Happy Birthday, A.J. Foyt
Tomorrow marks a momentous day that has seemingly flown under the radar. January 16 is AJ Foyt’s seventy-fifth birthday. It makes me feel old to say that because when I first saw AJ Foyt race in the 1965 Indianapolis 500, he was only thirty. Then again, I was only six.
Nowadays, people see AJ Foyt as the caricature that he has become – a comical, foul-mouthed fat man who runs a below average race team, beats up other drivers and smashes laptop computers. But I saw the man race when he was in his prime. I followed him when there was no one faster or tougher…or better. In my mind, in the 101 years that they have been racing at the Speedway, there has been no one better at driving a racecar than Anthony Joseph Foyt, Jr.
There will always be arguments for Bill Vukovich, Ayrton Senna, Richard Petty and yes…Mario Andretti. Everyone has their opinion and such arguments are based strictly on that…opinion. My opinion is that AJ Foyt was the greatest racecar driver of all time, period.
In a brief nutshell, Foyt won the Indianapolis four times and was the first to ever do so. He won four poles at Indy. He made a record thirty-five consecutive starts at Indy from 1958 through 1992. He has completed more laps (4,909) than any other driver at Indy. He has also won 67 Indy car races along with fifty-three poles and seven Indy car championships.
Foyt also ran in 128 NASCAR races, winning seven times including the 1972 Daytona 500. In fact, when NASCAR celebrated their fiftieth anniversary in 1998, Foyt was named one of the fifty greatest drivers in NASCAR history.
Not long after winning his third Indianapolis 500 in 1967, he teamed with Dan Gurney for his first and only appearance at the 24 Hours of Le Mans – and won. He startled the French establishment by referring to their hallowed circuit as a “little country road”. Foyt has also won the 24 Hours of Daytona (twice) and the 12 Hours of Sebring.
Sprint cars, Midgets, Stock cars, Sports cars or Indy cars – there was nothing that Foyt couldn’t drive. The only resume item that Mario Andretti has over Foyt is a Formula One World Championship.
If you think Foyt is cantankerous now, you should have seen him in his prime when he was at his fighting weight. Now when he growls, he does it with a smile on his face. There were no smiles when he was crossed in the sixties or seventies. But as wild and tempestuous as he was out of the car in those days, he was smooth as silk on the track. Foyt’s car control was unrivaled. His eyesight and reflexes had no parallel.
As unpredictable as he was to be around out of the car, there was no driver on the track that the other drivers would rather run wheel to wheel with. His reputation was that he never put a wheel wrong; a stark contrast to his archrival Mario Andretti, who created fear every time drivers got near him.
There was no better rivalry in racing than Foyt and Andretti. Growing up an IndyCar fan in the sixties, you were either a fan of AJ or Mario. You just couldn’t like both. It’s like being a Yankees fan or a Red Sox fan. It’s simply impossible to be a fan of both. Although they both respected one another in later years, they simply flat-out didn’t like each other. That has probably led to my not being much of an Andretti fan to this very day. I have grown to appreciate the Andretti clan as I’ve grown older, but my childhood allegiance to Foyt has prevented me from ever really embracing them.
Although his tough talking Texas accent can be somewhat of a punch line to some, don’t ever be led to believe that Foyt is a simpleton. He is an extremely complex man that can be completely self-contradictory. The brash Foyt we see in public can also be somewhat of a teddy bear. While the media might tend to portray him as a hard-nosed grouch, there is a side to AJ that doesn’t get enough publicity.
Dig deep enough, and you’ll find countless stories of unknown sprint car drivers that have crashed and found themselves hospitalized, wondering how on earth they would pay the medical bills – only to find out that Foyt had quietly taken care of everything. After he had made it big and had already won the Indianapolis 500 a couple of times, Foyt would show up and race at some small local dirt tracks on a Saturday night. He felt a sense of loyalty to help out the track owners and promoters that had helped him out along the way when he didn’t have a dime to his name. He had since paid them back many times over, yet he still felt a duty to help them increase their business with his being there.
I have a theory that his sense of loyalty is what prevents his race team from achieving better results. Some of his team members have been with his team for decades. They are holding his team back, preventing it from reaching its full potential, yet Foyt cannot bring himself to part ways with these people that have been fixtures with the team for so long. Loyalty is a rare trait these days – just ask Lane Kiffin. Foyt, however, is sometimes loyal to a fault and it is costing the team results. But Foyt has probably reached the point in his life that the results don’t matter as much as loyalty.
