Among many stories going into the 1982 month of May was the return of A. J. Foyt to the cockpit. In July 1981, Foyt had been involved in a serious crash at the Michigan 500, suffering a compound fracture to his right arm, and a puncture wound to his leg. Foyt was sidelined for several months for recovery.
The two key fixtures from the controversial 1981 race took different paths for 1982. Bobby Unser took a sabbatical from racing, and would ultimately retire from the cockpit. Mario Andretti on the other hand, was back with Patrick Racing, this time running a full season in the CART series, and scaled back his participation in Formula One. This would be the first time in several years that Andretti would be spending the entire month in Indianapolis, and not traveling back and forth to Europe for his Formula One commitments.
One major rule change regarding time trials was implemented for 1982. All cars would be allowed only two warm up laps for qualifying, down from three, which had been the rule since 1946.
On pole day, Saturday May 15, Kevin Cogan, driving for Penske Racing set a new one-lap track record of 204.638 mph (329.333 km/h), and a record four-lap average of 204.082 mph (328.438 km/h). A few minutes later, he was beaten by his Penske teammate Rick Mears. Mears secured the pole position with a four-lap average of 207.004 mph (333.141 km/h).
About an hour later, the time trials were marred by the horrific fatal accident of Gordon Smiley. At 12:15 p.m., Smiley left the pits to start his qualifying run. On his second (of two) warm up laps, he approached turn three. The back-end of the #35 Intermedics March 81C-Cosworth became loose, and Smiley overcorrected. The front wheels suddenly gained traction, the car turned and crashed head-on into the concrete wall at about 200 mph (320 km/h). The impact of the March against the wall was so hard and so violent, that the fuel tank exploded with a large fireflash, the car broke into three large sections, and the rest disintegrated into hundreds of pieces. Most of the shattered car went airborne for at least 50 feet (15 m), littering the track with debris. Smiley's exposed body tumbled with the wreck hundreds of feet through the short-chute connecting turns three and four. Pieces of the car were strew all over the track. Smiley was killed instantly from the massive trauma inflicted by the impact.
According to CART medical official Steve Olvey, who was working the event, nearly every bone in Smiley's body had been shattered. His helmet was pulled from his head during the impact, and the top of his skull was scalped by the debris fence and asphalt. His death was the first at Indy since 1973, and to date, the last during a qualification attempt.
Most of Smiley's racing experience had amounted to road racing, something he had done in England for a number of years. Olvey notes in his biography that a number of drivers had tried to advise Smiley that his road-racing approach to driving around the Speedway was all wrong for oval racing in a ground-effects car.
About 33 minutes after the wreck; at precisely 12:48 PM, track announcer Tom Carnegie learned of Smiley's fate for the first time. He immediately informed the fans watching from the grandstands: "Ladies and gentlemen... it is with our deepest regrets that we announce the passing of Gordon Smiley."
The track remained closed for over two hours after the crash. The catch fencing needed repair, debris littered the track, and a patch of asphalt was required to repair a gash in the racing surface. After over two hours, a couple cars were dispatched by the officials to test the pavement, and they deemed it suitable for qualifying to resume. Several cars went out over the next two hours, but none challenged the speed records set earlier in the morning. In a solemn mood, qualifying came to a halt around 4:55 p.m., with just over an hour left in the session.
At the close of pole day, the field was filled to 20 cars.
After the tragic circumstances of the previous day, few drivers took to the track on Sunday May 16. A very uneventful day saw only a handful of cars even take practice laps. Only a few cars made qualifying attempts and only two were run to completion. Rain ended the session a few minutes early, and the field was filled to 22 cars.
The second week of practice saw increased track activity. The third day of time trials was scheduled for Saturday May 22. A busy day of qualifying saw the field filled to 31 cars. Mike Chandler was fastest of the day at 198.042 mph (318.718 km/h).
On Sunday May 23, the field was left with two empty positions at the start of the day. Several drivers intended to make attempts but few actually took to the track. Josele Garza and Pete Halsmer went out and quickly filled the field. Only two cars were bumped all day, and despite the track being open until 6 p.m., no drivers went out after 4:03 p.m. With two hours left in the day, Desiré Wilson announced she would not make an attempt, and thus would not have a chance to become the second female to qualify at Indy.
