Once a driver reaches center stage at the Indianapolis 500, anything he does there is magnified. Those who win are recognized forever as Indianapolis 500 champions. It doesn’t matter what else--if anything--a driver accomplishes, he will always be the 500 champ.
Even those who don’t win can be forever linked to the 500. Often it is the very fact that they didn’t win that makes them a part of racing lore.
Eddie Sachs was leading in 1961 when he pitted two laps from the finish for tires. A. J. Foyt won by eight seconds.
In 1969, Lloyd Ruby was leading when, in his haste, he pulled away from his pit before his refueling hose was out of the tank. It ripped the tank and Ruby was out.
Jerry Grant, in 1972, appeared to be the winner when he made his final pit stop--in the wrong pit. When he took fuel from teammate Bobby Unser’s refueling tank, Grant was penalized back to 12th place.
Rex Mays was running second in 1940, about to pass Wilbur Shaw, when rain began to fall 50 laps from the finish. The race continued for the full 200 laps, but the last 48 were run under a yellow flag which means no passing.
None of them ever won the Indianapolis 500.
Kevin Cogan had a similar chance last year. But like Sachs, Ruby, Grant and Mays, he didn’t win.
Six laps from the end, Cogan was cruising along in the lead, ready to join motor racing’s elite as the Indianapolis 500 winner.
Then something completely beyond his control occurred. Arie Luyendyk, running 11th, all by himself, cut a tire coming off the fourth turn, spun and hit the wall near the pit entrance. That brought out the yellow flag--allowing Bobby Rahal and Rick Mears to close up behind Cogan.
Cogan would not get the luxury of winning under the yellow flag, though, as Shaw had done. There were still two laps remaining when Luyendyk’s car was hauled away and the debris cleaned.
It was just enough to allow Rahal’s faster accelerating car to sweep past Cogan and deny the handsome Palos Verdes driver his 500 win. Cogan finished second, as Sachs and Mays had.
Will he get a second chance?
Cogan, who will be 31 on Tuesday, thinks so.
“They’re going to have to beat me,” he said confidently the other day. “I’m a more knowledgeable driver, I’m more aggressive, I know how to win and I think the team is stronger. We have a new engineer in Lee Dykstra and Emmo (teammate Emerson Fittipaldi) and I are convinced the new Chevy Ilmor engine is superior to the old Cosworths.”
Last week, Cogan returned to Indianapolis with the ’87 March and the Chevy engine and ran 214.8 m.p.h. on a cold day not conducive to top speeds.
“That’s faster than we did last May before the race,” he said enthusiastically. “I’m looking forward to this season more than any one before. I can’t wait to get to Long Beach.”
The Indy car season will start Friday with practice and qualifying for Sunday’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, a 158-mile race on a 1.67-mile circuit that winds around the Long Beach Convention Center and through the Hyatt Regency garage.
Long Beach has been no kinder to Cogan than Indianapolis.
“Long Beach has frustrated me,” he said. “I grew up in Redondo Beach and live in Rancho Palos Verdes, so I consider Long Beach my home track. Next to Indy, Long Beach is the one race I want to win, but I’ve never had much luck there.”
In 1984, Cogan ran only three laps before a drive shaft broke. The next year he lasted 26 laps before being involved in an accident. Last year he made it to the 32nd lap before his engine expired.
“Every year I’ve gone a little farther,” he said with a wry smile. “This year I’d like to go all 95 (laps) and finish in front.
“Last year was really depressing. I’d just won at Phoenix and I set both the cars up at Riverside for the Long Beach race. Fittipaldi was third fastest and I expected to do even better but I spent all my time sitting in the pits. We blew two engines in practice and another one in the race.”
Despite not finishing at Long Beach, Cogan was leading the PPG/Cart standings after Indianapolis when a series of engine-related problems began to plague the Patrick team. Cogan failed to finish four races in a row and Fittipaldi had seven DNFs in one stretch of eight races.
“Mentally, when you’re not finishing, it gives the team a feeling of wondering when, or if, things are going to turn around,” Cogan said. “It can really get depressing. That’s why I’m so excited about the Chevy Ilmor. We didn’t have a strong motor program last year, but this year things should be different.
