Remembering Fifty Years Ago

A couple of weeks ago, Gordon Johncock was presented with a “Baby Borg”, a miniature version of the Borg-Warner trophy. It symbolizes Johncock’s two Indianapolis 500 victories, in 1973 and 1982. I don’t know if this is accurate or not, but I have heard that even the Baby Borgs cost around $50,000 because they are made of silver. That could be an urban legend, but that’s what I’ve heard.

One reason why they did this now is one that had not dawned on me until the presentation. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of Johncock’s first win.

I always felt bad for Gordon Johncock. He had been one of the up and coming drivers, since finishing fifth his rookie year in 1965. I was at that race and Johncock drove one of the six roadsters in the race. The next year, he finished fourth after starting sixth. From 1967 through 1972, Johncock had a pattern of qualifying well, but not-so-great finishes.

It all seemed to come together for him in 1973. It was his first year with Pat Patrick, one of the top team-owners of the day. He was with a strong team headed up by legendary Chief Mechanic George Bignotti; and was driving an Eagle, one of the choice chassis at that time. His teammate was an up and comer of his day – Swede Savage, along with New Zealand rookie driver Graham McRae.

Bignotti began proving himself more than a decade before, winning twice with AJ Foyt (1961 & 1964). In fact, he has more wins than any other Chief Mechanic in history, with seven. Aside from winning twice with Foyt, he also won with Graham Hill (1966) Twice with Al Unser (1970-71), Johncock in 1973 and Tom Sneva in 1983.

Swede Savage was a Dan Gurney protégé. He ran a handful of races between 1969-71, but won at Phoenix in 1970. He ran the full schedule in 1972, driving for Michner Industries, including the 1972 Indianapolis 500; when he qualified ninth and finished seventeenth as a rookie. In 1973, Savage joined Patrick Racing as teammate to Gordon Johncock. Savage was coming off of a fourth-place finish at Trenton and had qualified fourth in only his second Indianapolis 500. The future looked as bright as the day-glo cars of Pat Patrick carrying STP livery.

Make no mistake, Gordon Johncock was the leader of this team, even though he was out-qualified by his upstart teammate. Coming into the 1973 race, he had not won the Indianapolis 500 or a USAC championship; but he had already won seven races. Johncock would end up with two Indianapolis 500 victories (1973 & 1982) and the USAC National Championship in 1976. Johncock would go on to win five races in the CART era, but by then Father Time was catching up with him.

For most drivers, the day they won their first Indianapolis 500 would be the greatest day in their professional lives. That was not the case for Johncock, and I always felt bad for him. He won the Indianapolis 500 that everyone wanted to forget.

I’ve always felt like Bob Sweikert was one of the most overlooked and underrated winners of the Indianapolis 500. He won the 1955 race, on the same day that popular and legendary driver Bill Vukovich lost his life. It was almost as if Sweikert had an asterisk by his name, because when anyone thinks of the 1955 Indianapolis 500 – they think of Vukovich, and not Sweikert. It also doesn’t help Sweikert’s legacy that he lost his life in a Sprint car accident the following year, on the high banks at Salem.

The 1973 Indianapolis 500 was one that everyone wanted to forget. I had just finished a stretch, that saw me attend seven of the past eight 500s (I missed the 1966 race). Shortly after the 1972 race, my father announced he had made the inexplicable decision to give up our tickets in Stand A, and stop going. While I was devastated to learn this, I was glad I was not in attendance for any part of the 1973 Month of May.

The misery of the month started off with veteran driver Art Pollard losing his life in Turn One, on the morning practice of Pole Day. It rained throughout the month, including Race Day, which started out with rain and the race was delayed for several hours. Once it got started, Salt Walther was critically injured in a fiery crash that also sprayed methanol fuel all over spectators in Stand B. Before the mess was cleaned up and the race was re-started, it began to rain again and the race was called for the day.

Cars were allowed to make repairs and all were slated to start the race the next day, except for Walther. On the second Parade Lap, rain began to fall and the start never happened. Fans, crews and drivers waited around for a few hours, until the race was postponed again to the next day. Years later, Johnny Rutherford was quoted as saying at that point, most drivers just wanted to pack up for good and head to Milwaukee for the next race.

On Day Three, conditions at the track were deplorable. The entire infield had deteriorated to one giant mud pit. Trash was scattered all over the grounds and restrooms. IMS was one giant mess. Again, rain delayed the start of the race. After another long delay, the track finally dried and the race started at 2:10 pm.

