Autosport 70: How AJ Foyt scaled racing's greatest heights

AJ Foyt's career is one very few can beat in terms of success and none can rival for longevity. In an article originally published in Autosport magazine on 26 August 2010, Charles Bradley rewinds the clock with the American legend to tell his amazing story

Autosport 70: How AJ Foyt scaled racing's greatest heights

When it came to his fellow racers, AJ Foyt bruised many a rival's ego. And if they put him in the wall, or called him a punk to his face, the no-nonsense Texan wouldn't think twice about bruising their faces too.

No one has a career record quite like Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr; and, for sure, no one ever will. Four Indianapolis 500 victories from 35 consecutive starts. A Le Mans 24 Hours victory at his first (and only) attempt. A Daytona 500 and 24 Hours winner in NASCAR and Porsche 935 respectively. A two-time IROC champion. The most wins in USAC history - across Indycars, midgets and sprint cars - and the most titles, too.

Love him or loathe him (plenty have done both), his race wins have spanned four decades. An all-American hero, he's an icon for those who worship at the cathedral of speed that is Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Although Foyt broke his back in NASCAR and smashed his legs and almost lost his right arm in Indycar, nothing (certainly not doctors, what did they know?) would stop him from getting straight back in his race car as soon as humanly possible.

Many have doubted his sanity over the years to come back time and again after such big wrecks, but Foyt's self-belief during his pomp was a cut above that of the mere mortals surrounding him.

"I know a lot of people said I'd never live to be 22," says Foyt [now 85 in 2020]. "I did get past that, y'know? At the same time, I dunno if that's good or bad, what with older age and all. That's life I s'pose.

"I guess back then I just lived from race to race. Even if I ran in second, and felt like I coulda won, I'd be disgusted with myself until I won another race."

His urge to become a racing driver was engrained for as long as he can remember. The son of a mechanic, Foyt first drove at the age of three, tearing around the outside of his family home (turning left, of course) in a tiny petrol-powered racer his father had built for him.

He soon learned that if he slid the rear end, and clipped the nose tight to the corner of the house, he'd get more speed on the following straight. Two years later, in his first midget-style machine, he beat an adult in a show race at his local speedway - not bad for a five-year-old.

It was also in those formative years that he was teased in the paddock about his father's cars not being quick enough to win. He vowed to prove them wrong. And how.

Breaking into the big time

Foyt had to wait until he hit legal driving age before his career could begin in earnest (although an ill-advised outing around the yard one evening in his dad's full-blown midget racer ended with him setting the car on fire). When his father's business partner, Dale Burt, decided to quit racing, Foyt took his place racing for his dad.

"I started racing in midgets and sprint cars on dirt, high-banked half-mile ovals, and came into Indycars from that way," he says. "I think that helped me a lot, running on dirt. A lot of these guys who are real fast in Indycar, put them in a l'il midget in a five-mile sprint race, they wouldn't know their right from their left. A couple of 'em would be fast, but most would be lost.

"When I was young I ran Salem, Indiana, which was a half-mile, high-banked and very dangerous. The feeling was if you could run in the high groove in a sprint car you'd make a good Indycar driver. I guess they figured that, or they figured you were crazy.

"My father owned some good cars. So I just took it up from there. I did a lot of work on my own cars, and built a lot of the motors for my own stuff. I'd run 'em on the dyno myself."

"The biggest moment I ever enjoyed more than anything was the first time I won at Indy. You always live and dream that's gonna happen. And I've always lived and breathed Indianapolis"AJ Foyt

Foyt's childhood in his father's garage had taught him how cars and engines worked, and his thirst for engineering ran almost as deep as it did for driving.

"The drivers today have all that computer stuff on the car, so you can tell them what mistakes they're making, and what the mechanics need to do," he says. "Before, it was you and your mechanic, and you had to discuss what to do to go faster. If you got along good, and he figured you out, you'd have a good team.

"Today, you could have a driver and an engineer who ain't that good, but as long as they're good with the computer, because it tells you everything you need to know, it'll make you look like you're a real good race driver."

In 1958, long before the computer age, Foyt got his Indycar break, and the stars were so well aligned that he hit the big time with a top team. Sam Hanks' retirement after winning the '57 Indy 500 led to another ace, Jimmy Bryan, switching teams, leaving Al Dean in need of someone to drive his Kuzma-Offenhauser - the Dean Van Lines Special.

Foyt says: "Jimmy left there after winning three championships with Dean Van Lines, then they hired me as a rookie, and I said, 'Holy cow! These guys have been winning championships and now they want me to fill his shoes.' That was my big break."

Start of the glory days

Foyt would record phenomenal success in America's premier open-wheel series (he'd race stock cars, too, of course). He won a record 158 USAC-sanctioned races - 67 at Champ Car (now IndyCar) level and won the premier series seven times.

But his love affair with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was far from straightforward. The perils of racing at 170mph over 500 miles in the late '50s were brought into stark focus when his friend Pat O'Conner - who guided Foyt around his first laps of the Brickyard in practice to show him which groove to run - was killed in a fiery crash. Foyt recalls he was haunted by seeing O'Conner's charred body in the remains of his car, and vowed never to get close to fellow drivers again.

