Indy’s Grumpy Old Man

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

25 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.

  15. Don’t know where you got the idea that the Indy 500 win in 1982 was Gordon’s last race. Far from it. When he no longer raced for STP he came back one year in an older car and if I remember right I think he finished 6th. He almost got more attention than the winner did. Just because someone is giving an honest opinion about how they feel about racing in this modern day does that make them grumpy. Apparently a lot of people feel that way or why has attendance gone down so much. At first Danika Patrick brought some interest back but now she has left. People want to root for people that they can identify with and they have a hard time identifying with so many race car driver that are not American.

    • PS: It looks like for your poll that most people agree with Gordon. Why would you not be disappointed when having all these foreign drivers have ruined a sport you loved so much. I just talked to a friend this week and she said they don’t even watch anymore because they can’t identify with any of the drivers anymore. Even the Indy 500 hundred comes and goes any more with hardly a word on the news about it. Hardly ever hear anything about any of their other races either. It’s all Nascar now, how many foreign drivers do they have?

      • I sent you an e-mail addressing your concerns this past weekend. Did you get it? You never responded. In case you didn’t – I never said Gordy stopped racing at Indianapolis in 1982. It was 1992. I know because I was there. Please check your e-mail for the rest of my response. – GP

        • No I never got it. Going back and reading your message again I did see that I read it wrong. I do apologize for that. All the rest of my message still stands. I was happy to see that most of the messages in reply to yours defended Gordon. These are from the people that know him best, which obviously you don’t. He was one of the best liked drivers in racing in his era. That is because he never thought he was better than anyone and he was always friendly to everyone from the track worker to the ones that considered themselves the elite. I am very disappointed that you think because of this interview that you may have been mistaken about him all along and stated that fact. I know he is disappointed with Indy today and for a very good reason. That doesn’t give you the right to judge his whole career on this one interview.

          • I’m not sure why you didn’t get it, but here is the e-mail copied/pasted in full. Sorry to put it out in public, but this article is so old that I doubt anyone else is scouring through the comments. But you’re right. I never knew or met Gordy, although I saw him race many times – including his rookie year. But I wasn’t judging his career on that interview. I was judging what a curmudgeon he had become in recent years off of that interview. Here’s the e-mail I sent you on Sunday…

            Thank you for your comments on my site. I appreciate you reading and leaving commments, even if we don’t agree. First of all, I didn’t say that 1982 was his last race – I said 1992 was…because it was. I was there.

            As for his comments about the lack of American drivers, many people feel that way without coming off as a grumpy old man. I, myself, would like to see more American drivers but I don’t see foreign drivers as the reason things are the way they are. An almost all-American oval-only series that featured the Indianapolis 500 probably did more to drive away fans than anything else.

            Sadly, with current demographics and trends – I fear for all motorsports over the next decade or two. Today’s kids (tomorrow’s market) aren’t interested.

            But my point was just how nasty and bitter Johncock sounded. Paul Dalbey, who did the interview, is a personal friend of mine and is about as old-school as they come. He was befuddled at Gordy’s attitude.

            Thanks again for reading. I post every Mon-Wed-Fri, 52 weeks a year.

  16. Well, at least one old fool is scouring the comments. Just reminded of my one visit to the Speedway back in 90 and seeing Grumpy Gordy’s public tantrum in the infield. Poor guy directing traffic in the infield held up a hand to allow cross traffic at an intersection, Johncock, took umbrage at being the one held up. Purple faced and enraged he stuck his head out of his passenger car window and screamed the classic words of a has-been, “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM???!!!!”. Didn’t impress the traffic control person one bit. Left me bemused and regarding Johncock as a “dick”.

  17. As for you claim that Gordy could “celebrate properly” after winning the 1982 race, you may want to check your facts. His beloved mother died the next day. Right after the race he flew to Michigan to be by her side and then had to fly back to Indy to do interviews the next morning. If he appeared “grumpy,” there was a good reason for it. Before you judge someone, you may want to walk a mile in his shoes.

  18. And, the next year his son, Gordy Jr. , sustained a severe brain injury near a racing event in Milwaukee that Gordy’s older son, Wally, was racing in. Maybe if you suffered a few life changing events surrounding racing, your enthusiasm for the sport, no matter how successful or profitable an endeavor it was, might wane a bit. Again, better not to judge!

  19. Mark S. Says:

    Gordy’s a good guy. He was always nice and down to earth to our family. He stayed at our house when he was a rookie, and gave us free tickets for several yrs. He loved to race, was darn good at it, and didn’t like all the limelight part of it. And he dominated the 1973 race…if it would have run to the conclusion, at the rate he was going, he would have won by a landslide. The weather and the two nasty wrecks of fellow competitors were not poor reflections on him; he and his team earned that win that win in spades. He’s quiet, says what he thinks, and that’s that. He’s more real and American than 99% of the top tier drivers racing in the USA today. All the Hollywood style of so many of them nowadays is kind of a joke, it’s so sanitized and boring and only skin-deep.

  20. David Lamb Minton Says:

    Just read a bit of hagiography posing as journalism, describing Gordon Johncock in glowing terms. Bullshit. Both the characterization of the acerbic SOB, and the crafting of a false myth to rewrite history.
    Got hired by Skip Barber Racing to transport a Pro-Saab race car to the 75th Indy 500. Nice gig, paid me well, got to see my first race at the brickyard, spent a week there and learned that nothing happens between “Carburetion Day” and the event, other than the crowd outside the track getting drunker by the day.
    However there are things to see inside that facility, and once in a while, some illusions to be debunked. I love my recollections of some of the great racer’s I have seen and met, seeing Al Unser gracefully stop on the way to his car on the Pocono 500 grid to pose with someone’s baby, seeing Johnny Rutherford’s overall good demeanor, those little moments that define one’s image of public figures.
    And then and there I saw the REAL Gordon Johncock. He did luck out winning Fire & Rain the day AFTER he filed bankruptcy.. I’ll give him that. But one candid moment in the infield later….
    I saw him while he was driving a street car , and got held up at an infield intersection by a traffic control person in the Indy infield during the run-up to the 91 race. He was furious at a mere track worker daring to stop his vehicle. Beyond angry. Leaning out of his window red faced and screaming with spittle flying, “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM??????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”. It was a horrible public performance, rivaling one of John Paul Sr.’s cocaine fueled meltdowns such as his notorious one at Lime Rock back in the IMSA days.

  21. Sounds like the author has a personal vendetta against Gordon. You can never take away the footprints he left in the world of racing, he was one of the very best!!! He viewed racing as his job. Gordon was a farm boy and driving tractor at age 6, managing the farm alone with his mother . He was shy and uncomfortable around the media, never had the need to be in the limelight. Does this really make him a grumpy old man?

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