There are no atheists in foxholes and no liars at 200 miles per hour. What you see is what you get, and what we saw here this pretty weekend was the truth without veils. From Mario Andretti weeping, as he said he would, to Gordon Johncock confessing he'd forgotten how sick his mother was, these guys going real fast have no time for deceit.
The beauty of racing is simple. First it asks: what can man do? Greaseniks can jabber about ground effects and turbos (genius at work, no doubt). It's Johncock and Rick Mears, Andretti and A.J. Foyt who bedazzle us. They take us 200 mph to the answer: anything.
Andretti was furious Sunday not because a kid wrecked him on the pace lap; kids have wrecked him before. "I didn't even get a chance to go through the first turn," he said. Worse than failing is not getting a chance when you know you can do anything.
Someone asked Andretti what he would do the rest of race day, and the man who has won all the important races said, "Cry." Five minutes later, someone said to reporters, "If you want some color, Mario is sitting in a corner of the garage, he's got his driving suit stripped to the waist, and he's got his face in his hands."
Foyt jumped from his car midway in the race and grabbed a hammer. He pounded at the gearbox. By damn, the man was ready for anything, the machine better get going. The kid who hit Andretti also sideswiped Foyt, maybe causing this problem. So when the car refused to go, Foyt stalked to his garage, chewing nails.
"Stupid deal," he said of the kid hitting him. "Guy had his head up his tailpipe." Not in those exact words, but you get the truth of A.J.'s message.
At age 45 a racer since 18, Johncock twice in the last five years seemed to win the Indianapolis 500 victory that would erase the melancholy of his '73 victory. That was the year of fire and rain. Art Pollard was killed, and Swede Savage died after saying, "Jesus," on his radio as G-forces of a 190-mph crash catapulted him in flames from his disintegrating car. Rain postponed the race three days, then stopped it after 332 miles.
"I never think about '73," Johncock said. "I was sitting in pit lane when they called the race. Nothing to it."
His wife Lynda said, "It was sad in '73. There wasn't any victory dinner. Theymailed us the check."
It was the race everyone wanted to forget.
Sunday, Johncock made one to remember.
Somebody might have conjured a slick story of derring-do on half the marvelous work of Gordon Johncock. Johncock simply told the truth. He didn't outsmart Rick Mears the last 10 laps by going so low in the corners Mears had no room to pass; Johncock said he had no choice, because his car slid in turns so badly that entering higher would throw him against the wall.
One more lap, Johncock said, and he might have lost instead of winning the closest 500 ever, beating Mears by 16/100ths of a second. No, he said, he never saw Mears in his mirror and never moved to block him; his hands were full keeping his car off the wall.
The truth is not always the whole truth, and the whole truth here is that Johncock is such a master he didn't need to see Mears to know where he was. Nor did Johncock need to see him to block him. At 200 mph in an Indy car, no one passes on the outside in a turn; so Johncock needed only to beat Mears to each turn, and so he took the shortest route, low on the track.
That such a move cut off Mears' passing lane--he couldn't pass outside because he would go too high in the turn--was only routine work for Johncock, running in his 18th 500. No clever derring-do.
And by keeping Mears behind him, Johncock ensured that the record-setting qualifier (at 207 mph) ran in turbulence. Turbulence here feels as if it could suck you out of the cockpit. The car seems to roll on marbles in a hurricane. In such a climate, Rick Mears couldn't gain the last second he needed.
"Gordy's turbulence was killing me in the corners," he said. "He had a little better straight-line speed (enabling Johncock to get to the turns first), and I was quicker in the corners, but I'd lose it in the turbulence."
"I thought nothing could be tougher than '73," Lynda Johncock said, "but those last 10 laps today were tougher. Today, to go 500 miles in the sunshine, it's the most wonderful thing ever."
She smiled, and then Dick Mittman of the Indianapolis News asked, "Gordon, we understand your mother is very ill. Are you dedicating this victory to her?"
Lynda Johncock's eyes moved to her husband.
"Yes, I would like to," the driver said. "I'm kind of ashamed of myself . . . "
Lynda put her hand on his forearm and squeezed.
" . . . because I hadn't really thought about that."
Later, the driver's wife came to Dick Mittman and thanked him for asking the question.