The Random Cruelty of Fate

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Fate is very fickle. It can randomly smile on someone and bless them throughout their entire career or even their life. It can also be cruel, and allow a mistake in a matter of seconds become a person’s identity and follow them for the rest of their life.

Emerson Fittipaldi was a very popular driver. His level of popularity appeared to be destined to rise even further in 1993, moments after he became a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. But between the moments he pulled into Victory Lane to unstrap his helmet, and when his Victory Lane interviews were complete – something happened that has soiled Fittipaldi’s reputation forever among die-hard IndyCar fans. He announced he would drink orange juice, instead of the traditional bottle of milk.

Boos rained down from the stands, when he announced this over the PA, with Jack Arute holding the microphone. I was in Turn Four that day, and we couldn’t even see the Victory Lane platform from where we were, but everyone around us was booing. Some have forgiven Fittipaldi since then, others haven’t. Among those that have forgiven him, many have still not forgotten about it.

But that was Fittipaldi’s choice. He should have known before he planned his orange juice stunt, that fans would be upset. He probably had an idea it would ruffle a few feathers, but he grossly miscalculated the level of outrage. Still, it was his choice.

Others who have had their reputations ruined in a matter of seconds, are never faced with a choice. Fate makes the choice for them. Such was the case with Kevin Cogan in 1982.

Many believe that Cogan was an Indianapolis 500 rookie in 1982, which is not true. In fact, Cogan finished fourth at Indianapolis as a rookie in 1981, while driving for Jerry O’Connell. He also finished second at Milwaukee in 1981, and seemed to be a solid understudy to Rick Mears, who was now the leader of the team following the retirement of Bobby Unser. The season started well enough for Cogan, after a third-place finish at Phoenix – leading up to Indianapolis. The Month of May had gone well for Cogan, and the Penske cars started one-two on Race Day. Life was good for Kevin Cogan in early 1982, but then it all went terribly wrong.

I remember watching it unfold for the first time that Sunday night of the race, when ABC showed the tape-delayed race broadcast. We remember AJ Foyt cussing him and mispronouncing his name (Coogan). The site of Mario Andretti shoving Cogan away as the young driver tried to explain, is one of the signature moments of that race; as much as the epic finish between winner Gordon Johncock and second-place Rick Mears just behind him. The best line of the day may have come from Andretti, who said “This is what happens when you have children doing a man’s job up front”. Ouch!

On the odd chance that you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll give you a quick thumbnail sketch.

Rick Mears started on the pole, alongside his Team Penske teammate – second-year driver Kevin Cogan. AJ Foyt started on the outside of the front row. Mario Andretti started on the inside of Row Two, next to eventual winner Gordon Johncock. As the field was completing the pace lap, headed toward the starting line where the green flag was held to be waved – the cars were accelerating. As the front row was about halfway between the pit entrance and the yard of bricks, the car of Cogan swerved to the right and banged into the side of Foyt’s car. Cogan’s car then ricocheted off of Foyt’s and was headed directly into the inside wall, when it was T-boned by Mario Andretti’s car – effectively taking both cars out of the race. Here is a quick IMS video recapping the start of the 1982 race:

It was an iconic moment that we all get a kick out of rehashing it. While it looks almost comical forty years later, the devastating effects of this incident were immediate and permanent on Cogan.

We’ve all made jokes about it, because it was so unbelievable to watch. AJ Foyt referring to Coogan to ABC’s Chris Economaki is one of the most famous and humorous clips in Indianapolis 500 history. Before the wreckage had been cleared, Kevin Cogan was an instant punch line among IndyCar fans. Not only was he an instant punch line, he was an immediate villain.

It’s impossible to imagine what was going through Cogan’s mind, moments after the incident. He had just ruined his own front-row start in the Indianapolis 500. In the process, he took out a legend and incurred the wrath of another legend; not to mention what his boss, Roger Penske, was going to say. All of this in front of over 300,000 spectators and a worldwide TV and radio audience. To his credit, he didn’t shy away from the cameras and he did interviews shortly after the crash.

But the damage was done. The paddock turned their backs on Cogan. So did the fans and media. Even his own team failed to come to his defense. It always perplexed Donald Davidson why there was never any public defense of Cogan by Team Penske. Donald tells a story of a testing incident at Michigan later that summer, when the exact same thing happened to Rick Mears when he accelerated coming out of the pits. Mears had suffered a broken half-shaft, the same thing that most people suspect happened to Cogan under acceleration for the green flag. But the team never acknowledged what happened

During an interview in the 1986 race, Cogan described being introduced at the Michigan 500 – at one of Roger Penske’s tracks. He said it’s hard to put into words what to feel when 90,000 people are booing you. At the end of the 1982 season, Kevin Cogan was fired from Team Penske after only one season – something that rarely happened, if ever, at Team Penske.

