Get Well Soon, AJ Foyt!
This past Friday, legendary driver AJ Foyt was admitted to the hospital with sporadic chest pain. The initial tests showed very little, but a procedure this past Monday showed blockages in arteries that had given Foyt problems in recent years. On Wednesday, he underwent triple bypass surgery. At last report, the fiery Texan was doing well and was expected to be released by Monday.
Social Media was ablaze with Foyt jokes by early Wednesday evening. One good friend of mine cracked that there was a rumor AJ had performed the surgery himself. I, myself, made a joke that he would be out by Monday and roping cattle that afternoon.
It’s good that the reports were good and that we could make jokes. You’ve got to have a sense of humor when dealing with tough subjects.
But underneath all the jokes is the realization that this was a scare. We were reminded that contrary to what all of the joking may tell us – AJ Foyt will not live forever.
Some will consider this post to be in poor taste, as if I’m writing an obituary for the living. That is not my intent. Instead, it is to draw attention to the obvious, so that no one will take this icon for granted.
I’m lucky enough that I saw AJ Foyt race in his prime. I was present at the 1967 race where Foyt won his third Indianapolis 500. I saw, first-hand, what a dominating racer he was. Robin Miller wrote an article not long ago about Foyt’s magical 1964 season, where he won ten out of thirteen races including the Indianapolis 500. Being the first four-time winner at Indianapolis, winning the Daytona 500 and Le Mans along with an all-time leading sixty-seven Indy car wins – AJ Foyt’s success was no fluke. He was that good, and I maintain that he is the greatest driver to ever strap on a helmet. Fans of Bill Vukovich and Mario Andretti may have something to say about that, but they’ll never convince me otherwise.
As his career wound down, he stopped winning and was rarely seen near the front. Qualifying in the middle of the front-row of the 1991 Indianapolis 500 after devastating injuries just nine-months earlier, was his last great achievement. Foyt starting the race with pole-sitter Rick Mears on one side and Mario Andretti on the other was about as good as it gets for someone that grew up following this sport.
After he stepped out of the cockpit for good on the morning of qualifying for the 1993 race, Foyt became an easy target as a punch line for younger fans. His weight has always been an issue, as was his foulmouthed temper and his teams nearly always under-performed. In the early days of the IRL, Foyt won against lesser competition. He won the 1996 and 1998 IRL championships along with the 1999 Indianapolis 500 with Kenny Bräck as his driver. Unfortunately, what many remember the most from recent years is when Foyt slapped Arie Luyendyk upside the head in 1997 at Texas, before knocking him over some ill-placed shrubbery. They seem to remember that and his brutality toward a laptop in the 1998 Indianapolis 500, more than his accomplishments behind the wheel.
Much like the great Jim Hurtubise, younger fans seem to remember Foyt for his comic relief and one-liners more than his driving skills in the sixties.
By the time I heard the news about Foyt’s heart surgery on Wednesday, the reports were already good. I didn’t get a chance to worry. But it left me with a sober reminder that, like all of us – his day will come.
The old die-hards like myself know what we got to witness with AJ Foyt in the sixties. When my older brother read the Robin Miller article, he told me that 1964 was the year he really started following racing closely. He didn’t appreciate Foyt’s accomplishments then because as a fourteen year-old, he figured that someone did that every year. It wasn’t until he got much older that he learned to appreciate what he had gotten to see.
My hope is that young fans will learn to appreciate what AJ Foyt was and still is, before his time on earth is done. My fear is that once he’s gone, younger fans will say “Gosh, I didn’t know he did all that”.
Our sensationalistic world we live in dictates that we use words like “amazing”, “awesome”, “hero” and “legend” if we want to get anyone’s attention. I try to shy away from those words, but in the case of AJ Foyt, these words all apply. If there was ever a true example of a living legend – it’s AJ Foyt.
It appears that Foyt is out of the woods for now. I’m assuming he will be fully recovered in time for his eightieth birthday this coming January and will be back at IMS this May. If you are there during practice, qualifying or for the race – take it all in when you see him zipping through on a golf cart or hobbling through the garage area. This May will be his fifty-eighth consecutive May at IMS. A lot has changed since his first race in 1958. He has been a constant throughout all of that change. Appreciate him while you can.
Get well soon, AJ!