Note from Paul: In 1954, my father, David Dalbey, attended his first Indianapolis 500 with his father and aunt. Several years later, he started recording his experiences in detailed, handwritten journals. He has continued this practice all the way through the current year. Several of the earliest years were written many years later and may contain some errors in information. He was not a wordsmith, but nonetheless, I am pleased to present these journals in their original form without attempt to edit or correct any mistakes.
The best weather in several years, including the first day of time trials, the first driver fatality in nine years, the four mph increase in the qualifying record, the four-car crash just a few seconds before the start of the race and, perhaps most of all, the unbelievably close finish for first place between Gordon Johncock and Rick Mears were the outstanding attractions at the Speedway this year.
On Friday morning, May 14th, at 9:30, I left home to begin my trip to the Speedway to see the first day of time trials. My mother came to the house to babysit John and Paul so that I could go.
I stopped at her house before I left town and ran into a former high school classmate of mine, Don Aldrich, who was doing some repair work on the house of mother and dad’s neighbor, Eleanor Berry. We hadn’t seen each other for several years, and we visited with each other until 10:15.
I traveled old Route 36 to Decatur, where I arrived at about 11:15. I continued east on Route 36 until I arrived at the Chrisman intersection at 12:28. It felt good to get out of the car and stretch my legs and arms.
There were a few dinner patrons in the Colonial Kitchen and the usual table of farmers drinking their coffee. My snack was a barbecue sandwich and a cup of coffee, which tasted good and refreshed me somewhat. I used the restroom, paid the bill, and at 12:50 began the second leg of my journey to the Speedway.
The bright, pleasant weather made driving a pleasure, and I enjoyed seeing the emerging farm crops and green trees along the highway. The traffic grew increasingly heavy as I approached Indianapolis, and at 2:28 I stopped at the Lynhurst Drive intersection and filled the gas tank. I drove north on Lynhurst until I came to 16th Street. From there, I drove east to Georgetown Road, north on Georgetown to 30th Street, and east to the Speedway entrance. The traffic was bumper to bumper all the way but moved quite well, and it was 3:00 on the minute when I turned off the engine in the museum parking lot.
My first stop was the museum building. It was busy inside with wall-to-wall people in the gift shop and a steady line going into and out of the display area of race cars. The ticket office had an occasional customer, but since all race tickets had already been sold, the business was slight. I wanted to get my gifts for Dixie and the boys bought early, but I was frustrated in trying to find quality merchandise at reasonable prices and decided to wait until I checked in other gift shops before buying anything.
There was a carnival atmosphere everywhere with thousands of persons shopping, touring the museum, playing football, baseball, and volleyball in the infield, eating, and of course, watching the practicing race cars on the track. The weather was almost perfect with a warm but not hot sun and very little breeze. I walked to the intersection where the hospital is located and then to the garage area. Activity was at a high pitch with cars being pushed both to the pit area and back to the garages.
A crowd of several hundred occupied the Tower Terrace and pit areas as pit crews, mechanics, and drivers worked diligently to get the most out of their cars. Having rested my feet for a few minutes, I decided to take a stroll to the first turn area and see the new seating area which was installed there last year. The area was filled with young people dancing to loud rock music, smoking, drinking beer, and having a good time.
I returned to the pit area for a few minutes to watch the activity and then shopped in the gift shops behind the Tower Terrace area for a while. After much deliberation, I chose four gifts which I hoped would be liked when I arrived home.
With that job done, I went back to the pit area and stayed there until 6:00 when the gun sounded ending all racing activity on the track until the following morning.
The frolicking crowd seemed in no hurry to leave its big playground, as attested to by loitering around and trying to get one last look at everything. By the time I arrived at my car, the parking lot was almost vacated. Getting onto 16th Street and then Crawfordsville Road was no problem, and a few minutes later I was at the MCL Cafeteria in the Speedway Shopping Center.
The waiting line was long, but it moved quickly. By the time I arrived at my table, I had acquired a meal of chicken and noodles, beets, chunky potatoes, cornbread, tossed salad, Pepsi-Cola, and water. Everything tasted fine, and when the food was gone I felt much better.
When I left the cafeteria, I walked off some of my fullness by walking through the shopping center. I bought my fried chicken dinner for Saturday at the Kroger store and a thermos bottle at Horn’s Drug Store. By now, dusk was beginning to settle, so I decided to go to the motel.
It was about 8:30 when I arrived at the Holiday Inn at Lebanon. Since I had already paid for my room, all I had to do was sign the guest registration card, get my key, and go to my room, which was on the second floor adjacent to the Holidome. I made a quick check to see that everything in the room worked and then took a stroll through the motel. The Holidome, bar, and restaurant were all doing a good business.
When I went back to my room, I read some of the newspapers and a magazine I had brought, watched the 10:00 news, did a little more reading, and at about 11:30 retired for the night.
My alarm clock did its job between 5:30 and 5:45 Saturday morning to start a long day for me. I lay in bed for a couple of minutes, then got up and got cleaned up so that I could start the day properly. Now it was time for breakfast at the motel restaurant.
It was about 6:15 when I arrived at the restaurant, where I had a breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, sausage, orange juice, and coffee. The food and service were both excellent, and I felt much better when I left. The size of the crowd had increased steadily while I was there, and I think the majority of them were going to the Speedway.