He even questioned his future participation at the Speedway: "I said to myself, 'This might be too rough a game for AJ Foyt'."

But continue he did. His first Indy 500 win came in 1961 as reigning USAC champion, outlasting Eddie Sachs, who had made a late-race pitstop to replace worn tyres. He won again in '64, a race marred by the death of Sachs and David MacDonald in another horrible fiery crash. It was also the last hurrah for the Offenhauser-powered, front-engined dinosaurs in which Foyt made his name.

The next time he was in Victory Lane there, in 1967, he was piloting a rear-engined, Ford-powered Coyote - and only just avoided a last-corner crash...

"With the smoke, I couldn't see a thing, so I thought I was going to have to hit somebody," he says. "If I did I was going to push them right across that finish line! When I broke out in the clear, I couldn't believe it."

He would go on to win the Le Mans 24 Hours the same year, the only man to achieve that feat.

His final Indy win

Foyt rates his Indy 500 success of 1977 as his finest hour at the Brickyard. He takes up the story of his pursuit of leader Gordon Johncock...

"One of the best drivers, certainly the best I ever raced against from F1, was Jimmy Clark. Seeing him drive a stock car real good, seeing him win on a one-mile oval, he was the driver I have the most respect for" AJ Foyt

"I had to make up 32 seconds on him," recalls Foyt. "I'd run out of fuel in the 1975 and it rained in '76 when I was running second or third, and in '77 I coasted in again [out of fuel] and lost 32 seconds. But I got back out and at the end there I was catching Johncock pretty fast.

"I told Jack Starne, who still works with me today, 'He'll probably let me get to within 10 seconds and then he'll see me'.

"When I got down to within 10s, Jack asked, 'Have you turned the boost up yet?' I said, 'No'. He counted down the gap: 'Ten, nine, eight seven, six'. I said, 'They gotta be in trouble'. And, true enough, when I got within a couple of seconds, he blew up.

"It was like my biggest one because I had my own car and my own motor and I drove it. That really was a high of my success. But the biggest moment I ever enjoyed more than anything was the first time I won at Indy. You always live and dream that's gonna happen. And I've always lived and breathed Indianapolis."

The great rivals

Having grown up in a generation who were often paralysed or killed, Foyt found himself racing against scores of drivers in his long career. Given his love of country and its oval-based scene, coupled with his general disregard for European-style racing, one of Foyt's choices as a favourite rival comes as something of a surprise.

"One of the best drivers, certainly the best I ever raced against from F1, was Jimmy Clark," he says. "I have a lot of respect for him. Not just from Indy - I watched him drive stock cars, a factory Ford, which was not like the car I had or the other top guys had.

"Seeing him drive a stock car like that real good, seeing him win on a one-mile oval, he was the driver I have the most respect for, coming over from Europe. Sure, you've got Michael Schumacher, but Clark could drive different cars. Whatever you put him in, you had to beat him. He was a super, super race driver."

Foyt also rates Jim Hurtubise, Parnelli Jones and Mario Andretti as his toughest regular on-track rivals.

"They were a pretty big deal to race against," he says. "I'd say the hardest one to beat was Parnelli Jones. He was a hell of a race driver. I mean, Mario ran midgets and sprint cars, but I don't think he was as dominant as Parnelli in my era."

Unswerving self-pride

"I guess I'm a little bit hot-headed, a little bit stubborn, but I got a lotta pride," Foyt declares. "You can never be a winner if you're a quitter."

AJ was as hard on the cars as he was on himself and his teams, but denies he was overly so. He reckons that, because he ran his own machinery, he was less inclined to drive it to destruction anyway.

"You know, I've owned a lot of the cars I've driven, and [Roger] Penske has had great success at Indy too, and been dominant many times, but he always had probably five times the budget I was working with," Foyt adds. "I was kinda on a shoestring compared to his outfit."

"Every time I had a big wreck I could truthfully say that I didn't do it on my own; that something broke. I have never really been hurt bad in a crash where I've made the first mistake" AJ Foyt

Foyt also likes to remind people that he always qualified for every Indy 500 in his career, and didn't miss a race, unlike the teams of some people he could mention...

"You coulda broke me if you'd said that Penske was gonna miss a race here with 500 winners like [Emerson] Fittipaldi and Little Al [Unser, in 1995]," he says with a twinkle. "If somebody had told me they would miss that race, and I think y'all woulda gambled right along with me that they'd make that race - that was impossible! That's one record I do hold that he don't.

"All through the years I've come close to not qualifying but, even when I was hurt, I have made it into every 500. Even like the last time, I was told I'd never walk to my race car after a terrible incident [after his Road America smash in 1990], but even though I hadn't raced all year I sat on the front row in '91 (below, centre). I think that shook 'em up."

