Top 10 Indy 500s, No. 2: Gordon Johncock holds off Rick Mears in 1982 thriller
(Editor’s note: NBC Sports has selected the Top 10 Indy 500s of All-Time through an esteemed panel of former drivers, broadcasters, journalists and historians. The countdown will run through the 107th Indianapolis 500.)
Since his first Indianapolis 500 win in 1973, Gordon Johncock had come close to a second win on several occasions.
He’d finished third in 1976 and 1978. Between those two outings, he’d dominated in 1977 before a broken crankshaft on his car ended his hopes and sent A.J. Foyt through to his record-breaking fourth Indy 500 win. He was also a contender in 1981, running second with less than 10 laps to go when his car’s engine blew.
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The following year, in 1982, Johncock was again on the verge of victory.
He and 1979 Indy 500 winner Rick Mears had battled up front for much of the race’s second half.
But during their final pit stops with less than 20 laps to go, Mears got a full fuel load on his car, while Johncock’s car received only the amount of fuel he’d need to reach the finish. Johncock emerged with a lead of 11 seconds over Mears.
However, as the laps wound down, Johncock’s car began to develop handling issues and Mears methodically closed in. As they both saw the white flag to start the final lap, the gap was gone.
Mears then moved inside on the front stretch to try and pass Johncock for the lead, but Johncock managed to stay ahead into Turn 1.
That left Mears to regroup for one last opportunity. It came off Turn 4, where Mears caught Johncock again. He stayed right behind him before making one more attempt to slingshot by on the inside. But it wasn’t enough.
Johncock was victorious by .16 of a second. It would be the closest finish in Indy 500 history for a decade until Al Unser Jr.’s triumph over Scott Goodyear in 1992.
With that, Johncock finally had a chance to savor a win at the Brickyard.
His first Indy 500 win in 1973 was marred by the race’s tragic events, in which two drivers and a pit crew member died as a result of accidents during the month of May.
One of those drivers was Johncock’s teammate, Swede Savage, who suffered heavy burns in a fiery crash during the race. He died of his injuries a little over a month later.
The pit crew member, Armando Teran, worked for another of Johncock’s teammates, Graham McRae. Teran ran along pit lane to come to Savage’s aid after his crash but was hit by a safety vehicle and killed.
Thankfully, Johncock’s second Indy 500 win in 1982 is remembered much more fondly. But as dark as the 1973 race was, he was its victor as well.
In April, Johncock got his due for that. To mark the 50th anniversary of his first Indy 500 win, he received his own ‘Baby Borg’ - a miniature replica of the Indy 500’s beloved Borg-Warner Trophy.
NBC Sports has ranked the Top 10 Indy 500s through a panel that judged through scores of 1-20 in five categories: quality of racing, memorable moments, strength of competition, historical impact and spectacle.
Here’s a look at No. 2 on the list:
Winner: Gordon Johncock
Margin of victory: 0.16 of a second
Lead changes: 16 among six drivers
Cautions: Seven for 35 laps
Other contenders: Tom Sneva (31 laps led) and A.J. Foyt (32 laps led) each had extended turns at the front of the field with drastically different results. Sneva finished fourth despite running only 197 of 200 laps due to an engine issue. As for Foyt, his car took damage in a bizarre crash coming to the green flag, which eliminated, among others, fellow front-row qualifier Kevin Cogan and fourth-place qualifier Mario Andretti. Foyt’s car was repaired in time for the race’s restart, but a transmission issue later eliminated him from the race. Before his car went to the garage, Foyt opened his car’s rear bodywork and attempted to fix the issue himself with a hammer and a screwdriver.
Winning move: Johncock led the final 41 laps of the race, but his winning move came on the final lap when he successfully repelled Mears’ attempt to pass for the lead entering Turn 1. In 2009, both men recalled that fateful moment.
Mears: “Timing worked out, had him set up good coming off Turn 4. I thought, ‘Why wait?’ And by the time we get to Turn 1, he’s got a good half-a-car better on me. And he’s gonna come down. … I know it and he knows that I know it.”
Johncock: “If we had went in the corner side-by-side, I wouldn’t have turned into him and wrecked us both – there ain’t no way. I’d have to stay out (of the throttle) and he would’ve had me because then, I would’ve really had to get out of the throttle the way my car was pushing. I had no choice.”
How the voters saw it: More than 85 percent of voters with 1982 in their top 10 rated the race with a score of 89 or higher (out of a possible 100).