Once the race got going, there was heavy attrition – especially among the front-runners. AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Lloyd Ruby and Peter Revson were all out before Lap 50. By Lap 57, only twenty-two cars were still in the race.

Then on Lap 59, just after a pit stop to receive a full load of methanol – Swede Savage was running second behind Al Unser. As Savage was coming out of Turn Four, he lost control and the car slid to the inside wall – striking it head-on, in a crash that was eerily similar to Dave MacDonald’s just nine years earlier. The car completely exploded in a ball of mostly invisible methanol flame. The engine and rear-wheel assembly tumbled down the track, as the cockpit of the car slid toward the outside wall with Savage still strapped into what was left of the car. Cars coming off of Turn Four were greeted with a sight that looked like a war zone, as the race was red-flagged.

Armando Teran, a crew-member for Graham McRae, a teammate to Savage, ran toward the pit wall to get a better view of the crash. He was struck by an ambulance headed north in the pits to the accident scene. Teran ultimately died of his injuries about an hour later. Savage was taken to Methodist Hospital, where he held on for thirty-three days before succumbing to his injuries on July 2.

Over an hour later, the race resumed once more. Al Unser was leading, but his engine blew on Lap 75. Johncock assumed the lead. Finally, the race reached 101 laps – meaning it was an official race. Any further interruptions meant they could call the race and everyone could finally go home. On Lap 129, rain began to fall once again. On Lap 133, the race was mercifully called – bringing an end to the most miserable Months of May that anyone could remember.

Gordon Johncock was leading at the time and was declared the winner. He did not spend the evening celebrating. Instead, he and George Bignotti went to visit Savage in the hospital, while also mourning Teran – their fallen crewmember. Instead of a Victory Banquet, Johncock and Bignotti stopped at a Burger King on 16th Street after leaving the hospital.

Although the 1973 Indianapolis 500 was one that everyone wanted to forget, I always felt like Gordon Johncock had been cheated out of all that usually comes with winning the Indianapolis 500 – just like Sweikert had been, eighteen years earlier. Unlike Sweikert, Johncock lived to race in the 500 many more times – finally winning it again in 1982, in one of the most memorable finishes ever – a split-second win over a charging Rick Mears.

Everyone was happy that Johncock was finally getting to celebrate winning a second Indianapolis 500, this time going the full distance and culminating in a thrilling finish. Unfortunately, Johncock was not all smiles after the 1982 race either. His mother was gravely ill. Instead of celebrating with his crew after the race, Johncock flew home to Michigan to visit his ailing mother. He flew back the next day in time for the Victory Banquet, but shortly after the banquet – he got the phone call that his mother had passed away.

Gordon Johncock won two Indianapolis 500s, but was unable to fully enjoy either one. Fortunately he had a happier day last month, when he was present with his Baby Borg. At 86, he seemed honored and appreciative to get to spend this day with his family, including several great-grandchildren who were on-hand to celebrate with him.

The 1973 Indianapolis 500 is one that everyone wants to forget, but they shouldn’t. The rain delays took its toll on teams, drivers and fans; but three people lost their lives during that Month of May – a crewmember and two drivers, and another driver was seriously injured. None of them should be forgotten, and Gordon Johncock should get the full recognition he deserves for persevering throughout those conditions in that terrible Month of May, fifty years ago.

George Phillips

2 Responses to “Remembering Fifty Years Ago”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    I know racing hasn’t been a big part of Gordon’s life since he retired, but I’m always happy to see when he does make it to IMS and sees how much the fans still care about him.

    As an old novelty song about the man himself says:

    “They just can’t stop
    That Gordon Johncock
    Watch him burn that track in turn number three

    That Gordon Johncock
    The man that’s on top
    Racing hard to reach that victory”

  2. Talon De Brea Says:

    I remember listening to that drawn-out race during the high school day on my brother’s old transistor radio and its one tinny earphone. The tragic events underscored how racing — despite being fun to follow — was serious business, indeed.

    As a young “sports car guy,” I had stood next to Savage at Daytona two years before and taken a pretty good photo with a crappy Instamatic — he was a versatile young American driver straight out of central casting, and his accident seemed especially horrifying to me.

    With time, I came to appreciate Johncock’s greatness. I was a bit indignant on his behalf when I recognized him as he was being denied entrance to the pits at the then-Formula One Long Beach Grand Prix. Glad he got the Baby Borg and the further recognition of his achievements — with the passage of time, it’s a good reminder for all of us who follow racing.

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