Gordon Johncock: The most unassuming legend In Indianapolis 500 history
INDIANAPOLIS – When it comes to hard chargers in the old days of the Indy 500, few drivers had a heavier right foot on the accelerator than a farmer from Hastings, Michigan,named Gordon Johncock.
“Gordy is a wee little man,” three-time Formula One champion Jackie Stewart once said in his Scottish accent.
Johncock was a racer, plain and simple.
But he was also perhaps the most unassuming two-time Indianapolis 500 winner in history -- one of the legends on the famed Borg-Warner Trophy.
He hated doing public appearances. When he saw the team’s public relations director heading in his direction, Johncock would hide.
“I sat in my motorhome, saw a PR guy coming, and I would slip out of sight, so he didn’t see me in the window,” Johncock told NBC Sports while sitting at the kitchen table of his home in South Branch, Michigan. “I didn’t like PR work. I hated to go make appearances. I just wanted to go home and do my business and maybe that is one thing about running a business and doing that, I didn’t have to go make appearances all the time.
“I had something else to do.”
Johncock’s desire to keep to himself and fly under the radar was ironic, considering his sponsor was STP, and the company had a former sports writer from the Chicago Daily News, Harvey Duck, as its public relations director.
“Harvey Duck and Ralph Salvino were at STP when they sponsored me,” Johncock admitted. “I was lucky back then.
“They had Richard Petty, so Richard done most of that.
“While I never drove for Roger Penske, I would have always liked to,” Johncock admitted, as the family cat jumped up on the kitchen table. “I can’t imagine what kind of record I might have had if I had driven for Roger Penske.
“But you know where I would have been all the time if I was driving for Roger? I would have been making appearances all week long.
“He always constantly had his drivers making appearances.
“No, I didn’t want any kind of that stuff.”
Shy and unassuming off the track, Johncock drove his race car in a bigger than life manner. That made him one of the best drivers of his era.
“I was a charger, but I was clean,” Johncock said proudly. “Why would you not want to be clean? Why run people off the track and wreck them and all of that?
“I didn’t drive that way. I drove to finish.
“If you wreck, you aren’t going to finish.”
Johncock won a total of 25 IndyCar/CART races including 20 in USAC and five in CART. His last win came in 1983 at Atlanta when he started third and won the race.
It was a dangerous time to be an IndyCar driver. When Johncock came to the 1964 Indianapolis 500 as a spectator, he witnessed the horrific crash and fire in Turn 4 on the second lap that killed drivers Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald.
The ruptured fuel tanks filled with gasoline exploded, and the fireball shot hundreds of feet into the air. It looked like an explosion at an oil refinery.
“When they had the big wreck in Turn 4, we could feel the heat on our face sitting in the bleachers when he hit that wall and it exploded,” Johncock recalled. “That is when they carried the tanks outside the wheels and tried to run the whole race without a stop.
“That was one of them, for sure.”
The next year, Johncock was in the race, part of the outstanding rookie class of 1965 that included Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Joe Leonard, George Snider, Billy Foster and Masten Gregory among others.
Johncock, a 28-year-old rookie who was a star driver in Supermodified racing in the Midwest, was fifth. The only rookie driver that finished high in that race was Andretti, who was third behind race winner Jim Clark and 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones.
“I was driving a sprint car for an aluminum company out of Louisville, and they brought a roadster to run at Indianapolis,” Johncock recalled. “That was in 1965 when all the switching over was going on to rear-engine cars. There were only two of us that made the race in roadsters in 1965. I qualified 14th and finished fifth the year that Jim Clark won.
“That was a good year for rookies. There were several of us that made it big that were in that field.
“I didn’t have no trouble. One thing I remember is all these guys that had been there tried to tell you how to drive would say, ‘You have to watch the first lap because it will suck you right down to Turn 3.’
“I didn’t see no difference. I didn’t have a problem.
“I was a rookie, and Duane Glasgow was the chief mechanic on the car. He was a rookie, also. He is the one I went through all the modified years with. We were together for a few years down there. It seemed like after we done pretty good the first couple three years, every race something would break down. Something would happen.
“We split up, and he went to work with Roger McCluskey.”
It was the beginning of a fantastic career. Johncock won the Indianapolis 500 in 1973 and again in 1982.
The 1973 Indianapolis 500 win is often overlooked because it was a brutally grim month of May that featured death, rain, and more death.
By the time the race was flagged after 133 laps and two days after it was scheduled, driver Art Pollard was killed in practice before Pole Day qualifications, and 24 spectators and driver Salt Walther were badly burned from flaming hot methanol that spewed into the grandstands from a crash at the start of the race.
Also, crew member Armando Terran was struck and killed by a Speedway safety truck heading down pit road in the wrong direction after Swede Savage pounded the wall inside Turn 4.
Savage would die one month later from the burns he suffered in the crash.
The 1982 victory is one of the most thrilling in Indianapolis 500 history as Johncock engaged in a spectacular duel with Rick Mears over the final 10 laps of the race.