On race day, Kevin Cogan started from the middle of the front row, next to pole-sitter Mears, and A.J. Foyt. As the field approached the start/finish line to start the race, Cogan suddenly swerved right, touching and bouncing off of A.J. Foyt's car. He then slid directly into the path of, and collected, Mario Andretti. Deeper in the field, the cars started to check-up. A fast-moving Dale Whittington nearly collected Geoff Brabham, lost control, spun across the track and ran into the back of Roger Mears. Both cars were eliminated. Bobby Rahal also reported getting hit from behind, but was undamaged. The green flag had not come out, and the race was immediately red flagged.
Cogan's shocking accident took out four cars, including himself. Foyt's team was able to make repairs, and pushed his car out for the restart attempt. Meanwhile, Andretti and Foyt were furious and outspoken about their displeasure with Cogan. Andretti shunned Cogan's attempts to explain himself with a light shove.
Andretti on live radio, which was rebroadcast that night on the ABC broadcast, made the comment:
Back in the garage area, Andretti complained about Cogan's abilities, claiming that Cogan was "looking for trouble," that he "couldn't handle the responsibilities of the front row," and that the Penske car he was driving was "too good for him."
The commonly outspoken Foyt also chimed in during comments to ABC-TV's Chris Economaki with:
After he had cooled off, Foyt brushed it off a little saying "the guy pulled a stupid trick" and then back in the garage area of the crash and of Cogan that:
Gordon Johncock, Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser later placed some blame of the incident on the polesitter Rick Mears, for bringing the field down at such a slow pace. Director of competition Roger McCluskey mentioned an overwhelming disdain from the drivers about the poor pace set at the start. Mears contended that his intentions were to keep the same pace, rather than radically speed up and slow down. In a 2009 interview, Gordon Johncock pointed out that Andretti had jumped the start, and could have avoided the spinning car of Cogan had he been lined up properly in the second row.
Cogan quickly fell out of favor following the humiliation stemming from the accident. It was followed by a noticeable "blacklisting" by fans and press. Cogan nearly had the dubious distinction of taking out two of the most famous American auto racing legends and the two most successful IndyCar drivers of all time (Foyt and Andretti) on the first lap, in one move, in the biggest race of the season. The incident also further rehashed a standing feud between Penske Racing and Patrick Racing. A year earlier, Penske and Patrick had been the key fixtures in the controversial 1981 race.
Cogan did not manage to win a race in 1982, and was possibly fired by Roger Penske because of it.
The accident was never explained by the Penske team. Derrick Walker the team manager at the time, claimed that they found "no cause" for the accident. However, several experts had differing opinions. Rodger Ward, working for the IMS Radio Network immediately believed the rear brakes locked up. It was a common practice for drivers in the turbocharged era to "ride the brakes" during warm up laps in order to engage the turbocharger. Others theorized it may have happened due to a broken CV joint or halfshaft. Fellow drivers such as Johnny Rutherford and Gordon Johncock suggested that due to the slow start, Cogan may have been in first gear, and when he accelerated, the back end simply car came around. Some feel that Sam Posey on ABC-TV inadvertently may have added to the controversy when he proclaimed "absolutely no idea" to the question of how it could have happened, and saying "it was as if he turned the wheel intentionally." The comments led many to conclude that the accident may have been entirely of Cogan's doing. As soon as he climbed from the car, Cogan was observed looking at the rear end axle, suggesting that he thought something broke, which Cogan believes was the problem.
One year later, in an autobiography detailing his career up to that point, Foyt gave a somewhat more analytical account of what occurred than he had before, while still assigning Cogan nearly all of the responsibility. According to Foyt, the slow straightaway pace previously noted by Unser and Rutherford had been beneath the power-amplification threshold of the turbocharger, which provides a progressively higher energy boost to the engine the higher the engine's RPM. Due to the pace, competitors had to run in lower gears much later than they normally did when approaching the start. Foyt in turn maintained that Cogan had intended to jump both Foyt and Mears into the first turn through the 'stupid trick' of using lower gears, via the significantly faster acceleration they provided compared to higher gears. When Mears' insufficient pace precluded this strategy, Foyt accused Cogan of simply 'jump[ing] on it' early, even before the green flag had fully come out, whereby the resulting explosive power increase caused the car to veer sideways and '[get] away from him'. Any broken half shaft, Foyt finally stated, was merely due to the subsequently unavoidable collision with Andretti.