“After we get the engines from England, Franz Weis puts them together. He did all of Rahal’s engines last year and this year he’s doing ours, Rahal’s and Mario’s (Mario Andretti). That is a major point of improvement for our team.”
The Ilmor engines are built in Brixworth, England, as the result of a developmental program by Chevrolet and Roger Penske racing teams. They were first used by Penske last year and Mears finished third with one of the new V-8 engines in the final race at Miami’s Tamiami Park.
Five drivers will have Chevy power this season--Cogan and Fittipaldi in Patrick Marches, Mears and Danny Sullivan in Penske PC-16s and Andretti in a Newman-Haas Lola.
“You never know until you start racing, but I have a feeling that we could luck into something good,” Cogan said. “The Chevy is faster, but it’s much easier to drive.
“The difference is that when I’m using the Chevy, I control it . When I have the Cosworth, it controls me . When you hit (accelerate) the Cosworth, it kicks you in the (rear). When you hit the Chevy, it’s so smooth you feel like you don’t have full power. You don’t realize your speed until you come in and check with the timers.”
Surprisingly, Cogan is more philosophical over the stunning loss in last year’s 500 than he is over the starting line incident five years ago involving himself, Foyt and Andretti. Cogan was in the middle of the front row as the field approached the starting line when his car suddenly lurched to the right, hitting Foyt, and then spun back in front of the accelerating Andretti.
The accident knocked Andretti and Cogan out of the race and brought a torrent of abuse from Andretti and Foyt down around Cogan, who was driving for Penske at the time. It was later discovered that a suspension part broke in Cogan’s car, but no one came to the young driver’s defense at the time.
“That incident cost me four years in my career,” Cogan said bitterly. “To this day, I can’t explain in terms that could be understood exactly how I feel. I was in shock, and I guess I still am, at how Penske handled it, and how the media jumped all over me as if I’d never driven a race car before.
“It’s funny. Just the year before, I’d read about what a great prospect I was. I finished fourth in my first Indy 500 and was fourth and second in the first two Indy car races I ever drove. I was third at Phoenix in the last race before the accident at Indy. Then I made the front row at Indy.
“Everything nice that had been written or said about me was forgotten when Mario started talking about how I shouldn’t have been in the car, that it was too fast for me. Writers started calling me a rookie and indicated that I’d never been to Indy before, when I’d finished fourth the year before. They molded their stories to fit their own ideas, and Mario’s. And Penske didn’t speak up to give me any support.
“I’d been racing for seven years, but no one wanted to write about that. They altered the facts to fit the story. It took me four years to recover from that. The whole incident created a feeling that Kevin Cogan didn’t have what it takes to be a winner. It was as if I’d taken a four-year step backward.”
Cogan credits Maurice Kraines, owner of the Kraco team for whom he drove in 1985, and Pat Patrick, his current car owner, for the turnaround.
“Michael Andretti and I were Kraco teammates in ’85 and Michael was pressing for a one-car team,” Cogan said. “That’s what he wanted and I have to admit it was a smart racing decision on Kraines’ part. He told me at Laguna Seca that he was going to go with Michael in 1986, but he also told me to go see Patrick, that Pat was looking for a new driver and he’d told Pat that I was going to be available. Kraines said he’d even told him how much to pay me.”
Cogan signed with Patrick, replacing Bruno Giacomelli and Don Whittington in the No. 40 car, to be Fittipaldi’s teammate. Cogan’s response was to win the 1986 opener at Phoenix after a race-long battle with his former teammate, Michael Andretti.
“Now I feel like I’m back where I should have been four years ago,” he said. “I’m with a team I think is capable of winning every race.”
Much of Cogan’s air of confidence stems from his performance in the race he wanted most, last year’s 500.
“If Luyendyk didn’t spin, there’s no way either Rahal or Mears could have caught me while I was running in clean air,” he said. “I doubt very much if Rahal had enough fuel to finish if the yellow flag hadn’t come out, and we had plenty left.”
Cogan took the lead from Rahal on lap 188 with one of the slickest passes ever seen at the Speedway, moving from third to first in one bold move.