At that time, it was the closest Indianapolis 500 in history with the margin of victory just 0.16-seconds. Today, it remains the fifth-closest finish in Indy 500 history.
But that 1982 finish was the first time in Indianapolis 500 history there was such a fierce fight to the checkered flag. It remains the standard to which all Indianapolis 500s since then have been measured.
Johncock made 24 Indianapolis 500 starts and led seven 500s for 339 laps.
He started on the front row three times - 1966 (third), 1975 (second) and 1976 (second). Johncock started on the second row nine times. In 1982 had a great view of the Kevin Cogan accident right in front of him.
He also won the 1976 USAC IndyCar National Championship. He won 25 Indy car races from 1965 to 1983 and finished second or third 51 times.
But he could also wheel a stock car around the track with the best of them. He won two USAC Stock Car races and often competed in NASCAR.
He won the pole at Atlanta and finished 11th in 1973. Johncock started 16th and finished fourth in the 1973 Firecracker 400 at Daytona, finished fourth at Charlotte after starting second in 1966 for Junior Johnson.
In 1967, finished fifth for Bud Moore at Rockingham after starting seventh. The last NASCAR race was the National 500 at Charlotte when he started ninth and finished 39th driving for Harry Hyde.
“Whenever I didn’t have a weekend of Indy cars, I drove for Harry Hyde, I drove for Bud Moore and I drove for Junior Johnson (also R.L. Diestler and Hoss Ellington),” Johncock recalled. “Them guys would call me and ask me to come and run their car on weeks when I didn’t have Indy cars to run.”
Johncock’s racing career essentially started by accident. He quit high school at 16 to work on the family farm in Hastings, Michigan. He later went to work for a contractor.
“I had a neighbor named Wayne Landon, who is so old now he doesn’t know anybody,” Johncock said during an interview in 2019. “He always had race cars and I would go to the races with him. There was a dirt track over by Lansing, Michigan. He took a dirt car over there one night and I was 16 or 17 at the time. I never got excited about racing. But when this opportunity came along to drive this car for Bob Varney and Wendell Day, I took that opportunity and things went well.
“Racing is just like any other sport in a way. If you start out in high school and you do well in a sport, you have the college scouts looking at you. If you do well in college, you have the pro scouts looking at you.
“That is how you go up.”
Johncock’s cousin, Nolan Johncock, was four years older than Gordon and he was running super-modifieds. He worked for E.W. Bliss in Hastings with Bob Varney and Wendell Day.
They were going to build a super-modified and Nolan Johncock talked them into letting Cousin Gordon drive it.
That was in 1955.
The first time Johncock drove the car, he was faster than the track record.
“I ran the super-modifieds for 10 years, mostly for Mace Thomas,” Johncock recalled. “During the summer time, we would run seven nights a week. We would run every day. We would start out running at Flat Rock Speedway, down by Toledo. Tuesday night, we would run at Fort Wayne, Indiana. Wednesday and Thursday we would run some tracks in Canada. Friday night, Rochester, New York. Saturday night, Oswego, New York. Sometimes, we would run Sandusky, Ohio Sunday afternoon and Toledo, Ohio Sunday night.
“We were constantly on the road in the super-modifieds. There are quite a few short tracks around.”
Johncock didn’t learn how to drive a race car because he was a natural.
“My opinion of a race car driver is it’s not like football or baseball or basketball,” Johncock explained. “You can be taught them kind of things to play them games.
“But when it comes to racing, I don’t think I could tell somebody how to drive a car. But if I could, and they are out there racing and a driver would say, ‘Gordon told me to do this’ it would be too late because they would be in the wall.
“You have to have more of the natural ability to drive a race car than you do in other sports.
“I’ll never forget what Mario Andretti said one time, ‘If you let your head override your ass, you’re in trouble.’
“You drive with the seat of your pants. That’s where the feel comes from of that race car. When you think you can do something better than what your ass feels, that’s why Gordon Smiley ended up in a bushel basket.
“He was my teammate and that is when we cracked the 200 miles an hour barrier. He said, ‘You guys are running 200 miles an hour and I’m going to run 200 miles an hour.’
“You saw what happened to him.”
Smiley was killed when he crashed into the Turn 3 wall head-on during his qualification attempt at Indianapolis in 1982.
Johncock also drove a few sprint car races and his favorite track was at Winchester, Indiana.
“We set a record at Winchester that lasted for years and years and years,” Johncock said. “The only way you could run Winchester at that time was you had to be right on top of the race track, that far from the wall.
“I set the record there, but one reason is I had no brakes on the car that day.
“To me, back in them days, there were so many people who got hurt. There was a driver who had a car roll on him after he flipped it and it cut his arm off. Back in them days, we didn’t have no cage. We only had a roll bar. Guys were getting hurt and killed.
