In the closest finish ever here, Gordon Johncock won an Indianapolis 500 today also memorable for ol' Gordo slamming a 200 mile-per-hour door in Rick Mears' face, for Mario Andretti cussing out a hotfoot who caused a wreck before the race, and for A.J. Foyt leaping from his car to beat on it with a hammer.
The stock car boys usually get on with such high jinks while the high-dollar Indy-car jockeys tippy-toe around because they know a second's brashness can mean instant disintegration. But with a four-car crash at 80 mph on the pace lap, and with ol' Gordo at age 45 not wanting to let fate rob him again, you had a piece of drama today for each of 300,000 witnesses.
At an average speed of 162.029 mph, Johncock won by .16 of a second over the race favorite and pole-sitter, Mears. Pancho Carter was third, Tom Sneva fourth and Al Unser fifth. While only eight of 33 cars ran at the end, no driver was injured.
Mears, who led 71 laps, fell behind with 40 laps to go and seemed beaten after a fender-bender accident delayed his last pit stop. He was 10 seconds behind with 10 laps left, a killing deficit most times, when he mounted hot-pursuit laps of 198 mph.
As each precious second dwindled away, Johncock knew it by signal from his pit crew. But he never saw Mears' image in his mirror. He never looked.
History was on Gordo's mind. He won in '73, when rain stopped the race early, but it meant nothing. No checkered flag, no celebration, only 133 of the 200 laps. Swede Savage and Art Pollard were dead. So Johncock wanted a second victory that would be a first, really, and with 10 laps to go he thought of how victory escaped in '77 and '81.
A crankshaft flew apart in '77 when he led with 16 laps to go. Last year he led with six laps left when the fuel pump gave up the ghost. You can't see history in your rear view, but Johncock knew it was there.
"With 10 laps to go, I was saying, 'Is it going to stay together? Is it going to stay together?' " he said. "It was on my mind every second."
Also this: because of an abnormal heating of the left rear tire, Johncock's car handled poorly those last 10 laps. It was "pushing," racer's talk meaning the front end drifts toward walls. Pushing at 200 mph makes a fellow real gray, as Johncock has been for a decade.
And here came Mears. He lost three or four seconds on his last pit stop when he bumped into a straggler looking for a place to park. All month the fastest car, qualifying at a record 207 mph, Mears' Penske-perfect racer then ate up space toward Johncock's STP Special until, with one lap to go, the chargers flew at Turn One as a tandem.
This was after 20 laps of good ol' boy runnin', with Johncock twitching his racer to and fro, cutting off every path Mears might find around him.
"I tried everything," Mears said. "Gordo did a helluva job."
Now, going into Turn One, Johncock was a car's width above the track apron.
Mears moved inside him as they made ready for a turn that a driver once likened to "going 120 down a city street and turning into a dark alley."
Mears moved his front right tire alongside Johncock's left rear.
Good, but not good enough. Racing etiquette demands you draw up past the door, and then the leader gives you room. Right here, at 200 mph turning into a dark alley, there lived a moment of terror. Would chargers be polite with a $1 million purse waiting for the first man to the checkered flag?
"I didn't have him by enough," Mears said later. He backed off, letting Johncock stay in front. "If I'd gone on up in there," Mears said, "we both would have gone out of the ballpark."
"I never saw Rick in my mirror at all," Johncock said. "The only time I saw him was when he was right beside me at the white flag (signaling the last lap). As we entered the first turn, he went out of my sight. I didn't see him no more."
Johncock said thanks, too. "If that had been some other drivers, I'd have worried. Somebody else might have driven right into the side of me."
No names here from Johncock, but another old hand, Andretti, was direct in criticism of Kevin Cogan for the four-car crash that happened as the field accelerated toward the green flag.
Cogan, a second-year Indy driver who was the second-fastest qualifier here at 204 mph, went out of control approaching the flag. He veered right, clipping Foyt, and bounced into Andretti's path. Far back, rookie Dale Whittington smashed into Roger Mears.
After Andretti climbed out of his wreckage, he shoved Cogan with both hands on the youngster's chest, as if to say, "Get away from me, hot dog." Cogan walked alongside Andretti, gesturing, until Andretti again pushed him away.
Cogan said he lost control because something broke or somebody hit him.
"He was in first gear," Andretti said, "and he tried to get the jump on everybody to the flag, and it spun out. He did exactly what you're not supposed to do. . . . He crowded Foyt and he obviously wasn't paying attention to what he was doing . . . He couldn't handle the responsibility of the front row."
Asked what Cogan said to him, Andretti said, "The usual alibis." And what did Andretti say to the kid? "You don't want to hear it."
So the loser of last year's 500 after a nine-month legal battle didn't even start this one.
Nor was Foyt's story much prettier. This was his 25th 500, and decals everywhere celebrated "Foyt's Silver Anniversary." The celebration didn't even get started before Foyt, 47, saw Cogan, 26, turning directly into him.
"A stupid deal," Foyt snorted later.
Quickie repairs put Foyt out for the start on a beautiful day, and the four-time Indy winner leaped to a first-lap record 192.720 mph.
Handling problems developed, though, and halfway through the 200-lap race Foyt ran a lap down. Finally, he made three pit stops trying to get his car out of third gear.
When the gear stayed stuck, Foyt climbed out, took a hammer and pounded on the day-glo orange sheet metal.
"Fix it, A.J.," fans in the Tower Terrace shouted.
"Just couldn't get it out of that damn gear," Foyt said later.
He finished 19th, behind six rookies, and had a quick answer for anybody wanting to know if he would be back here next year.
"It looks like I have to," he said, "if I'm ever going to win five."
For now, Johncock is happy with two.
"One more lap," Mears said wistfully, "and it might have been .16 in the other direction."
"It would have been mighty tough," Johncock admitted, "because I didn't have anything left and it was getting worse every lap. On the third turn of the last lap, in fact, I went so low I hit a bump I didn't know was there. The car bottomed out so much I left a white mark. I saw it on the victory lap. I had to back off when that happened, and if Rick had known that, he might have got by me right there."
So Gordon Johncock got a break. About time.