Before leaving for the Speedway, I returned to my room to brush my teeth and pick up my supplies to take with me.
It was about 7:30 when I arrived at the Speedway. I came into the infield off Georgetown Road via the same entrance I used last year when I came with Dixie and the boys and also parked in about the same location. The size of the crowd increased as I got closer to the Tower Terrace and garage area, where I meandered for a couple minutes before finding a seat.
There was much activity to watch as both the human and race car population in the pit area increased. I managed to get some of the morning paper read between PA announcer Tom Carnegie’s announcements and the 8:30 start of practice.
A new rule was implemented this year. Odd-number cars practiced then even-numbered ones, and then all of them together for a few minutes. The pre-qualifying ceremonies started at 10:15, and at 11:00 the track was opened for qualifications.
Kevin Cogan was the first driver out and, as expected, did a fine job with a 204.082 mph average and a high lap of 204.638 mph, both of which were new records. The records didn’t last long, however, as Cogan’s teammate, Rick Mears, in the Penske Gould Charge, was next on the track, and his first lap was 206.801 mph. His second lap was faster, and the third lap was his fastest at 207.612 mph. The four lap average speed was an almost unbelievable 207.004 mph.
Roger Mears, Gordon Johncock, Bobby Rahal, Johnny Rutherford, Danny Ongais, Howdy Holmes, and Danny Sullivan all made qualifying runs. While Sullivan was being interviewed on the PA system, Gordon Smiley went out for his practice laps prior to his qualifying run.
Going through the third turn on his second practice lap, he lost control and crashed into the outer wall almost head-on. Upon impact, the car exploded into several pieces. Gordon was thrown several feet through the air and onto the track and received immediate fatal injuries.
The crash caused damage to the track and so it was necessary to close the track until the needed repairs were performed. Before qualifying resumed, Jerry Sneva and Don Whittington made test runs in their cars to see if the track was fit for use.
The long intermission came at an appropriate time for most people to eat their dinner without missing any of the action on the track. I was one of those persons and my fried chicken and rolls tasted real good. It had been a long time since I ate breakfast. The intermission also provided a chance to stretch the arms and legs and walk around for a while.
After the test driving by Sneva and Whittington, race officials checked the affected area again and at 2:32, the track was reopened for qualifying. Pancho Carter qualified easily at 198.950 mph, and then Mario Andretti put the No. 40 STP Wildcat solidly in the field with a 203.172 mph average.
Al Unser qualified at 195.567 mph, which was quite disappointing and indicative of the trouble his crew had been having with the car.
Don Whittington made the show with an impressive 200.725 mph run, and rookie Chip Ganassi also looked good with a 197.704 average. Chip was followed by another rookie, Mexican Hector Rebaque, who put the Forsythe-Brown March machine in the field with a 195.684 average.
Herm Johnson put his Eagle Chevy in at 195.929 mph, and then Bill Whittington joined the 200 mph club with a 201.027 trip around the track.
Tom Sneva had a fine, although disappointing, average of 201.027 mph. His first lap was over 203 mph, but the other three were quite slower.
A few minutes later, a cheer came from the fans as AJ Foyt went onto the track. He made a fine showing with a 203.332 mph average and two laps over 204 mph. Only the Penske cars qualified faster.
Rookie Chip Mead qualified his entry at 193.819 mph, but that proved to be too slow and he was bumped. Jerry Sneva and Geoff Brabham took practice runs but weren’t up to qualifying speed, and they came in without taking the green flag. There were no more attempted qualifications, and at 6:00 the track was closed. It was an exciting day with 17 completed runs, only one of which would not start the race.
I arranged all my belongings in my tote bag and started my walk back to the car. The traffic was heavy but moved well. Unfortunately, when I exited the tunnel under the south chute, the police were making all cars go east instead of having one lane for each direction. I drove to the first street past the underpass and went north to 20th and then east to Lafayette Road. There I turned left and went to 30th Street where I turned left again and went to Georgetown Road. There I turned left and went south to 25th Street, then west to the Speedway Shopping Center.
It was between 6:30 and 6:45 when I arrived at the MCL Cafeteria, and although there was a long waiting line, it moved quickly. For my supper, I chose turkey and dressing, cabbage, cornbread, corn, tossed salad, and Pepsi-Cola. It had been a long time since I had turkey and dressing and cabbage, and it tasted real good.
After supper I did some window shopping, and then at about 7:45 left for my trip to the motel, arriving at about 8:15. I took my equipment to my room and then took a stroll through the motel to see what was happening. The Holidome area, lounge, and restaurant were all quite busy.
I went back to my room and read some more of the magazines and newspapers I brought and then watched the 10:00 news. The station had good coverage of the activity at the Speedway, including on-the-spot coverage of the Gordon Smiley crash. When the news ended, I did some more reading and at about 11:00 took a hot bath and then went to bed.
I had a good night’s sleep, and it was shortly after 6:30 when I awoke to begin the new day. I lounged around for a few minutes, then got cleaned up and ready to eat breakfast at the motel cafeteria.