Years later Donald Davidson, the historian for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, mentioned that team driver, and the more experienced, Rick Mears had a nearly identical accident during private testing at Michigan. In 2009, Roger Penske seemed to brush off ideas, stating "Cogan said something broke, I don't know whether it did or didn't."
According to the rules, the cars are required to maintain a minimum fuel economy of 1.8 miles per gallon. To complete two parade laps, one pace lap, and the 200 laps for the race, each car is allotted 280 US gallons (1,100 L) of methanol fuel in their pitside tank. Due to the aborted start, officials took the time to replenish approximately 5.6 US gallons (21 L) of fuel to each team's pitside tank.
Overall, the delay stemming from the Cogan accident lasted over 45 minutes. Only 29 cars lined up for the second start attempt.
A. J. Foyt took the lead at the start. It was the first time in his 25-year Indy career that he led the first lap of the race. After the hasty repairs from the Cogan incident, Foyt's car was precariously unproven, yet Foyt made no effort to "feel his car out" before charging into the lead. Meanwhile, popular second-year driver Josele Garza barely completed the first lap, and dropped out with an oil leak.
Rick Mears soon established himself as the fastest car in the field, and found the lead in the first half.
A. J. Foyt's day ended just short of the midway point. A failed transmission linkage prevented him from pulling out of the pits. Foyt famously climbed from the cockpit, grabbed a hammer and a screwdriver, and started pounding away at the rear mechanics of the car. His attempts were futile, and the car was wheeled back to the garage area. Foyt revealed, during an interview immediately thereafter, that the Cogan crash had damaged the car's toe in alignment, and that it had been handling poorly all race up to that point. The 1982 race would be the final Indy 500 Foyt would lead during his driving career.
With less than 20 laps to go, Gordon Johncock led Rick Mears. Most of the balance of the field was eliminated, or running several laps behind. The two cars were running right together and had developed into a late-race duel, with Mears handling better in the turns but Johncock able to find enough speed at the end of the straightaway to keep Mears from passing. Both drivers needed to make one final pit stop to make it to the finish.
With 18 laps to go Mears ducked into the pits. The car of Herm Johnson slowed in front, and Mears bumped into his back wheel. The incident cost Mears several seconds. In his pit box, Mears Penske crew proceeded to fill his car full with 40 US gallons (150 L) of fuel, more than enough needed to make it to the finish. No tires were changed, and no repairs were necessary from hitting Johnson's car.
Two laps later, Johncock dove into the pits. He precariously diced around Jim Hickman and slid into his pit box. The Patrick Racing crew conducted a timed pit stop. The team calculated the amount of fuel needed to make it to the finish. When enough fuel had flowed into the car, a pit crew member tapped the fuel man on the back with a stick, and he disengaged. Johncock pulled away, with a pit stop many seconds quicker than Mears'.
Back on the track, Johncock held a lead of more than eleven seconds. It seemed he was cruising to his second Indy victory. However, his car's handling was starting to suffer. The light fuel load he took on was exacerbating a pushing condition.
Meanwhile, Mears' fully fueled car was heavier, and handling much better. He started closing in, more than 1 second per lap. Johncock started driving very low in the turns, trying to alleviate the pushing condition. It became clear in the waning laps that Mears was dramatically closing in on the lead. Such a circumstance was entirely unprecedented in Indy 500 history, with the exception of the 1937 race. With only six other cars left running, traffic was not a factor.
