Indy’s Grumpy Old Man

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This past weekend, I put up a post from the Speedway that had a picture of Pressdog and myself posing as the “Grumpy Old Men” as a tongue-in-cheek nod to our collective ages – which is far greater than most of the IndyCar blogging community. It was all in fun, though. Bill doesn’t come across as grumpy at all, and I hope that I’m at least able to hide my grumpiness.

The same cannot be said for a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner that I always liked – Gordon Johncock. While growing up, I was always a fan of Gordy. He was always a spunky little guy that I always thought was under-appreciated by the fans. He and I have something in common – we both showed up at the Speedway in 1965. I was six, while Gordy was twenty-seven. He drove one of only six roadsters in the field that day and finished fifth. The following year, he started on the second row and finished fourth. In 1967, his third year at the track, Gordy was a front-row starter and finished twelfth.

The next few years was a series of great starts and disappointing finishes. He finally won the race in 1973, but it was the race that everyone wanted to forget. It took several days to get the race in due to rain. There was a frightening crash at the start, when Salt Walther flipped upside down and pirouetted on the roll bar while spraying methanol across the track and onto fans in the stands. There were two driver fatalities during the month along with a crew member that was killed. One of the drivers fatally injured was Johncock’s teammate Swede Savage.

After several days of a rain delay, Johncock’s teammate, Swede Savage, lost control of his STP Eagle coming out of Turn Four. The car disintegrated into a big fireball. Savage lived a little more than a month, before succumbing to his injuries. One of Savage’s crewmen was struck and killed in the pits while running to check on his driver who had just crashed.

The rains came again on Lap133 and this time for good, with Johncock in the lead. He was declared the winner. It’s not like he lucked into the victory. He led sixty-four laps and was in contention throughout the race. However, when he was declared the winner, everyone just wanted to get out of town. There was no Victory Banquet. He and car owner Pat Patrick along with Chief Mechanic George Bignotti spent that evening at Methodist Hospital at the side of their teammate. Johncock and Bignotti celebrated the victory at a Burger King on 16th Street.

No one could blame Johncock for being somewhat bitter that his 500 win was tarnished. It wasn’t any fault of his own, mind you – but it was. His win was followed by many close calls and disappointing finishes. Then, he won the 1982 race in an epic battle with Rick Mears, which stood as the closest finish in race history for ten years.

Everyone was happy for Gordy to win the 1982 race. He had been cheated out of celebrating his only win in 1973. Now he had another win to back it up and he could celebrate properly this time. Ironically, 1992 – the race that broke the record for the closest race – was Johncock’s last race. He quietly retired to his farm in Michigan.

I knew that Gordon Johncock had sort of slipped into oblivion after he retired. He got involved in the timber business in Michigan and was hardly seen much. His reputation though, still stayed pretty much intact with me up until about two weeks ago.

Our friends, Steph Wallcraft and Paul Dalbey, at More Front Wing are doing a series of excellent podcasts featuring interviews with former Indianapolis 500 winners. When they posted their interview with Johncock, I looked forward to hearing it because Gordy was always known for a quirky sense of humor and was always good for a unique quote. When I was done, I wished I hadn’t listened to it. Not that they did a bad job with it – quite the opposite. It was Johncock’s sour demeanor that killed the interview. It was like a conversation with my ex-mother-in-law.

They asked if he ever kept up with the IZOD IndyCar Series. He proceeded to go on what seemed like a twenty-five minute rant about how he cares nothing about it, because he can’t stand foreign drivers. You could tell that Paul and Steph were carefully trying to steer him away from his diatribe, but he had other plans. Johncock continued down the path to disparage every non-American who ever donned a firesuit.

It would have been comical had he been some bum off of the street, but this was one of the legendary drivers of the Indianapolis 500. This sounded like the grumpiest of old men that people laugh at, as they complain that things aren’t like they were in their day. It makes me wonder – was Gordy always like that and I just never saw this side of him, or has time made him grow old and bitter?

I’m not sure what made Gordy morph into this bitter, sour old man, but it has tarnished the image of someone I had admired for many years. I tend to follow some of the lesser known drivers. Although Johncock was a two-time winner, he is probably the most anonymous member of that elite fraternity. Whatever the case, it was disturbing to see what he had become. If you want to hear a well-done interview gone awry, check out the More Front Wing Gordon Johncock podcast here. While there, check out the others that are not quite as depressing as Gordy’s.

Shameless Plug: Speaking of More Front Wing, they lowered their standards considerably this week when they decided to do a podcast featuring some of the IndyCar bloggers. Join yours truly and Tony Johns of Pop-Off Valve, Zachary Houghton of IndyCar Advocate and Chris Estrada of Indy Racing Revolution.Check it out here.

