Top five Indy 500s: No. 4 – 1982 thriller from start to finish

Gordon Johncock, driving the Wildcat-Cosworth, races en route to winning the 1982 Indianapolis 500. (Photo: LAT Photographic)

INDIANAPOLIS – It was a smashing start and a spectacular finish that ushered in a new era at the Indianapolis 500, including a fierce fight to the finish that had never before been witnessed in the 500-Mile Race. That is why the 1982 Indianapolis 500 ranks fourth on the list of Top Five Indy 500s of all-time.

To some, this could easily be considered the greatest Indianapolis 500 of all-time because it was a finish that had never before been seen in the big race. But it would not be the last time that fans would witness such high-speed excitement and wheel-to-wheel racing to the checkered flag in the Indianapolis 500.

When Johncock’s Wildcat/Cosworth finished just 0.16-seconds ahead of Mears’ Penske/Cosworth, it was the closest finish in Indianapolis 500 history at that time. It blew away the previous record for closest finish of 2.16 seconds when Wilbur Shaw defeated Ralph Hepburn in the 1937 500-Mile Race.

It all began with a crash before the race ever started.

Mears had the fastest car all month leading into the 1982 500. He won the pole with a four-lap average of 207.004 miles per hour with Penske teammate Kevin Cogan starting next time him in the middle of Row 1 and the legendary A.J. Foyt on the outside of the front row.

The Pace Car had pulled off Turn 4 but Mears brought the field down at a very slow pace. Duane Sweeney had yet to wave the green flag when Cogan’s Penske/Cosworth suddenly snapped hard to the right, crashing into the side of Foyt’s March/Cosworth before sliding across the track where Mario Andretti T-boned Cogan’s car, taking both out of the race.

As the field slowed to avoid the carnage further back in the field, rookies Roger Mears and Dale Whittington collided, sending a wheel flying high into the air.

The race was stopped before it ever started. Cogan tried to approach Andretti but the angry 1969 Indy 500 winner gave him a two-handed push into the chest.

“This is what happens when you have children doing a man’s job,” Andretti said of Cogan.

Foyt was also angry when Chris Economaki tried to interview him on ABC Sports.

“He (Cogan) just ran into my [explecit] front,” Foyt said.

Cogan tried to explain that it wasn’t his fault, but failed to convince anyone that, when he hit the accelerator, the torque of the engine in such a low gear caused the car to break loose from the asphalt when the turbocharger kicked in.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Cogan said. “The car just veered to the right. I didn’t do anything unusual. I need to see the film.”

Video replays of the crash did not support Cogan’s claim. The driver from California was young and good-looking and appeared to be the latest Penske protégé that would go on to become an IndyCar star. Although he would compete in 10 more Indy 500s for a total of 12 starts, Penske fired him at the end of the 1982 season.

Former Penske driver and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Unser had won the 1981 race but retired at the end of that season. He was the team manager for Josele Garza’s car and put the blame on Mears, his former Penske teammate, for the slow pace to start the race.

“It’s very, very sad when a guy with that much experience can’t do a better job with that,” Bobby Unser said. “In fact, I’m ashamed of it.”

Because the race had yet to officially start, Foyt repaired the damage to his race car, correcting the tow-in on the front suspension. When the field formed to start the race, there were only two cars in each of the front two rows because Cogan and Andretti were among the four drivers taken out in the crash.

Without fear, Foyt zoomed out to take the lead at the start entering Turn 1 and would lead the first 22 laps of the race. Mears would not lead until Lap 36.

A tremendous battle for the lead between Mears, Tom Sneva and Johncock after the first 100 miles of the race had already made this one of the most entertaining Indy 500s in years. But it would be the fight to the finish that would make this a “Race for the Ages.”

Johncock and Mears raced nose-to-tail down the straights and Mears would pull out to try to pass Johncock at the end of the long back straightway. But each time, Johncock had more top-end speed and Mears was unable to get the lead. This battled waged as the two drivers prepared to make their final pit stops.

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With 18 laps to go, Mears was first he drove down pit lane but the slower car of rookie driver Herm Johnson was in his way on pit lane. Mears hit the brakes and ran into the back of Johnson’s car. The Penske crew did a “fuel-only” stop, as the contact with Johnson did not flat spot the tires on Mears Penske chassis. Instead of giving Mears just enough fuel to make it to the finish, the Penske crew gave Mears a full fuel-load – something that would ultimately prove unnecessary.

“I don’t like to put it on the team but that didn’t help,” Mears said. “But if you considered what happened with Herm Johnson, that added four or five seconds to the pit stop because I had to come to a stop when I hit him on pit road. It all added up and all of the above that contributed to it.”

Johncock was in the lead on Lap 160. When he came down pit road two laps after Mears’ final pit stop, he was also blocked by another rookie driver, Jim Hickman, but Johncock drove to the inside of Hickman on pit lane. This was a bold move because at that time there was no speed limit on pit lane, and drivers would often come down pit road at near race speeds.

Johncock’s Patrick Racing crew performed a “timed pit stop” giving the driver just enough fuel to make it to the end of the race. This would be a tremendous advantage to Johncock as he had a lighter car when he returned to the track. The team, however, made a slight adjustment to the front wing on Johncock’s car, and that may have had a detrimental affect on the handling of the car when he returned to the track with a 12-second lead over Mears after making the pit stop.

