The Most Memorable Indy 500 Ever, #8: 1982’s Insane Finish

As the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 approaches, a countdown of the best races. Here’s 1982, a wild start and an even wilder finish.

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No one who's seen footage of the fatal Gordon Smiley wreck in qualifying for the 1982 Indy 500 can ever wipe away that memory. Outside of Le Mans in 1955, it’s gotta be the most gruesome racing shunt ever witnessed. “He couldn’t hit the wall no harder,” A.J. Foyt told me in a recent interview. (Foyt was on the scene.) “Probably 200 mph, maybe 175. Car just exploded. There was nothing left of him.”

The date was May 15. Already that morning, drivers were setting lap records with furious speeds around the 2.5-mile Brickyard; Rick Mears secured the pole with a record of 207.004 mph. Smiley’s death put a grim face on the event. But it wasn’t the only plot line emerging from pre-race activities. The 1982 Indy 500 marked the first time three brothers made it to qualifying: Bill, Don, and Dale Whittington. The Whittingtons—who were based in South Florida—had a story worthy of a Scorcese film. In 1986, the feds busted Bill and Don for trafficking “multi-ton quantities” of marijuana into the country. They were fueling their racing through extraordinary heaps of drug money. Don got 18 months; his brother Bill got 15 years. But no one knew all this in 1982. At the time, the Whittingtons were Gasoline Alley badasses. And they were fast.

By race day, an estimated 250,000 fans had piled into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with high expectations. The two top qualifiers had set the fastest and second fastest times ever at Indy—Penske teammates Mears and Kevin Cogan. A.J. Foyt rounded out the first row. The start didn’t go as planned, however. In fact, it blew everyone’s mind. Watch it here:

By now you know that this was not Kevin Cogan’s finest moment. He crashed during the pace lap, before the race even began, and his mistake damaged four cars at the front of the pack in the biggest race of the year, including Mario Andretti and Foyt, the latter of whom had this to say of Cogan, on national TV: “The guy had his head up his ass.” The fans weren’t happy either, as the start was delayed for 45 minutes. But the wait was worth it.

What really puts the 1982 Indianapolis 500 on this list is the riveting last 10 laps. It was Gordon Johncock in a Wildcat-Cosworth hammering through the final turns, with Mears closing on him in a Penske PC-10. That gap got smaller. And smaller. Until there was none at all. Johncock was losing handling in his car. There was pandemonium in the stands; you could hear the crowd roaring over the shriek of the engines. The ABC announcers were going wild. “I’ve never seen anything like it! There they go! Two laps to go!…This is extremely dangerous business right here!…I don’t think I’ve ever seen an open wheel car race with people this close at the finish… And never so fast!”

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At the white flag signaling the final lap, Mears and Johncock were side to side, after 497.5 miles of all out motoring. From the booth: “No one has ever seen this before at Indianapolis!” Johncock took the checkered flag in what was the closest finish ever up to that time: 16 hundredths of a second. “One more lap, and it could have been 16 hundredths of a second the other way,” Mears said. The New York Times called the race “a frantic, one-on-one, wheel-to-wheel chase.” Pancho Carter took third. Watch the end of this fantastic event here…