Tears broke like waves in Gordon Johncock's and Johnny Rutherford's pits after the final USAC championship race of the season Sunday at Phoenix, but those in Johncock's were tears of joy, those in Rutherford's of bitter disappointment. With 38 miles remaining in the 150-mile race, a broken oil line on Rutherford's McLaren had made Johncock the new USAC champion and Rutherford the runner-up for the third consecutive time. Al Unser won the race in his Parnelli-Cosworth and Johncock finished second to earn 240 points, only 19 more than he needed to beat Rutherford, who had looked like a shoo-in.
Although the championship was not decided until this final race, in no way did it figure to provide the finish it did. Even if Johncock won, Rutherford only needed to finish seventh to take the title. It seemed ironic, because, on paper, the season seemed to be Johncock's: he had finished in the top three in 11 of the 13 races, winning twice. But Rutherford had done better in the three 500-milers, which are worth more points—and pay more money. The points difference between the two was only about 5%; the dollar difference was about 100%, with Rutherford winning $359,574 to Johncock's $178,628.
As close as they had been on the track during the season—five times they had finished within one position of each other—their styles are miles apart. Both men fit the racer's mold, but Rutherford stretches it, while Johncock gets lost in it. Rutherford's winter schedule is packed with personal appearances; about the only appearance Johncock plans is before the deer in Wyoming. "I wish I could just park the motor home on the back-stretch, and as soon as the race is over, jump in it and take off for the high country," he said during a Friday night card game in his Phoenix home.
Says one man who knows both men well, "They're really nice guys, but Rutherford gets all the publicity because he's outgoing. He'll jump in the middle of a crowd to get to a microphone. Johncock's the opposite; he's so quiet that he actually hides behind people in the crowd to keep from being interviewed. Johncock's like a fighter pilot: when he's strapped in his cockpit, he's all guts to the wall; outside of it, he looks as if he doesn't belong in such a machine."
November 15, 1976
True, and they are a paradox on the track, where Johncock is recognized as one of USAC's chargers—along with Mario Andretti, A. J. Foyt and Bobby Unser. Rutherford drives hard, make no mistake, but he is as much a strategist as a charger. Their driving styles were reflected in their plans for the race. Rutherford: "I'll do what's easiest." Johncock: "I can't afford to lay back." In both cases, these strategies were no different than for any other race.
Before Saturday's qualifying, Johncock took only a handful of practice laps. He figured his times were good enough, and they were: he qualified at 139.589 mph, to put him on the front row next to Bobby Unser. Johncock's Patrick Racing Team was relaxed; crew chief George Bignotti had the Sinmast Wildcat sorted out with time to spare.
Things were not so easy in the McLaren pits. Rutherford spun in practice and was starting sixth in the 22-car field. He had pulled into the pits after his qualifying laps, sat there in the hot sun shaking his helmeted head for a second or two, then mumbled to crew chief Tyler Alexander, "Every time we try to make the steering better, it just makes the car pitch worse."
Despite their qualifying troubles, the McLaren team had been optimistic; but, then, the mood of the weekend was optimistic for everyone. Usually a season ends on a down note; people are tired and want to get the last race over with and go home and rest for a month or two. But the mood at Phoenix was charged up for several reasons. First of all, there was something at stake, because the championship would be decided. Almost as important, Citicorp, becoming more involved in motor racing each year, had poured $35,000 ($20,000 of which went to Johncock as champion) into the USAC points fund late in the season and had signed to sponsor the 1977 series for a figure widely, but unofficially, reckoned to be near $300,000. In a sport of outrageous expense—a single car costs in the neighborhood of $75,000—the news was enough to elate the racers.
Then, too, the raceway is generally liked: it is a challenge for the drivers, because it is tricky, and a pleasure for the spectators because they can see it all. It is a one-mile oval, unique in that the backstretch includes a flat-out dogleg. Consequently, Turn 3 is a sweeper and seems to belong on an oval twice this length, but Turn 4 tightens up again. A driver uses both feet through the turns: one on the gas and one on the brakes. The idea is to keep the speed of the car down but the rpm—and, more important, the turbocharger boost—up. To shoot out of the turns, the driver eases off the brakes. At Phoenix, the cliché "heavy right foot" doesn't really fit; the fastest driver is the one with the lightest left foot.
The fact that the lightest left foot of all, Foyt, was absent—he had crashed the previous week at a race in Texas and was recuperating—doubtlessly helped Johncock. But even Foyt would have been hard-pressed to charge the way Johncock did. He followed Bobby Unser for 15 laps, then passed on the outside of Turn I when Unser was slowed in lapping Bill Puterbaugh. It was fighter-pilot driving.
Despite a yellow flag on the 23rd lap, when Lloyd Ruby hit the wall—nearly involving Rutherford in the process—Johncock stayed in front until Al Unser grabbed the lead for good. Rutherford, meanwhile, was beginning a long day of slides and pit stops to change and re-change right-side tires.
On Lap 87 Johncock's right front tire all but blew out. He eased into the pits for a change and lost a lap. But by Mile 105 he had moved back into second, and seven laps later Rutherford slid to a stop in his pit with a smoking, grease-dripping engine. Off came his helmet, slammed so hard on the pavement it bounced three feet in the air; off came the balaclava, thrown just as hard toward the spreading drops of oil under his Offy engine; and out came the tears from the women of the McLaren crew.
In the Patrick pits, out came the crossed fingers. Johncock got the word of Rutherford's retirement over the radio from George Heuning, Bignotti's heir apparent.
Heuning: "Just stay where you are and we've got the championship."
Johncock: "Tennnn-four. But you're going to have to let me know if they're coming up behind me."
From that point it was simply a matter of counting down the laps.
Johncock had one question left before the finish: "How many laps left?"
The answer was "five." It was an easy five as Johncock maintained a six-to-eight-second lead over Andretti.
As he rolled to a stop, Johncock's car was swarmed. His balaclava came off slowly, covering his face for a while; the victory wreath went over his shoulders upside down. But no one seemed to notice. Another thing wasn't noticed: after his first national championship in 21 years of racing, Johncock didn't seem to want to hide.