in the farming business today to
survive," he said.  ***

Source: IRL/IMS events

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Mario Andretti , Al Unser Sr. , Rick Mears , Joe Leonard , Danny Ongais , Gordon Johncock , Johnny Rutherford