In a rare interview with Curt Cavin, then with The Indianapolis Star in 2015; Cogan says that Derrick Walker, then with Team Penske, could have publicly exonerated Cogan for what happened. Instead, Walker stayed silent and secretly tucked all of the parts away out of sight.

Beginning in 1983, Cogan bounced from team to team each season. That season, he was teammate to Tom Sneva who won the Indianapolis 500. Cogan finished fifth at Indianapolis, but finished a very lackluster fifteenth in the CART championship.

In 1984, he drove for several more teams, finished twentieth at Indianapolis and had driven a couple of races for Gerry Forsythe, when he was severely injured in practice at Pocono – breaking his feet, and ending the rest of his season. He still walks with pain from that 1984 accident.

Having recovered enough to drive by the 1985 season, Cogan found himself with another new team – Kraco Racing. He barely qualified for the Indianapolis 500, but finished a respectable eleventh. But finishing fourteenth in the standings, had him looking for another team for 1986.

1986 was Cogan’s best season. It was believed he had finally exorcised the demons from that ill-fated day in 1982. He was with Patrick Racing and acquitted himself nicely in the eyes of many in the Indianapolis 500. He was leading the race by three seconds, when an ill-timed Arie Luyendyk spin on Lap 195 brought out a late caution. When the race restarted with two to go, Cogan was a sitting duck. Bobby Rahal got the jump he needed at the restart and passed Cogan at the yard of bricks as the green flag waved. That was the winning pass. Bobby Rahal drank the milk, got his face and name on the Borg-Warner Trophy; while Cogan was left to wonder what might have been.

Cogan finished sixth in the CART standings in 1986, and was actually invited back to Pat Patrick’s team for 1987. It marked the first time in his career that Kevin Cogan would drive for the same team, for a second consecutive season. It did not go so well in his second season. Cogan finished thirty-first at Indianapolis and sixteenth in the championship.

Cogan’s final fulltime stop was the Machinists Union, where he drove in 1988 and 1989. The only notable happening in that time frame for Cogan, was his spectacular crash at Indianapolis on Lap Four, that ended with Cogan’s car lying on its side in the pits, with the engine dangling away from the tub.

The second serious crash in Cogan’s career came in 1991. By this time, he was pretty much an Indy-only driver. He and Roberto Guerrero got together in Turn One on Lap 25 of the 1991 Indianapolis 500. Debris from that crash is what took out AJ Foyt in what was supposed to be his last 500. Guerrero was unhurt, but Cogan suffered a broken right arm and leg – from slamming the outside wall hard. Cogan blamed Guerrero for the accident, but the limited TV replays were inconclusive. Cogan would not drive for two years.

In 1993, Cogan signed to drive for a handful of races with Rick Galles. He finished fourteenth at Indianapolis, and after starts at Portland and Cleveland – Kevin drove his final IndyCar race at Toronto, with a very forgettable fourteenth-place finish.

I don’t pretend to know what happened with his car in 1982, nor do I know the team dynamics at Penske throughout the year. What I do know is that when you go back and watch Cogan’s televised interviews, he doesn’t come across to me as the most likeable person. I know nothing about his background or him as a person. It is totally unfair to judge someone on how they come off in a two-minute televised interview; but that is my one observation. Maybe he wasn’t a good teammate, I don’t know. But the fact that he drove for at least seven teams over six seasons, suggests that it may have been more than bad luck that followed him to each team.

Kevin Cogan does not look back on his IndyCar career with fond memories. He never watches any races anymore, nor does he keep up with the sport. He is now sixty-six and focuses on his real estate investments.

Cogan has become reclusive, when it comes to racing. He has declined multiple interviews and he had no interest in taking part in the Centennial Celebration in 2011, or the 100th Running in 2016. It was rare for him to allow Curt Cavin into his home in 2015. I’m not sure anyone in racing has heard from Cogan since then.

Over the years, I have joined in with all of the Cogan bashing, the Coogan jokes and laughed at the Andretti line about children doing a man’s job. It’s fun and Cogan is an easy target. But when I put myself in his place and think how he must feel after all these years, I can’t say that I blame Cogan for distancing himself from the sport that has been so cruel to him.

Racing has brought Cogan nothing but pain and misery. The racing gods smile on some and frown on others. Regardless of how he helped or hurt a team’s chemistry, I’m not sure that many drivers deserve the public scorn and humiliation that Kevin Cogan has endured over the past forty years. You have to wonder how different his career and his life would have been, had the start of the 1982 race gone off without a hitch. I’m willing to bet it would be far different today.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “The Random Cruelty of Fate”