Breakfast was the same as yesterday — scrambled eggs, toast, sausage, orange juice, and a pitcher of coffee. While waiting for the food, I read a little bit of the Indianapolis newspaper, which was full of articles and pictures of yesterday’s time trials. By the time I left, several more race fans had come in and were reading their newspapers while waiting for their breakfast.
With that important job done, I went back to the room, brushed my teeth, got everything packed and taken to the car, and then went back and checked everything to be sure I hadn’t left anything. The only thing left to do was to turn in the room key at the registration desk, so I did that on my way out.
It was 9:30 when I left and drove out to catch I-65 going south to Indianapolis. The traffic moved well with no tie-ups, and shortly before 10:00 I reached the US 36 turnoff and turned right. Along the highway there were a few farmers doing field work and other persons cutting grass, but for the most part everything was pretty quiet.
I reached the state line about 11:15, and at 11:30 I stopped at the Colonial Kitchen. Unlike most years, it was not Mother’s Day today, so I didn’t have to worry about the large crowd of people converging here for dinner. There were several customers but nothing like the usual crowd.
My selection for a snack was coffee and a toasted cheese sandwich. The snack was refreshing, and after using the restroom and paying the bill, at 12:00 I took to the road again for the last leg of my trip.
The fine weather and light traffic made for an enjoyable trip, and at about 1:15 I arrived at Decatur. A few minutes later I was through the city and onto old US 36. It was 2:30 when I pulled into my driveway and finished my trip.
I gave Dixie and the boys their presents and then unpacked my suitcase. Another safe, enjoyable trip to the Speedway was completed.
During the morning of Saturday, May 29th, I did several little jobs around the house to get it cleaned up. Dixie and the boys had gone to Mohrs’ for the weekend, so I wanted to be sure of coming home to a clean house. I checked and rechecked my list of items to take and then put my equipment in the trunk of the car. I didn’t want any mail left in the mailbox, so I waited for the mailman, who came at about 11:40. I scanned the mail for anything that needed immediate attention, and then at 11:47 left the house for my 28th trip to the race.
It was about noon when I left town on Sangamon Avenue and Camp Butler Road and then caught Old Route 36 at Riverton. As I was leaving the Riverton area, I almost had my first wreck in race trip history. A car coming from I-72 did not stop at the stop sign and just slowed somewhat. I quickly swung to the left to avoid being hit broadside. Fortunately, there was no car coming at me from the other lane of Old Route 36. Otherwise, I may have had a head-on collision, as all my attention was focused on the car coming at me from the right. When I got back to my side of the road, my heart felt as if it was beating through my chest, and it didn’t return to normal until I reached Dawson.
I stayed on Old Route 36 all the way to Decatur, where I arrived about 12:45. Traffic was heavy on Eldorado Street as it usually is when I go through town, and it was about 1:00 when I left there.
The drive from here to Chrisman was real pleasant, as it usually is. The straight road, pleasant weather, and moderate traffic combined to make an enjoyable early afternoon trip for me.
It was between 1:30 and 1:45 when I went through Tuscola, and at 2:16 I arrived at the Colonial Kitchen. Business was light with only a dozen or so customers. I ordered a barbecue sandwich and cup of coffee. It was just a little snack, but it tasted fine and would hold me over until supper. I used the restroom, paid the bill, and at 2:37 started my trip to Danville.
The traffic through the little towns was heavy, and when I reached Danville I took I-74 and went east until I reached exit 220, which went to the motel, where I arrived at 3:18.
This was the first time I stayed at the Ramada Inn, and the parking lot was almost empty. I had mailed in my money for confirmation of my first night’s stay, so all I had to do was register at the front desk. From there, I went to my room and checked to see that everything worked okay. I was particularly interested in seeing if channel 17 came in clear on the TV set so I could see the telecast of the race the following night.
Everything checked out okay, so then I took a tour of the motel facilities. It had many more facilities than the old Danville Inn, where I had stayed for the last six years. There was a wedding reception taking place in the main ballroom. It was a big event with live music, refreshments, and a large, noisy crowd in attendance.
I went back to my room and watched the Chicago Cubs baseball game for a few minutes and then got cleaned up and ready to go out for supper. The road along the east side of the motel went north and then west and became Vorhees Avenue.
My first stop was the Famous Recipe Fried Chicken place. There I bought my Sunday dinner, and then I drove to the Derby filling station and got the gasoline tank filled. With those two important jobs done, I drove a couple blocks to George’s Buffet for supper.
For supper, I had potatoes, lettuce salad, corn, cornbread, chicken livers, rolls, cake, and coffee. Everything tasted real good, and I had second helpings of almost everything. It was one of the best meals I could have eaten anywhere for the price, which was less than five dollars.
The supper gave me a feeling of fullness, and I returned to my motel room feeling as if I couldn’t eat anything for quite some time. Attendance at the motel had increased considerably since my arrival a few hours ago. The swimming pool, restaurant, lounge, and lobby all were well-populated.
When I arrived back at my room, I arranged all my equipment in my tote bag so that it would be ready in the morning, and then read some of the newspapers and magazines I had brought with me. At 10:00, I watched the news on one of the Indianapolis stations. There were highlights from the 500 Festival Parade, the drivers’ meeting, and fans frolicking around the Speedway area in anticipation of the 5:00 opening bomb, plus the all-important weather forecast.