“When I got an IndyCar ride, I quit that stuff immediately. Why did I want to take a chance a chance and drive a sprint car when I have an Indy car now? Why would I want to do that. That’s when Gary Bettenhausen paralyzed his arm because he kept on running that stuff.
“It wasn’t worth it.”
IndyCar racing in the 1960s and 1970s was one of danger and daring. That is why the drivers of that era were considered heroes.
Johncock became a fan favorite because of the way he drove the race car.
“Gordy drove a car differently than the rest of us,” three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford told NBC Sports. “He once told somebody that he drove it down in there until it started to push the front end, then he would get out of it, get back into it and go again.
“He was a hell of a driver. A good driver. He won a lot of races. He won twice at Indy.
“You don’t do that by being a slouch. He was good.
“He wasn’t so much a farmer as a lumberman. He worked hard.
“Gordy is just Gordy – good guy.”
Johncock’s talent was natural, according to Rutherford.
“He was one of those who drove it as hard as it would go,” Rutherford said. “I’m not sure it ever scared him. He was one of those naturals. He was a guy that came along and when he got in a race car, pushed it up to where he thought it ought to be or maybe tingle a little bit, and that was it.”
Mario Andretti loved racing against Johncock and the two were teammates beginning in 1981 at Patrick Racing.
“The best recollection I have of him was on the road courses,” Andretti told NBC Sports. “There was no way you could ever outbrake him in a corner. Whether he was going to make it or not was really interesting.
“Gordon was always on it. He wasn’t very technical, but he knew what to do, and he got the max out of the car, that’s for sure.
“I don’t know if it makes any difference, your physical size. It’s the fire in your belly. Gordy never left too much on the table, I can tell you that.
“Gordon Johncock was ‘Gordo.’ He always knew where he came from. He was solid, sincere, no bull. There was no way you could ever dislike this guy.”
At 86, Johncock lives with his wife, Sue, in a modest house in South Branch, Michigan. He owns Johncock Forestry Services, which takes trees and logs and turns it into wood for pallets and tree bark for mulch.
In the winter, Johncock will often get up at 2 or 3 a.m. to run the loader at his wood mill, often in below-zero temperatures.
“We run two shifts here,” Johncock said as he gave NBC Sports a tour of his facility that has 24 employees. “We start at 5 in the morning until 9 at night. This winter, I had to load trucks anywhere between 2 and 4 o’clock in the morning. The reason is, in this kind of weather, I can load these trucks now and they can roll at 2 or 3 in the morning.
“But I can’t do that in the wintertime because it freezes in, so I have to load them before they go.
“Now, I haven’t been getting here until 8 or so but in this winter, it was 2, 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning.
“Yeah, it is kind of cold.
“When it gets down to the zero, the chips and sawdust and bark would be frozen. I take the loader and load the truck of these piles that are sitting here.
“That’s what keeps you young.”
This is the second time that Johncock has been in the forestry business.
“I used to have equipment to cut the wood in the woods and bring it to the sawmill,” Johncock explained. “Then, I got disgusted with help and put everything up for sale and didn’t do anything for three or four years. I used to go this mill and help out because I knew the guy that owned it. He used to go to a lot of auction sales, and I would go with him.
“He was always after me to buy the place. We were coming one day from the auction sale, and we drove into the yard at the mill, and he said, ‘Why don’t you guy this place?’
“I said, ‘What do you want for it?’
“He told me.
“I said, ‘Does that include the logs piled in the yard?’ There were several hundred cord. He said, ‘Yep.’
“I said, ‘I’ll take it.’
“A couple weeks later, we started running it. We started it on July 7thand by August, we had the papers signed. We’ve had it ever since.”
Friends have told Johncock it’s time to slow down to enjoy a better life.
He prefers to work and believe work keeps him active.
“I have slowed down a little bit here,” Johncock said. “Back in 2017, I had a heart attack and hit a tree down the road here and I passed out. When I hit the tree, the shock brought me back to life. I guess I’ve slowed down since that somewhat.
“I have a grandson that is working for us now and our daughter Valerie runs the thing quite a lot now. I have a guy named Leo that really makes the place go. He’s the greatest, I think, some people don’t, but he’s always there doing things and makes sure things happen and gets things done.
“Some of them don’t know I was ever a race driver. I don’t tell them.”
Johncock was in Indianapolis on April 24 along with ever member of his family when he received his Baby Borg Trophy at Binkley’s Kitchen and Tavern in the Broad Ripple neighborhood of Indianapolis.
Although this is the 50th anniversary of his first Indianapolis 500 win, he won’t be returning to Indianapolis. He will watch the race on television at his home in South Branch, Michigan, after telling his friends that his time in Indianapolis were four of the happiest days of his life.
“I have no interest in going back,” Johncock said. “That (racing) was my job years ago. Now, I have a different job.
“To me, racing was a job.”
That workmanlike approach to racing is why Johncock was so successful.
It’s that success that made Johncock an Indianapolis 500 legend.