  1. Fascinating, I knew vaguely of this story but that made a good lunchtime read. Thanks.

  2. Bruce B Says:

    I was always a big Mario fan, so I was furious that race day as I watched the first lap melee. After time and carefully analyzing everything, I do think the half shaft possibly broke. Mears was also bringing the field down exceptionally slow. Perhaps when the green flag waved Cogan’s turbo kicked in and he spun out. Whether it was Cogan’s fault or not, he certainly didn’t deserve to be treated this way. Roger Penske must have seen something in him and he was sitting on the front row in the beautiful Penske NortonSpirit.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Cogan’s career is especially sad to me because racing, intense and competitive as it is, is supposed to be fun. We watch it because it is fun. Drivers drive, crews crew, owners own, money burns… all because it is fun to do these things. So to see someone look back on their racing career, a career where they competed to win at the highest levels, not simply with regret and frustration about what they weren’t able to accomplish but with genuine bitterness toward the sport as a whole is terribly sad. Cogan may well be a prickly guy who is slow to forgive or forget, but it really is hard to look at the way he was treated by the sport at EVERY level and not understand why he remains bitter and distant after all these years, even now as fans want to celebrate him as part of a well-regarded era of Indycar racing.

    I wonder if Cogan would have fared better in the court of public opinion had McKay and Posey’s call for ABC not been so overdramatic. Overdramatizing was always a part of McKay’s shtick, I guess, though bellowing “How in the WORLD could this have happened?!” like he was watching the Hindenburg explode was a bit much even for him. Posey’s excitedly uninformative response only heightened the overdramatic air around the incident, and his appalling recap of the replay, “It’s as if he turned the wheel intentionally…”, unfairly (though surely unintentionally) painted Cogan as a reckless idiot.

    Between that call in ’82 and the in-car interview attempt in ’86, Sam Posey may be Cogan’s greatest nemesis.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Also, Johncock roasting Mario in that video is great. Gordy is right, Mario would likely have avoided Cogan had he not jumped ahead of the rest of the row. Mario is right as well, he wouldn’t be Mario Andretti if he was not aggressive right at the start…

  5. Mark Wick Says:

    I have watched replays of the crash at the start many, many times, and today saw something I had never noticed before. Watch the head on view. Mears lurches right before Cogan does. I now believe Cogan overreacted to the move by Mears, not terribly surprising for a second year driver starting on the front row next to his already highly revered teammate. Cogan does have a special place in my many special moments of covering the 500 for 27 years. I was covering the race as a stringer photographer for Associated Press from the press box row under the upper level of the grandstands outside the front straightaway. After the field went by for the third time, a little voice I had learned to listed to, told me to mount the 800mm Canon lens with a doubler (1600mm) and point it at the fourth turn. That is a very heavy lens that was not designed to be hand held, but mounted on a mono or tripod. I had a tripod set up and ready to accept the lens but as I was raising the lens and looking into turn four, I saw that a car was in trouble and just raised the camera to my eye, balanced the tripod mount of the lens on my left hand and extended my thumb to the knob that was rotated forward or backward to focus the lens, and squeezed the shutter release button on my manual focus Canon F-1. I was about to become the only still photographer to capture Cogan’s accident from his brush of the outside wall, to his knocking down the inside wall, to the slide into the pit wall attenuator, to the slide to a stop in another team’s pit stall, to Cogan sliding out of the overturned cockpit of the tum, and walking away. (The ABC camera that recorded the action for TV was almost exactly above my heard.) My photos from IMS, and other race tracks were published in newspapers and magazines all over the world for those many years, the Cogan’s disintegrating race car about to hit the end of the outside pit wall was the only one ever to be printed in Sports Illustrated. It was also very likely the only photo ever published that was taken by one of those lenses that was being used hand held. (In a bit of unfortunate timing for me, I was paid $100 by A.P for the use of that image. By the next year the arrangement between A.P. and Sports Illustrated had changed and the same placement in the magazine then would have paid me a page rate which would have been considerably higher.)

  6. I sitting on the front straight when Cogan wrecked. Most around me missed the wreck because their special lenses were watching me as I was touting my white and black checkered swimsuit. ; )

  7. I will say if something broke on that car I am more than shocked that the team did not announce that. That is not fair to Cogan. Now we may never know.

    Reminds me of the legendary baseball stories about Fred Merkle and Fred Snodgrass.

    Merkle was given a raw deal when the Cubs found a baseball somewhere (probably not even the one that was in play) and tagged second after a walk off single that would have won the game. Merkle, on first, did not touch second due to the crowd storming on the field. The umpire then enforced a seldom used rule and called Merkle out on a force play. It ended up costing the Giants the pennant in 1908. He had to live the rest of his life in infamy, hearing and being questioned until his dying day about Merkle’s “boner.”

    Fred Snodgrass is forever remembered for his “muff” in the final game of the 1912 World Series. He said later “Hardly a day in my life, hardly an hour, that in some manner or other the dropping of that fly doesn’t come up, even after 30 years. On the street, in my store, at my home…it’s all the same. They may choke up before they ask me and they hesitate-but they always ask.” He had a long and successful life, and a very good ten year baseball career, but predicted that all he would be remembered for was that dropped fly ball.

    When he died more than half a century later, his obituary in the New York Times read “Fred Snodgrass, 86, Dead; Ball Player Muffed 1912 Fly.”

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