With the latest news fresh in my mind, I did a little more reading and shortly after 11:00 decided it was time to call it a day. I set the alarm for 4:00 and turned off the lights. As usual, the night before the race I had trouble going to sleep, partly because of the excitement of the race and partly because I feared the alarm clock wouldn’t work. I finally dozed off, only to be awakened at 1:00 by a crowd of young, loud partygoers about four rooms from mine. Their merriment lasted about 30 minutes, and luckily I went back to sleep.
Less than three hours later the alarm clock did its job, and at 4:15 I was awake again, this time to stay. It was Sunday, May 30th, 1982 — race day at Indianapolis.
I lay in bed a couple minutes and then got up and washed, shaved, and dressed. A few minutes before 5:00, I left for the motel restaurant to be sure I was there when it opened for business. I was happy to see there wasn’t a long line of customers.
At 5:00, the hostess opened the doors for business and showed the customers to their seats. It was a buffet breakfast, and I had pancakes with syrup, bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, toast, orange juice, and coffee. It was one of the best race-morning breakfasts I ever had, and I ate enough to make sure it would be several hours until I needed to eat again. The price was less than $5, which I thought was real reasonable. I went back to my room to brush my teeth and then checked to see that I had my tote bag. I then left the room and went to the parking lot.
It was 5:38 when I backed out of my parking space and started my trip to the Speedway. I got onto I-74, and a few seconds later I was in Indiana. I turned on the radio and listened to Indianapolis station WIBC with its usual excellent coverage of activity at the Speedway. It gave periodic traffic reports plus reports of what had been happening during the practice and time trial sessions and what might be expected during the race. It was a pleasant way to pass the time away as the miles rolled by.
I saw many out-of-state license plates, and I’m sure almost all of them were going where I was going. It was 7:00 when I reached the I-465 intersection and the traffic slowed to a crawl. The bank parking lot at the Lynhurst intersection was already full, so I kept moving and parked in a private lot about a block away. It was 7:30 to the minute when I turned the key off to finish the trip. I had made it.
I paid the parking attendant my $5 fee and started my walk to the Speedway. There were the usual sights to be seen — people, beer cans, cars, cameras, Styrofoam ice chests, and other items by the dozens. It was about 8:15 when I walked through one of the main entrance turnstiles. Now I had to contend with an even larger crowd of people on my way to my seat. By the time I reached the tunnel entrance to the infield, a person could hardly raise an arm. This condition improved considerably when I arrived on the infield and open space.
The area behind the Tower Terrace area was alive with pre-race activity. The garage area was attracting hundreds of fans as the cars were being pushed from here to the pit area. One of those I was able to see was the pole position Gould Charge car of driver Rick Mears. Owner Roger Penske was alongside as the crew pushed the car to its assigned pit area. I strolled around observing for a while the many sights and sound of pre-race activity, and then I decided to go to my seat, where I arrived about 9:15.
It felt good to get off my feet for a few minutes. There was activity aplenty along the straightaway as the thousands of seats slowly became occupied, as did the pit area with pit crews, race officials, and just interested viewers.
When I felt rested, I started my walk behind the pit area, hoping to get some pictures of race cars and celebrities I might recognize. There were several race cars I recognized but not many celebrities. Pit crews and mechanics were busy with last minute preparations of their cars. It was 9:45 when I started back to my seat, and while doing so announcer Tom Carnegie asked all pit crews to push their cars to their starting position on the race track. This brought a cheer from the spectators as the prerace activities shifted into high gear. The Purdue University band also played the first of the prerace songs, On the Banks of the Wabash.
Between 10:00 and 10:30, the usual parade of 500 Festival Princesses and TV and movie personalities toured the track. Among the celebrities were Indiana native Phil Harris and Merle Olson, star of the TV show Father Murphy and former player with the Los Angeles Rams.
Among the highlights of the pre-race ceremonies was a parade lap driven by the race winners of 30, 25, and 20 years ago in their winning cars. These drivers were, in order, Troy Ruttman, Sam Hanks, and Rodger Ward. In addition, Fred Agabashian drove his pole-winning car from 1952. I thought this was a good idea and showed the change in car design during the last 30 years.
At 10:20 pit crews were allowed to run their engines for five minutes to catch any last-minute malfunctions, and at 10:30 chief steward Tom Binford made a final inspection trip of the track and said it was ready for racing.
The huge crowd rose in unison at 10:40 as the national anthem was sung by Louis Sudler, former singer with the Chicago Civic Opera, and played by the P.U. band.
A minute or so later, the crowd rose again for the invocation, which was given by Rev. James Bonke, pastor of the local Church of the Nativity. This was followed immediately by the playing of Taps by the Armed Forces Color Guard as an act of homage to war dead in keeping with the solemnity of Memorial Day.
Now came the traditional final song of the pre-race ceremonies, Back Home Again in Indiana. As the band finished its work for this year, thousands of multi-colored balloons were released from a tent behind the control tower.
The tension and excitement reached their zenith a minute later when Mary Hulman, Speedway Board Chairman, gave the traditional command, “Gentlemen, start your engines!”