Another theory on the poor performance of the team is the strong personality within AJ Foyt. The same trait that made him so successful in the prime of his driving career probably hurts him as he runs his team. Foyt is driven by emotion and passion, and that passion carried him to many a victory in his driving career. Unfortunately, an owner is first and foremost – a businessman. It is generally not a good thing when business decisions are based upon emotion. The fiery temper that was so much a part of Foyt’s success as a driver, has not served him well as an owner – hence the revolving door of drivers in the famous #14. His stubbornness and refusal to hire an engineer for so many years, has hampered him in his current role, also.
In the past few years, Foyt has turned over the day-to-day running of the team over to his son Larry. But within AJ is a powerful tendency to meddle. He can sit back just so long and watch as Larry takes a more analytical approach to running the team. Just when Larry thinks he has things about the way he wants them, here comes AJ barking out orders and undoing three months of work in an afternoon.
His last race at Indy (not counting the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994) was in 1992. He was fifty-seven years old and weighed well over two hundred pounds. He had gotten to the point that his crew had to widen the tub on his Copenhagen Lola, just so that he could squeeze his large frame into it.
He had planned to retire after the 1991 Indianapolis 500. The fact that he was even there was a miracle. In 1990, Foyt almost lost both of his legs in a horrible crash at Road America. As he headed down the front-stretch at Elkhart Lake at almost 200 mph, Foyt attempted to brake as he approached the turn-one right-hander. The brake pedal suddenly snapped off leaving Foyt an unwilling passenger as the car went airborne and landed in an embankment. His legs, feet and ankles were completely shattered. As the rescue crews did their best to free him from the wreckage, he begged them to hit him in the head with a hammer just to stop the pain.
Through months of grueling rehab, Foyt literally limped toward his goal of qualifying for his thirty-fourth consecutive Indy 500. By the time May rolled around, he still could hardly walk. Yet, he somehow gathered the courage to put the famous #14 in the middle of the front row, alongside two other immortals of the Speedway – Rick Mears on the pole and Foyt’s long-time adversary, Mario Andretti on the outside of row one. As they came around to take the green flag, it looked like a rolling Mount Rushmore of Indy 500 greats.
Unfortunately, Foyt’s car suffered from a bad push from the start and he was simply trying to hold on to it until the first pit stop. Then on lap twenty-seven, Kevin Cogan and Roberto Guerrero collided in turn one, scattering debris everywhere. Out of nowhere, a wheel assembly landed directly in front of AJ’s car and he clipped it with his right front wheel, damaging his suspension beyond repair.
As he climbed out, he quoted Ray Harroun once telling him that it would hit him when it’s time to quit. When Jack Arute asked him if it had hit him, he simply said “Not really”.
Feeling that he had some unfinished business at the Speedway, Foyt returned in 1992 for an unprecedented thirty-fifth consecutive start. He made the field, but the heroics were gone. He started back in the pack, in the middle of the eighth row. He puttered around all day several laps back but he stayed out of trouble on a day when trouble found most of the field. He finished ninth, but that’s a little misleading since there were only twelve cars running at the end – and he was five laps down.
For 1993, he had hired promising young rookie Robby Gordon to drive the #14 for the entire CART season. That is, except for Indy where Gordon would carry #41 while Foyt would qualify for his thirty-sixth 500. During the morning practice of pole day, Foyt had been turning laps that would have put him on the second row. Robby Gordon crashed in turn three during that same practice. When Foyt came around after the yellow and saw Gordon’s crashed car, he suddenly decided that he couldn’t be a driver and a car owner. With no notice whatsoever, he went to Speedway officials and announced he would like to take an honorary lap and call it quits. In a snap, it was all over. I consider myself very fortunate that I was at the track that day.
Younger fans need to get to know this man. Most know that he is a four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, but that’s about it. Even most fans my age don’t remember when AJ Foyt was the best there ever was. They either remember him for slapping Arie Luyendyk over the bushes that night in Texas, for getting tongue-tied when his car won Indy in 1999 as he told everyone that he was so wonderful or as an overweight backmarker in his later years.
Did he stay too long? Certainly. But who was going to tell him to quit? Even today, I think the lure of Indianapolis every May is what keeps him going. He is a very young seventy-five. He doesn’t get around as well as he once did, but his mind and his wit are as sharp as ever. I hope that those that don’t know much more than what they see today, will take it upon themselves to learn about this great driver. Only then will you be able to appreciate what a true legend he is and how lucky we are to still have him around our sport.
So if you see AJ hobbling around the Speedway this May, consider yourself lucky and just take a moment to take it all in. You will be in the presence of greatness.
Happy Birthday, AJ.