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."
Johncock's two favorite spectator sports are boxing and hockey, which should reveal something about him. His sports hero is Joe Frazier, and Johncock drives the way Frazier fought: he just keeps coming at you. Says Wally Dallenbach, Johncock's teammate, "Racing Gordy is like having a six-pound bass on six-pound-test line. You just hope you can wear him down a little bit."
Johncock won the USAC championship much to the chagrin of motor-racing publicists. It was nothing personal, but they would have preferred the champion to be Johnny Rutherford. Rutherford, who lost the 1976 championship by the equivalent of one point in the final race of the year, has a talent Johncock does not have: he is smooth with the public, an "ambassador for the sport."
At the races Johncock is easily overlooked, but there is often a crowd around Rutherford, anxiously waiting for a piece of him the way kids at a carnival wait for a ride on the pony. Rutherford obligingly holds still for them all, not purely out of a selfless desire to please, but in part because he is aware of the utility of a good-guy image. "I don't know whether I should be throwing peanuts to them, or they should be throwing peanuts to me," he says.
Says Johncock matter-of-factly, without jealousy or resentment, or even regret, "I don't doubt Rutherford would be a better champion as far as publicity goes. He likes to go out and make speeches and do all that stuff. I wouldn't care if I never did any of that."
There is no love lost between Johncock and Rutherford. After a tangle in only the second race of this season, in which Johncock spun and Rutherford went on to win, they had a fistfight during a postrace press conference.
The prefight exchange went like this:
Johncock: "You drove right into me and knocked me off the track. You know better than to drive like that."
Rutherford: "That's racing, Gordy. If you can't stand the heat, you better get out of the kitchen."
Johncock: "Well, if that's the way it is, if you ever run into me again I'll knock you over the fence."
Rutherford turned and shouted to the reporters, "You heard it! You heard it! You're witnesses!" Then he turned back to Johncock and said. "You shouldn't say things like that. I'll have you thrown out of USAC for that, little man." Which is the wrong thing to say to Gordy, even if you are four inches taller. Gordy's reply was a right cross. Rutherford countered with a blow or two of his own before two burly sheriff's deputies lifted a flailing Johncock off his feet by his elbows and dragged him out of the press room.
"We've had run-ins before," sniffed Rutherford through a sore nose as he finished the interview. "It bothers me, but it's not going to hurt my racing. I'm not going to be gun-shy and stay away from him. I'll drive through his tail if that's what he wants. If that's the way he wants to play, I'll have to defend myself."
Rutherford was asked if future run-ins were inevitable. "I think so...." he replied.
A week later Dick King, USAC's president, sat Johncock and Rutherford down together. He fined Johncock $1,500 for punching Rutherford and warned them that another incident, on or off the track, would result in an immediate suspension.
Johncock is still fuming. "The Rutherford issue has definitely not gone away with me," he said in an interview at Indianapolis. "It's already surfaced again because of the way he drives and the way he treats other drivers. Incident after incident proves...well, I don't know what he is thinking about. I don't know if he loses his mind, or what, when he gets out there in a race car. Sooner or later it's going to catch up with him."
Responded Rutherford, "I thought it had all died down, but he's still carrying a chip. I just don't understand him."
Rutherford is not alone; Johncock is not an easy man to understand. His criticism of Rutherford, as well as his punching of Rutherford, were rare displays of Johncock's temper, but those few who know him well were not really surprised by either. However unfortunate Johncock's behavior was, it was the result of a certain ingenuousness, and Johncock is nothing if not ingenuous.
If Johncock could have his way, he would forget all about Rutherford and go hunting. When he talks about racing, his eyes drift and seem to say, "Ho-hum." When he talks about hunting, they dart with animation. "I can't say there's anything I like more than hunting," he says. "I remember when I was a kid, I used to go rabbit hunting with my dad in Michigan. He had this old pickup, and we'd go out early on a winter morning and drive around in the snow. I'd be standing in the pickup's bed, and when I'd see a rabbit I'd pound my fist on the cab, and Dad would stop so I could get a shot." Pause. "I wish I was still a kid shooting rabbits in the snow."
Another side to Johncock surfaced during one of his recent hunting trips. "If you pamper dogs, they ain't worth nothing," growled a companion to Johncock as they drove to the high desert outside Phoenix. The comment was inspired by Johncock's sharing the bucket seat of his Blazer with a German shorthair.
"Dogs got feelings, too," replied Johncock. "They get cold and hungry." Snickers and bahs from the companion; a wistful stare out of the window from Johncock. Then he said, "When I get settled someplace, I'm going to get me a dog, no two dogs, for every kind of hunting there is."