The crowd erupted in cheering and applause as the engines came to life. About a minute later, the pace cars pulled away. The first one was driven by Tony George, and he was accompanied by his mother, Mari George, and Bob Forbes of the Speedway Radio Network. The second car was driven by GM VP Bob Stemple, and the third Chevrolet Camaro Z-28 was driven by 1960 race winner Jim Rathmann with USAC steward Bob Cassaday and ABC-TV commentator Jack Whittaker as his passengers.
The George and Stemple cars returned to the pit area after two trips as Jim Rathmann increased his speed a little bit. The cars weren’t lined up as they should have been, and Malcolm and Barbara McKean, my race companions for the sixth consecutive year, were doubtful there would be a start the next time around unless they lined up real quickly.
With all eyes focused on the fourth turn, the pace car appeared and headed down the pit area. Rick Mears paced the field slowly, and starter Duane Sweeney had the green flag ready to wave the instant Tom Binford gave him the signal.
Suddenly, perhaps 100 yards from the starting line, confusion on a grand scale erupted violently. Second-place starter Kevin Cogan in the Norton Spirit suddenly veered to the right and struck AJ Foyt’s car. It then spun around to the inside wall just behind Rick Mears and directly in front of Mario Andretti. Mario had no alternative but to tee-bone Cogan’s car, which he did on its left side. The collision caused Andretti’s car to spin backwards toward the starting line. Cogan’s car spun again back to the outside wall and stopped facing south.
Further back in the field, rookie Dale Whittington lost control and collided with another rookie, Roger Mears. Whittington’s car stopped nose-first against the inside wall directly in front of me.
The reaction of the crowd was shock and disbelief. Nobody, including me, could believe what was happening. The race hadn’t even started and already four cars had been eliminated.
The red flag was displayed, and the remaining cars returned to their pits. Emergency crews cleaned up the mess and then the cars were lined up again in their starting positions.
The pace car led the field again, and this time the green flag come out for a good start. For the first time in his 25-year career at Indy, AJ Foyt jumped into the lead at the start. At the end of the first lap, he was 1.5 seconds ahead of Mears. The remainder of the first 10 included Gordon Johncock, Tom Sneva, Bill Whittington, Don Whittington, Pancho Carter, rookie Danny Sullivan, rookie Chip Ganassi, and Johnny Rutherford.
Foyt’s first-lap speed was 194.342, almost nine mph faster than the previous record set by Danny Ongais in 1978. AJ continued his fast pace until he made his first pit stop on his 23rd lap. By then, he had made new records for 2, 4, 10, and 20 laps.
The leaders at 20 laps were Foyt, Johncock, Mears, Sneva, Don Whittington, Carter, Ongais, Bill Whittington, Rutherford, and Al Unser.
Meanwhile, Josele Garza and Geoff Brabham had been forced out of the race. Garza completed only one lap before encountering disabling engine trouble. After his outstanding rookie year last year, nothing seemed to go right for Josele this year. He had engine problems all month long and couldn’t qualify until the last day. Now he was finished before he had hardly started.
Like Garza, Brabham had an excellent rookie year last year and finished fifth in the race. He had a fine qualifying speed of 198.906 mph this year, but he ran only 12 race laps before engine trouble eliminated him.
Foyt lost the lead momentarily when he made his first pit stop, but he regained it and led laps 27-35. Mears finally got around AJ and led for six laps until the first yellow flag of the race was shown.
Coming down the front straightaway, Tony Bettenhausen lost control when a half shaft broke. He spun several times and hit the outside wall three times before stopping against the inside wall just south of me. Tony was uninjured, but the car left much debris to be picked up by emergency crews before the green flag could be shown again.
The caution period brought on the second wave of pit stops as Tom Sneva worked his way into the lead, which he maintained through the 59th lap. At 50 laps the standings were Sneva, Johncock, Mears, Foyt, Carter, Ongais, Don Whittington, Jerry Sneva, Bill Whittington, and Rutherford.
In the meantime, Dennis Firestone and Pete Halsmer had been forced from competition. Firestone’s car had a broken ring gear after 37 laps, and Halsmer was done for the day with transmission trouble. With the race a quarter gone, 24 cars were still going.
Sneva led laps 42-59 but Mears had been gaining on him, and on lap 60 Mears passed Tom for the lead. He had led for three laps when the yellow light came on because of trouble in the second turn.
Danny Ongais, running in fifth position, crashed into the outside wall and then slid into the infield. Rookie Chet Fillip slowed to avoid hitting Ongais, and he was hit by Jerry Sneva. Jerry spun into the infield and was out of the race, as were Ongais and Fillip, although Fillip was able to drive his car to the pit area before retiring it. The Ongais car was damaged quite heavily, but Danny got out of the car by himself, which was a much better situation than his bad crash a year ago.
The yellow flag brought about several pit stops, including AJ Foyt. As his car was being serviced, fuel was accidently spilled into the cockpit. The fuel settled into both the car’s and Foyt’s seats. It went through his uniform and irritated his skin. He loosened his seat belt and shoulder harness to get out of it and then stopped again his next time around. His crew threw some cold water into the cockpit and AJ returned to competition.