The crashes

Foyt had led a relatively charmed career injury-wise in a death-strewn era until it all went wrong in a NASCAR road race at Riverside in January 1965.

"That was a pretty bad one," he grimaces at the very thought. "The brakes had self-adjusters, and there was something like eight or nine laps to go. I was chasing [Dan] Gurney, who was a hell of a road racer, and went down the back straight, onto the brakes, and the adjuster fell apart. There was nothing there.

"I tried to go down the bottom [of the track] hoping to slow it down, because a good friend of mine, Billy Foster, had been killed there when his brakes went out a year or two before. He'd hit the wall on the left side, which is where you sit.

"I went down there to the inside, but Junior Johnson was already there, and I woulda hit him hard, so I just went into the dirt end-over-end. It was pretty bad."

Foyt broke his back, fractured his heel, punctured a lung and damaged his aorta. Do you think that stopped him, especially with the Indy 500 looming a couple of months later?

"When I came back in '65, my doctor said, 'If you hit the wall, you could be paralysed'," Foyt recalls. "Four days before qualifying I was coming off Turn 2 when I broken an upright and started spinning, I thought, 'Oh no, this is it'. I hit the wall backwards, and hit my back right against it, but when it stopped I was able to get out OK.

"But a couple of days later Jimmy Clark broke the track record, then on the run after him I broke the track record. I said I had to bring the record back to the United States, and Jimmy thought that was pretty funny."

It was also typical of Foyt's single-mindedness and stubbornness that he never felt he was to blame for any of his major crashes.

A crash at Michigan in '81 smashed his right arm, severely damaging the muscles. He repaired them and rebuilt his strength by painting miles of fencing on his Texas ranch

"Every time I had a big wreck I could truthfully say that I didn't do it on my own; that something broke," he says. "And people could see it, before I hit the wall, something had broken, like a rear upright or something. I have never really been hurt bad in a crash where I've made the first mistake."

Foyt broke his leg and ankle the day after the 1972 Indy 500 at DuQuoin, when his car caught fire in the pits and, after he'd jumped out to roll around to put the flames out, his own car ran over him.

A crash at Michigan in 1981 smashed his right arm, severely damaging the muscles. He repaired them and rebuilt his strength by painting miles of fencing on his Texas ranch. Another example of doing things AJ's way - or take the highway.

Conquering Europe too

Foyt is best-known for his exploits in his homeland, but he takes great pride in his Le Mans 24 Hours victory, where he shared a Ford GT40 with Dan Gurney.

PLUS: When AJ Foyt conquered Le Mans

"I was Carroll Shelby's deal," says Foyt. "In 1966, Ford lost five of their top race drivers, so in '67 they had us come there. I think me and Gurney led 23-and-a-half hours or something like that. I went over there as a rookie and won, so I never went back.

"At that time you'd normally have three or four drivers, and the cars weren't that comfortable. We averaged something like 135mph for over 3000 miles, which was a record. It was great to win it in an American car."

As well as that success, he also raced single-seaters in Europe.

"It was fun to drive at Monza [in the Race of Two Worlds in 1958, where he was relief driver to Maurice Trintignant]," he says. "And I won at Silverstone [in USAC in 1978], I was chasing Penske's cars pretty hard all day. I had my own motor, they had Cosworths, and Silverstone's real quick for a road course.

"Jackie Stewart one day, I'll never forget, told me there was one corner on the back straightaway [Stowe] that you can get into a lot harder than you think. I was catching [Rick] Mears right up and I thought, 'I've got one shot at this - I hope that guy didn't lie!' I was on the grass, then we won the race. Jackie gave me that tip right there."

Foyt has his own theory on why Europeans remember him well from his brief forays here: "I guess people know my name over there because I was always outspoken when I ran there. I always called a spade a spade where a lot of people don't, and still won't. That's the way I am."

Hanging up his helmet

Foyt retired on 15 May 1993, on Pole Day at Indy. Two years earlier, he'd qualified second after battling back to fitness following a terrible crash at Road America in 1990, when brake failure sent him into an earth bank and his legs were buried. But the writing was on the wall.

"I almost lost my legs in that crash," he says. "They said that if I'd had another serious injury with them, then I really could lose 'em. I was 55, 56 and I said, 'I'm just too old'. I wasn't producing like I used to, and I didn't want to get hurt seriously no more. I figured that every time I got hurt it was because the brake pedal had fallen off. I couldn't do anything about that. So I decided, that's it.

"It's just not like being in the seat, even when we're winning races, it just ain't the same" AJ Foyt

Although he'd stopped racing his team - AJ Foyt Enterprises - continues to race at the top level to the present day. But does owning a team compare with driving himself?

"Truthfully? No," he says. "Winning the championship twice with Kenny Brack was great, and winning the Indy 500 for me too. We are super friends still. It's just not like being in the seat, even when we're winning races, it just ain't the same.

"We've had some tough years recently, but I've got a super kid in Vitor Meira now. He gives it 100% every time. That's all I ever ask."

And if ever there was a 100% kinda guy in auto racing, it's AJ Foyt.

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