Nostalgic visions of rabbits in the Michigan snow, sharing his seat with a hunting dog because the dog has feelings, too—Johncock has both a soft heart and romantic spirit. Which is how the bankruptcy came about.
Johncock does not have the business acumen or killer instinct of a Parnelli Jones or a Roger Penske, men who have made millions from racing. He was raised on a remote Michigan farm near Hastings—a sheltered existence. He didn't have to fight his way down the block, as Jones did; he doesn't have a college degree in industrial management, as Penske does. He quit school at 16, when his parents divorced. In the settlement his dad got the farm equipment, Mom and Gordon got the farm. So Gordon went into debt at 16 to buy new equipment to work the farm. At 21 he expanded into a logging operation; at 24 he bought a small sawmill. By 1971. when he was 34, he had 35 employees, as well as debts.
"It got to where I couldn't work it anymore," he says. "I just got took too many times. I'd give a guy a job because I felt sorry for him, and the next thing I know he's gone off with a saw or something. I guess I'm just a sucker like that."
Which makes Johncock very much unlike his boss, the man who owns his race car, U. E. (Pat) Patrick. Patrick started his professional life taking care of other people's money—he was a CPA—then got a job selling oil-field supplies and ultimately made millions selling oil-field investment programs. It is a paradox that the Patrick team, one of the most successful in USAC, was without a sponsor at the start of this season (Sinmast sponsored the cars in 1975 and 1976, and STP finally signed on in April). The reason was that Patrick refused to allow a sponsor to participate in the actual operation of the team. He is respected by most racers for this stand.
Says Johncock, "Pat likes racing for his own personal satisfaction. He's not in it for the money, that's for sure. We need more car owners like him."
Patrick began racing 10 years ago and had been an owner for more than five years before he ever won a national race. (One of his drivers during that period was Johnny Rutherford.) The 1973 Indy 500 was Johncock's fourth race for Patrick and Patrick's first win. Since then there have been seven more under crew chief George Bignotti.
There is not a crew chief in racing with more successes than Bignotti—73 wins, eight national championships and six Indy victories. He designed the Patrick cars—called Wildcats, as in wildcat oil strike—and made them so reliable that last year Johncock finished all but one race and 11 of 13 in the top three. The engine in those cars is a Bignotti design, an offshoot of the standard four-cylinder Offenhauser, considerably modified. Johncock's Indy failure, though relatively minor—a broken valve spring—is rare for any Bignotti engine.
Immediately after Johncock won the championship last November, he was asked if it were true that he didn't plan to carry the traditional No. 1 on his car in 1977. "Oh, I don't know," he replied with a shrug. "I don't really care. George wants me to talk Pat into it, but it doesn't mean that much to me." Doesn't mean that much? At that very moment, not far from the press room where Johncock was being interviewed, Rutherford was in his motor home, beside himself with frustration. He had just finished second in the championship standings for the third straight year. Had Rutherford been at that press conference, he probably would have wanted to punch Johncock.
While the racing publicists may have been disappointed at the championship's result, a lot of racing participants were not, for Johncock is much admired for his skill and spirit. He has shown both on many occasions. He once had a long lead at the Pocono 500—where he will be racing this Sunday—when the right front tire exploded on the front straight as he was traveling about 200 mph, the kind of thing that can pole-vault an Indy car over the wall as the wheel digs into the pavement. Johncock not only didn't go over the wall, but he wrestled the car to a stop without even touching it. If racing crews were inclined to applaud, they would have done so.
Another close call occurred at Johncock's most recent USAC race, the Rex Mays 150 at Milwaukee on Sunday, June 12—only Johncock did not get out unscathed this time. He was running second behind Rutherford as he made a move to lap rookie Clark Templeman. Templeman's right front wheel hit Johncock's left rear, spinning Johncock's Wildcat backward into the wall. Johncock's left rear wheel came off, and the flying tire slammed him on the head. He was lifted, semiconscious, out of his car and taken to the hospital, where after a series of tests he was found free of serious head injury; but his neck was painfully twisted. They tried to keep him in the hospital for a week, but on Tuesday Johncock said, "Sorry, Doc. I'm a race driver, and I got to work this weekend." He left the hospital that day. Last Saturday he drove in a match race at Michigan International Speedway against the NASCAR champion, Cale Yarborough, in identical Camaros. Johncock lost after colliding with Yarborough on the second of ten laps and then not being able to make up any ground because his car did not handle properly.
If the people along pit row didn't like Johncock so much, if they didn't admire him for his grit, they might be tempted to think he was, well, sort of a loser. And Rutherford sort of a winner. Or is it the other way around?