The green flag came out again as Mears completed his 71st lap. He was in the lead now and stayed there through the 94th lap. At 80 laps, the first five positions were held by Mears, Sneva, Johncock, Carter, and Foyt. AJ was running strong again and in the last few laps had passed Rutherford, Unser, and Hector Rebaque to get up to fifth position.
The caution flag come out again on the 96th lap when George Snider’s car stalled and had to be towed in. George was finished for the day with transmission trouble.
Foyt pitted on his 92nd lap and again had trouble. He had to return on his 94th, 95th, and 96th lap. He and his crew worked feverishly on the car, but it proved hopeless. He was through for the day with transmission problems. He had done an excellent job while his car was running.
As the halfway mark passed under yellow because of the Snider tow-in, the first 10 cars were those of Johncock, Mears, Sneva, Carter, Rebaque, Rutherford, Unser, Bobby Rahal (a rookie), Sullivan, and Bill Whittington.
In the meantime, Tom Bigelow, starting in his ninth consecutive race, was done for the day with engine trouble and was awarded 18th place.
The green flag reappeared on the 103rd lap. Johncock held the lead until the 109th lap when Mears took it from him. Gordon started losing time and in a few laps was trailing Sneva and Carter as Mears increased his first place position.
As 120 laps, 300 miles, were recorded, the first 10 positions were held by Mears, Sneva, Johncock, Carter, Rebaque, Rutherford, Unser, Rahal, Sullivan, and Don Whittington. Back in the pit area, Mike Chandler, driving a Dan Gurney Eagle, was out of the race after 104 laps with gear box failure. He was the fastest qualifier on the third day of time trials with an excellent 198.042 mph average.
At the 130-lap mark, Mears had a 17-second lead over Sneva with Carter and Johncock in third and fourth place. As Rick finished his 131st lap, the yellow flag came out again. Bill Whittington’s car had stalled on the track and he was done for the day with 121 laps.
The green flag came out again, but only for a minute. Johnny Parsons spun in the second turn and then limped toward the third turn with a broken half shaft. He had one pit stop of almost 37 minutes and was awarded 20th finish position.
The Parsons caution period ended as starter Duane Sweeney waved his green flag and Mears completed his 142nd lap. Before Rick got to the line, however, Sneva took off like a shot and beat him there. Tom averaged about 197 mph and led for the next 12 laps.
At 150 laps, the first 10 cars were those of Sneva, Mears, Carter, Johncock, Unser, Rutherford, Rahal, Rebaque, Sullivan, and Don Whittington. Two more drivers, both rookies, were out of the race. Chip Ganassi, fastest rookie qualifier and the 11th place starter, was done after 147 laps with engine failure. Danny Sullivan slid in the fourth turn, hit the outside wall, and then spun down into the infield. The car sustained some damage, but Danny was okay.
Hector Rebaque, who had been in fifth position for several laps, was forced out after 150 laps with clutch failure and a pit fire. He had stalled his engine on his last three pit stops, but this time it wouldn’t restart. Although he had been running well, he was docked two laps for passing under the yellow flag.
At 160 laps, or four-fifths of the way, the first 10 drivers were Johncock, Mears, Sneva, Carter, Unser, Rutherford, Rahal, Whittington, Hickman, and Johnson. Sneva had dropped to third place because of a 54-second pit stop on his 156th lap caused by a malfunctioning refueling mechanism.
Gary Bettenhausen was the next name to be added to the attrition list when his Kraco Special quit after 158 laps with engine failure. He was the fastest last day qualifier with a 195.673 mph average.
Shortly after Gary was forced out, Bobby Rahal’s race ended after 174 laps with engine failure. Bobby had been in the top 10 positions for several laps, but his hopes of being in the final top 10 were gone now.
As the 180th lap went by and the drivers started making their final pit stops, the excitement and apprehension started increasing. On his 183rd lap, Mears came speeding through the pit area on his way to his pit stop. At the same time, Herm Johnson was slowing down to make his pit stop. In the ensuing confusion Rick slammed on his brakes, and his left front spoiler hit Herm’s right rear tire. Apparently neither car was damaged as they both continued on their way. This happened in full view of McKeans and me, just slightly to our left. Considering what was to happen in the remaining time, it may have cost Mears the victory. His pit stop was 18 seconds, his longest of the day.
Three laps later, Johncock came in for his final pit stop, and he too encountered a slow-moving car. The slow car was that of Jim Hickman, but Gordon managed to miss him by passing him on the inside. Gordie’s pit crew did a super job and got him away in 13 seconds.
As the two front leaders completed their 188th lap, Johncock was 11 seconds ahead of Mears. The most exciting part of the race was beginning to unfold.
With 10 laps to go, Johncock’s lead over Mears was 10.66 seconds with Sneva and Carter several seconds behind. At 192 laps, Rick had cut the lead to 7.9 seconds and was running 197 mph. Two laps later, the distance was only six seconds.
The entire Speedway was in bedlam. Was Johncock going to lose it after having been in front since the 160th lap? I didn’t want him to, but I was getting more and more doubtful. Mears was coming on fast.
Mears was going faster than Johncock, and at 195 laps he had cut Gordon’s lead to 4.6 seconds with a 199 mph lap. On the next lap, the gap was only three seconds.