Johncock’s car was “pushing” and Mears car was reeling it in.

The lead was 11.5 seconds with 10 laps to go. Mears took 2 seconds off Johncock’s lead on the next lap and another two seconds on the following lap. Johncock’s car was pushing and Mears was chopping more time off Johncock’s lead until pulling close with three laps to go.

The engine on Tom Sneva’s engine blew up but the race remained green allowing Mears and Johncock to continue this battle of the ages.

With two laps to go Johncock’s lead was now less than one second. With one lap to go, the two drivers took the white flag side-by-side. Mears drove to the inside of Johncock’s car in Turn 1. Johncock did not back off and that forced Mears to get off the accelerator as Johncock maintained the lead. The block stopped Mears’ momentum but he quickly tried to get it back on the final lap.

“A.J. Foyt said if he had been Mears and running second, third place would have won the race,” Mears said. “I remember when he said it, I thought A.J. didn’t win four of them by doing something stupid. He was just being A.J. and that was fine. I knew better.

“Having it to do over again, I would have done it all different. I would have waited until the checkered flag lap rather than the white flag lap. When I caught him with one lap to go, I thought why wait, because the timing was different. I even had a nose on him at the start/finish and then he reversed the momentum. I had more fuel in the car and he was empty and that is where the difference was.

“When we got to the corner he had a nose ahead of me and it wasn’t rocket science to figure out what was going to happen. It’s Indy. It’s the 500. It’s the last lap. He had a push in his car so he was going to go to the bottom. It was his corner. I could stay there and crash or I could pull my nose out of there and have three more corners to get it back.

“To me, it’s not hard to figure out that we would have crashed if I stayed there.

“If I had waited I could have set him up and had a better run and gotten a nose on him at the checkered flag and that next lap wouldn’t have matter.”

As both drivers came off the fourth turn, Mears attempted a slingshot pass but it was too little, too late as Johncock won the most thrilling Indianapolis 500 that had ever been contested up to that time.

“The gap was too big when we came off Turn 4, so unless a miracle happened the chances were pretty slim,” Mears recalled.

Despite losing, Mears smiled as he sat in his car on pit road because of the outstanding battle he had been part of.

“I had a good time; I enjoyed it and some people cringe when I say that because how can you enjoy running second?” Mears told “I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I had won it. But that was one of the few times people knew second place was there. They knew we were there and quick enough to win the race and the cards just didn’t fall right.

“I got some satisfaction out of putting my head down and making up the time. If you watched the TV broadcast they had written me off and that it was over. Then you could hear them start getting excited as the gap closed. You could hear it all elevate as we were closing the gap. I was having fun doing that. In that respect it was a fun race as far as being able to race because you always gear for a shootout at the end but we didn’t win the shootout.

“But if we couldn’t win it I was glad Gordy did. At one point in the middle of the race Gordy was running strong and I thought he could be one of the ones at the end.”

Both drivers entered the 1982 Indy 500 attempting to win their second Indianapolis 500. Johncock was the winner of the tragic 1973 Indianapolis 500 that was delayed two days by rain before being held on a dark and threatening Wednesday, where Johncock’s teammate, Swede Savage, was involved in a fatal accident. The 1973 race would ultimately be rain-shortened, and the biggest win of Johncock’s career was one that came without celebration.

Mears won the 1979 Indianapolis 500 in just his second attempt. The young California driver had the look of a winner and had already established himself as the star of the sport when he arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 1982 Indy 500.

Instead, it was a 45-year-old from Coldwater, Michigan that could finally celebrate an Indy 500 victory in all of its glory.

“If we couldn’t win I wanted Gordy to win because he never got to enjoy his win in 1973,” Mears said. “In that respect, I was glad for Gordy if he would win if our team didn’t. In 1973, I remember it was rain delays and crashes and some deaths and all of that and no banquet. He spent the night of his victory at Methodist Hospital to see Savage.

“Maybe I would have done it different in hindsight, but the decisions I made that day were the right ones for what I knew at that time. That is one reason I could smile because I had done everything to my best ability and I felt I knew we were the quicker car of the two. And I always smile when I get out of the car. I don’t believe in stomping around and looking like an idiot.

“It’s what it is – we ran second.”

It was also a battle of two of the cleanest racers in the sport and that gave each confidence to run as close as they did.

“He was a hard racer, too, and nobody went into the corner any deeper than Gordon,” Mears said. “I could trust him and I knew if we had crashed in Turn 1 it would have been my fault – not his. It would have been really dumb on my part to stay there and not crashed us both.”

Mears would go on to win three more Indy 500s and become the third four-time winner of the race. Johncock would eventually retire from racing and run his businesses in Coldwater, Michigan.

The 1982 Indianapolis 500 would be the first in an era of competitiveness and close finishes in the sport. Although the 1992 Indy 500 finish between winner Al Unser, Jr. and second place Scott Goodyear would be closer, at 0.043-seconds, the drama of the 1982 Indy 500 surpasses that races.

The race winner or the man who finished second didn’t utter the quote of the day after this race; it came from Johncock’s wife in Victory Lane.

“This is the most wonderful day of my life, ever,” Lynda Johncock said. “Our wedding day doesn’t come close to this.”

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