George Phillips

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14 Responses to “Indy’s Grumpy Old Man”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Reminds me of my meeting Bill Cosby back in the mid 80’s… A man that I admired for his sense of observational humor as a teenager and still admired as an adult. What an utter disappointment. It shows how wrong we can sometimes be when we assume that someones professional and personal persona are one in the same. More often than not ‘they are not’.

  2. One lessen it took me many years to learn is when you want to say something that can’t produce anything positive, don’t.

  3. Yeah, man, what a grump. That interview rated really high on the “uncomfortable humor” scale for the several attemtps that Paul and Steph made at trying to get Gordy off the topic. It was like watching an episode of The Office where Michael Scott just can’t keep himself from saying inappropriate things about his co-workers while people desparately try to distract him. Anyway, I didn’t have much of an opinion on Gordy before, other than that I’m now even more comfortable in my picking the Yellow Submarine Chaparral over his STP Wildcat as my favorite of the two cars I got as a kid in my Pit Row Racing slot car set.

  4. It makes you appreciate the quality of guys like Rick Mears, AJ Fout, Al Unser, Bobby Unser and Al Jr. I can listen to those guys anytime they have something to say.

  5. james t suel Says:

    I think it doesnot matter how grumpy Gordy is! It does not remove his accomplishments on the race track. This guy could drive,end of story!

  6. “Johncock” has become slang for “cranky” in our house.
    What I don’t understand is how someone excelled in a field that took an enormous amount of dedication, practice, and hard work, but now apparently couldn’t care less about it.

    He should be a hero of the sport, but I know now that I might never be able to relate to him as a race fan.

  7. Jack The Root Says:

    He’s right though. There are way too many foreign-born drivers in Indy Car Racing.

    Hence, the unpopularity of the sport and the Indy 500.

  8. Brian D. Craig Says:

    I am a big Gordon Johncock fan. I am a fan of his racing career and how he drove a race car. How he feels about racing today is irrelevent to his career stats. He was never a media darling anyway. Although I don’t mind foreign drivers, I feel that Indy Car racing is top heavy with them. I often think that if the young top guns in NASCAR were in Indy Car, open wheel racing would again be on top. Driver recognition to the fans IS important. What I found interesting is how they had to work hard to get Gordy to say what winning Indy meant to him. I am still a big Gordy fan.

  9. Gordon never sought the limelight during or after his career, and always expressed his opinion in simple, direct terms. It is no surprise the interviewers were uncomfortable with his words, as it is rare anyone in racing nowdays gives an unvarnished and honest view on anything controversial. Whether you agree with Gordon’s opinion or not, he was asked about present day racing and he answered the question.

    He is not a grouch. He is a hard working man (now retired) who was a racer with talent too few gave recognition to because of his non-celebrity seeking approach to fame.

    As a lifetime race fan and former farm neigbor, I was honored to know him and was always grateful finding his real life compatible with his celebrity.

  10. Don Cusick Says:

    I just bought the March Herm Johnson drove at the 1984 500 and Johncock campaigned the rest of the season. I would love to get their feedback on that car. Anyone know how to get a hold of them??

  11. First of all, I think the authors commentary on Gordon Johncock is way over exaggerated. Nowhere in this interview was I left with the impression that he was a “bitter, sour old man.” Johncock is a businessman and simply did not get wrapped up into the fanfare of racing. He ran his races, caught the next plane and was back on the farm feeding the chickens. If anything, he’s 100% farm boy. During the interview, Johncock explained why he was not a fan of the “foreign drivers” and elaborated on the fact that they simply cannot compete in NASCAR and ultimately burn out. I’m quite sure there is also some Archie Bunker’isms in there as well which you often find with folks of his era. With all that being said, I have met Johncock on a few different occasions as he was timbering some woods at a hunting property where I was a guest of the owner. My impression of Gordon Johncock is he is a ‘regular’ and easy to talk to fellow. Unless you brought it up to him, he’d never bring up his racing career.

  12. Gordon Johncock doesn’t care for the spotlight! He wants to live his life in the shadows as a farmer and businessman back at home in Michigan so let him and leave him be in peace! He doesn’t even attend the Johncock Family Reunions any more as he doesn’t want his racing career to be the sole focal point of the family get together that has been going on for over 100 years, the family accepts this, so why do you and other fans get so upset with him for not attending the some Indy 500 Reunion?

  13. jim whitmer Says:

    Anger and hate stim from sin. It happens and leads to a form of mental illness. What a shame.

  14. ROFLMAO! My cousin is a Grump! I love hearing about some of my mothers stories about him from Hastings High School all the way through his racing career. It’s too bad our other cousin Nolan Johncock died racing since it would have kept Gordy going.

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