If this wasn’t enough excitement, Sneva came down the straightaway with white smoke coming from the rear of his car. He was black-flagged in, ending his hopes of finishing third.
At 197 laps, the distance between the two front runners was only two seconds, and a lap later it was three-quarters of a second.
As they came down for the white flag, they were side-by-side with Gordon a third of a second ahead. It was impossible to know who would lead the next lap, the most important one of the race.
Johncock, on the outside, got through the first turn first but only by a small fraction of a second. On they went through turn two, down the backstretch, and through the north chute. Then came the fourth and last turn. Could Mears pull it out? The tumultuous crowd was about to find out.
Johncock was still in front. Mears tried to pass on the outside, couldn’t do it, and then tried the inside. Johncock moved slightly to the inside, just enough to stop Mears. When they reached the start-finish line, Gordon had about a two car length lead, which amounts to a small fraction of a second in time.
Gordon had won the race and the terrific duel was over, but the reaction from the crowd wasn’t. As the two stars continued around the track, they were given a standing, roaring ovation. As they pulled off the track and came through the pit area for the last time this year, the cheering increased in volume. It had been an incredible finish, heretofore only a dream for most fans, but now that dream had come true.
Meanwhile, back on the race track, Duane Sweeney was waving the race to a stop for the remaining cars, of which there were only six — Pancho Carter, Al Unser, Don Whittington, Jim Hickman, Herm Johnson, and Howdy Holmes. In the excitement of the Johncock-Mears battle, Johnny Rutherford had been forced out of the race with a broken water line.
While Johncock and his crew enjoyed a wild celebration in Victory Lane, Mears sat in his car for several minutes, accepting defeat graciously. He made no excuses about what he might have done differently to win.
As the excitement subsided, McKeans and I got out our food and had a belated dinner. It tasted real good after having not eaten since 5:30 at the motel. Fifth place finisher Al Unser’s pit was directly in front of us, and they relaxed with a quiet celebration before pushing the car to the garage area.
While we were eating our dinner, Gordon Johncock talked to the news media while sitting in the pace car parked at the start-finish line. Tom Carnegie announced that the margin of victory was 0.16 seconds, certainly the closest in race history.
When we finished eating, McKeans got their equipment put away and decided enough people had left to make their departure a little easier, so we said goodbye and said we would see each other a week from today at church.
A few minutes later, I did likewise. This is always a sad time for me as I took my last look up and down the straightaway, knowing it would be another year before I saw this magnificent place again. There was a large crowd of people still inside the Speedway grounds, but I encountered no delays in walking and was soon behind the grandstands and made one final use of the restroom before walking through the turnstiles.
The traffic on Crawfordsville Road was its usual bumper-to-bumper status, with the cars’ occupants hot, tired, sweaty, and in many cases intoxicated. This condition always makes me happy to be walking instead of driving. In addition to being a faster means of transportation, it is easier on a person’s nerves.
It was a long walk, but at 4:30 I arrived at my car. Mine was the last car left, which meant I would have no trouble getting onto the highway. I put my equipment in the car, aired out the car, and then took my shoes off and lay on the grass for a couple minutes.
That little rest revived me somewhat, and at 4:40 I started the engine and drove a few seconds to the stop sign and was able to get onto the highway with almost no waiting. My return trip had started.
The traffic moved in spurts for a few minutes, but it wasn’t long until I arrived at the I-465 interchange. Indiana State policemen were directing the traffic, and a few minutes later I was on I-74 and out of the bumper-to-bumper traffic.
I listened to the 5:00 news, part of which was a recap of the race. It featured Paul Page broadcasting the last two laps of the race. He became so excited that I thought he would lose his voice, but he made it. I listened to various music programs to pass the time. The traffic was fairly heavy, and I was quite sure many of them were returning from the race.
It was shortly after 6:00 when I crossed the state line and turned off for the motel. Instead of stopping, I went on to the restaurant where I had eaten supper Saturday night. It was 6:15 when I stopped in the parking lot to end my trip.
My fried chicken dinner after the race tasted good, but I was still ready for a full meal. When I got through the serving line I had potatoes, macaroni salad, livers, salad, peas, cornbread, bean soup, rolls, cake, and Pepsi-Cola. I went back for a few refills and everything tasted fine.
It was about 7:15 when I arrived at the motel. I took off my shoes, did some unpacking, and rested on my soft bed for a few minutes.
A couple of minutes before 8:00, I turned on the TV set to Channel 17 for ABC-TV’s same-day telecast of the race. It was a three-hour program, and I enjoyed scenes of the race I couldn’t see from my seat. I was particularly interested in seeing the pre-race crash and the Johncock-Mears battle. I enjoyed watching the program, but I was annoyed at the seemingly endless amount of advertising.
When the program ended at 11:00, I washed my face and hands and decided to retire for the night. It had been a long day since 4:15 in the morning but a most memorable one.
Unlike the night before, I did not have to worry about the alarm clock not working and getting a late start in the morning. I slept without interruption, and when I awakened at about 6:30 I felt refreshed and ready to rise.
I did some reading, watched some early morning television, and then took a good, warm bath. I had considered eating breakfast in the motel restaurant but it was quite busy, and since I would be stopping at the Colonial Kitchen anyway I would just wait and have breakfast there.