“The three of us were coming up on lapped traffic and as soon as I saw who it was (Randy Lanier) I anticipated exactly what was going to happen. Lanier always goes low in a situation like that. You can make book that he will block any low pass no matter how far back he is. He’ll even go down below the line.
“I also knew that Mears (who was running second) never likes to pass on the outside. I was sure he’d try to pass down low and Lanier would block him, so I set up to swing around both of them on the outside. It was one of the safest passes I made all day.
“As soon as I was by them, I came up on Rahal, who was hung up behind another lapped car up high, so I swung down below him and was in front.
“All of a sudden, the car started handling perfect. All day long I’d really struggled, running in the turbulence behind Mears and Rahal, but when I got in the clean air I jumped from 200 to 207 and felt great.”
Rapture turned to frustration seven laps later when Cogan first saw the yellow light for Luyendyk’s accident. There were six laps remaining.
“I hoped it was something big that would take a long time to clean up,” Cogan recalled. “I knew I would be in trouble if we got the green flag again because all day my car had lost a position or two on restarts.
“Whenever I put my foot down hard (on a restart), the car hardly moved. Once it got up to speed there was no problem. I also knew that it would bring Rahal and Mears right up behind me.”
Then came another shocker.
Sam Posey, one of the ABC-TV announcers and a former Indy car driver, came over the intercom, interrupting Cogan’s concentration, asking what he planned to do. After a momentary pause, Cogan calmly said, “I don’t want to talk to you right now, Sam.”
Cogan refuses to criticize Posey for the intrusion, claiming that “he was only following orders from his director.” He also says the distraction, although it startled him, did not affect what happened on lap 198.
“Rahal was in perfect position, but he also reacted perfectly,” Cogan said. “If he had not done everything just right, he probably would not have got by me. I tried to slow up to keep him from gathering speed, but he dropped back and timed the green flag perfectly. There was nothing I could do.”
As Cogan approaches the Long Beach Grand Prix, he hopes to erase another sour memory of 1986--the $5,000 fine levied against him by CART Chief Steward Wally Dallenbach last October at Laguna Seca for what he called “collective situations.”
It was the largest individual fine in CART history.
“Wally (Dallenbach) told me he needed my respect and my attention,” Cogan said. “Well, he can’t buy my respect. That’s something he has to earn. I’ve been racing in CART for six years and had never been warned. There was quite a lot of bumping going on in some races and I think he and Kirk Russell (director of operations) wanted to make an example of me.
“They claimed I had seven bumping incidents at Laguna Seca, and that was a lie. Even if it were true, it didn’t warrant a fine like that. Michael Andretti had 12 bumpings in one race and wasn’t fined anything. Three of the drivers they said I hit--Arie Luyendyk, Danny Sullivan and Fittipaldi--all said I never touched them. I hit Roberto Guerrero when he spun in front of me. The only car I hit was Ed Pimm’s. I made contact with Jan Lammers, but it was his fault.”
The key incident that got Cogan in trouble occurred after the race when he accosted Lammers while he was still sitting in his car, helmet on. After telling him what he thought of his alleged blocking tactics, Cogan slapped him on the helmet.
“I’d had trouble with Lammers all year,” he said. “At Phoenix, when I was leading and he was five laps down, he chopped me so bad he almost made me crash early in the race. Then he did the same thing at Laguna Seca. I was so mad that I flipped him off going down the front straightaway.
“After the race, I had him by his lapels, with my finger in his face, telling him what I thought of the way he drove, but I didn’t actually hit him. I just hit his helmet with my open hand. I know I shouldn’t have gone that far but it wasn’t any $5,000 slap. And in CART there’s no appeal.
“But that’s past history. I’m thinking about 1987 right now, especially since I have a new sponsor. That’s a big load off my mind.”
Cogan had been without a sponsor until last week when Marlboro announced that it would back both Patrick cars in identical red and white colors--but with one significant change. For as long as Pat Patrick has sponsored Indy cars, his numbers have been 20 and 40. Fittipaldi with keep No. 40, but this season Cogan will drive No. 7.
Marlboro executives think 7 is a lucky number.
“So do I,” Cogan said.