Mears closed to under 3 seconds with three laps to go. With two laps to go, the margin was less than 1 second. With one lap to go, Mears pulled alongside on the mainstretch. The cars took the white flag side by side but Johncock refused to give up the lead. He "chop-blocked" Mears in the first turn and stayed ahead. Mears lost considerable momentum but began to reel Johncock back in down the backstretch. In turn three, Johncock drove so low that he hit a bump on the inside of the track and nearly crashed. As they exited turn four, Mears tried to slingshot pass Johncock for the win. Johncock held off the challenge and won by 0.16 seconds, the closest-ever in Indy 500 history to date. Mears lost by just over one car length. It would stand as the closest finish in race history for ten years.
In Victory Lane, Johncock admitted to having been worried about his car's deteriorating handling as he watched Mears get larger and larger in his mirror. He said that he had had no intention of backing off in turn one on the last lap and was prepared to go through the corner side by side if necessary. Mears, when interviewed by Chris Economaki after the race, seemed less disappointed about finishing second than thrilled to have been a part of the most dramatic finish in Indy history. He conceded that Johncock's block in turn one was not a dirty move and admitted that "it was [Johncock's] corner." In interviews in later years Mears said that he wouldn't change the result of the race even if he could, although he jokingly claimed to have watched the tape over and over again "to see if this time I get by Gordy."
Note: Following the Kevin Cogan crash on the pace lap, the cars of Cogan, Mario Andretti, Roger Mears, and Dale Whittington were eliminated. When the field was lined up for a second attempt to start the race, none of the four cars joined the field. Holes were left in the grid as those four spots were left vacant, with the first two rows conspicuously holding only two cars each, and only 29 cars took the green flag.
Yellow indicates the driver was eliminated during the Cogan crash, and did not start the race
Green indicates the driver was involved in the Cogan crash, but managed to start the race
Chip Mead (R) (#49) - First alternate
Bill Alsup (#2) - Second alternate
The 1982 Indianapolis 500 is often considered one of the greatest editions of the race by historians, media, and fans. Race winner Gordon Johncock, who won the tragic 1973 race, was able to complement his record by winning one of the most exciting races. The win was bittersweet, however, for Johncock. The day after the race, Johncock's mother Frances died after a lengthy illness. Johncock learned of her death at the 500 Victory Banquet Monday night.
Kevin Cogan, who was a key fixture in the opening lap accident, was fired at the end of the season. Mario Andretti's misfortune, strengthened the perceived Andretti curse at Indy.
Despite the historic battle at the finish, and the shocking crash at the start, the horrific fatal crash of Gordon Smiley still marred the month. Smiley's crash came just one week after the fatal crash of Gilles Villeneuve at the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. About two months later, Jim Hickman was killed at Milwaukee. In just three months, three high-profile drivers were killed in auto racing accidents.
The race was carried live on the IMS Radio Network. Paul Page served as anchor for the sixth year. Lou Palmer reported from victory lane. Several assignments were shifted, and a new member was added, Sally Larvick, who served as a roving reporter, interviewing celebrities and other dignitaries. At the start of the race, roving reporter Bob Forbes rode in one of the pace cars on the parade lap. Howdy Bell moved to the backstretch. Doug Zink moved from turn three to turn two, and Larry Henry took over the third turn position.
For 1982, the famous commercial out cue of the network was changed to "Now stayed turned for the Greatest Spectacle in Sports."
The broadcast crew was critically acclaimed for their collective call of the closing laps of the 1982 race.
The race was carried in the United States on ABC Sports on a same-day tape delay basis. After controversy the previous year, Jackie Stewart was moved from the booth to a new host position in "ABC Race Central." Sam Posey returned to the booth as driver expert, and Jack Whitaker joined the crew for in-depth features and commentary. Whitaker rode along and reported live from inside the pace car at the start of the race. Clyde Lee, anchorman for WRTV (ABC's affiliate in Indianapolis), was also on hand to report on drivers who happened to drop out of the race, as well as from the infield hospital.
Producer Mike Pearl would receive a Sports Emmy award for his efforts in the telecast, which won three total.
Pole day time trials on ABC featured Al Michaels, Jackie Stewart, and Sam Posey.
The broadcast has re-aired numerous times on ESPN Classic since April 2000. In May 2004, the broadcast was featured on ESPN Classic's "Big Ticket" series, featuring interview with Gordon Johncock and Rick Mears, hosted by Gary Miller.