I went back to my room, did my packing, double-checked to be sure I hadn’t left anything, and then left. It was 9:40 when I left my parking space and drove to the motel entrance. It was a busy place. The restaurant was still doing a good business, and there were many people checking in and out. I handed the attendant my key, he checked to see I was paid up, and then I was on my way to the Colonial Kitchen.
As usual, there was almost no traffic on the highway since it was a holiday morning. I listened to Indianapolis station WIBC, and unlike last year I didn’t receive the shock of hearing the winner had the victory taken from him. It was about 10:10 when I arrived at the Route 36 intersection and stopped for breakfast.
There were several customers present, most of whom were local farmers having their morning coffee break. My breakfast was eggs, toast, hash brown potatoes, orange juice, and coffee. Both the food and service were good, and I felt better when I left. I used the restroom, paid the bill, and at 10:45 drove onto the highway and headed for Springfield.
There were a few people cutting their grass, but other than that, there wasn’t much activity to see until I reached Decatur, where the annual Memorial Day boat races were taking place, and this had attracted a large crowd.
It was about 12:15 when I left the city and took the old Route 36 turnoff, and at 1:15 I pulled onto my driveway at home to end my 28th trip to the big race. I brought in my equipment and put everything where it belonged. Dixie and the boys had gone to Missouri for the three-day weekend and didn’t get home until later in the afternoon. Another safe and enjoyable trip was over for another year.
On Monday morning, the official standings were posted. They showed Gordon Johncock as the winner with his time being 3:05:09 and his speed 162.029 mph. Rick Mears was second with a speed of 162.026, only 0.003 mph slower and 0.16 seconds behind Johncock.
In third place was Pancho Carter in the Alex Foods Special. This was Pancho’s best finish in his nine years at Indy. He ran in the first 10 positions all day and was not lower than fourth from the 70th lap to the finish.
Finishing fourth was Tom Sneva in the Texaco Star with George Bignotti as his chief mechanic. A three-time second-place finisher, Tom came close again to taking the big prize, but a malfunctioning tank valve on his sixth pit stop and then a blown piston with only three laps to go prevented him from making it a three-way battle for the top honors. Of all drivers who haven’t won, Tom is, in my opinion, the most deserving to win.
Finishing fifth was three-time winner Al Unser in the Longhorn Racing Special. This was a disappointing year for Al. He started in 16th position and was never a serious contender for the lead, although he ran in the top 10 positions most of the way.
Don Whittington finished sixth for the best of his three finishes. He and his brother Bill both qualified for their third race this year, and Speedway history was made this year when their brother, Dale, qualified for his first 500. It was the first time three brothers qualified for the race in the same year. Unfortunately, Dale was involved in the pre-race crash with Roger Mears and didn’t get to start the race.
This year’s Rookie of the Year was seventh-place finisher Jim Hickman in the Stroh’s March. He drove a consistent although not spectacular race and finished 189 laps when the checkered flag was shown. While practicing for a race at Milwaukee later in the season, Jim crashed into the wall and died from the resulting head injuries.
Eighth-place honors went to a famous name, Johnny Rutherford. This was the third year for Johnny in Jim Hall’s Chaparral, but the car was not the standout sensation it was the two previous years. There was trouble with the car all month long, and Johnny’s qualifying speed of 197.066 mph was good for only 12th starting position.
The only rookie beside’s Jim Hickman to finish in the first 10 was ninth-place finisher Herm Johnson in the Menard Cashway Lumber machine. Herm will probably be best remembered as the driver Rick Mears bumped into in the pit area while both were making their last pit stops. Herm started 14th with a 195.929 mph average and completed 186 laps.
Completing the first 10 finishers was Howdy Holmes in the Domino’s Pizza car. Howdy was Rookie of the Year in 1979 when he finished seventh, but he failed to qualify for the last two years. This year he had the second slowest qualifying speed at 194.468 mph, but he was still running at the finish and completed 186 laps.
It was certainly a relief not to have a prolonged controversy over the winner this year as contrasted with last year, particularly with the difference between first and second place being less than one second.
Another positive feature this year was the unusually good weather. For only the second time in the last seven years, there was no rain at all on the first day of time trials. There was almost no rain of any significance all month, although it appeared for a while that it might rain on race day, but about 9:00 the sun broke through the clouds and stayed out the rest of the day.
For the 10th consecutive year, Mark Donohue’s 1972 winning speed of 162.962 mph was not broken. This is quite a feat because up to then it had been broken almost every year from the previous year.
The prize money this year was a record $2,067,475, which was $462,100 more than last year’s record of $1,605,375. Gordon Johncock’s first place share was $290,609.10, which was less than the $318,819 Johnny Rutherford won in 1980.
Johncock’s victory helped erase some of the unpleasant memories of his first victory in 1973, which many people think was the most horrible in Speedway history. His victory was blemished by death, rain, and destruction, and the race was called after 133 laps. Now he can say he earned it all the way.
1982 was certainly a memorable year for the 500 Mile Race. It provided excitement and thrills from opening day to the victory banquet. I hope this will be true for many years to come. It will truly help the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race live up to its title — The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
Pace Car – Chevrolet Camaro
500 Festival Queen – Julie Smith