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Foyt stories are legendary
Ask anyone and everyone in Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s famous Gasoline Alley to share their favorite A.J. Foyt story and the wide-grinned reply is always the same: “A story you can print?’’
The tales are legendary. There was the time Foyt threw a laptop computer off the pit box in a fit of frustration during the 1999 Indy 500. Or the time the temperamental Texan famously slapped Arie Luyendyk in victory circle at Texas Motor Speedway. Or the time he climbed out of his race car at Indy, grabbed a hammer and started “working” on his own race car during a pit stop.
But one after another fellow drivers, team owners, people that know him best instead choose to offer different versions of the same softer side of Foyt.
“I drove for him for only two years, but I honestly feel that if I called A.J. in need, he’d help me; he’s a true friend,’’ said Davey Hamilton, who starts 15th in Sunday’s Indy 500 and nearly won the 1997 IndyCar title driving for Foyt.
“Some people see him as a big bully guy, the tough Texan, but he’s really a kind-hearted guy. If I needed him for anything, he’s the guy that would step up.
“I don’t care where you go — to a restaurant, the airport, the speedway — he draws people’s attention. He’s a comedian, he’s kind, he’s fun to be around and he’s probably the best driver ever belted into a race car.’’
It’s a sentiment widely held. During a five-decades-long career Foyt was a badass, hard-nosed, natural-born racer who won in every kind of car he steered on dirt, pavement, oval and road courses. And there has never been anyone else like him.
He has won NASCAR’s Daytona 500 and sports car’s 24 Hours of LeMans and was the first to win four Indianapolis 500s, for which he will be honored Saturday at the Speedway with A.J. Foyt Day. He’ll drive the pace car in Sunday’s 100th running of the race.
But sitting in his Indy garage on the eve of A.J. Foyt Day, he shrugged off the adulation and owned up to the steely style. At 76 years old, he moves slowly — partly because he recently had heart surgery and partly because of severe leg injuries he sustained in a crash 20 years ago. He’s survived a massive bee attack, a tractor accident at his farm and as he says, “a few wrecks.’’
“As far as driving the pace car, the Hulman-George family asked me to; it’s not something I ever thought I’d be doing,’’ Foyt said, adding, “Theoretically, who would have said A.J. would even be around this long?
“But you don’t live in the past, you live on what’s happening today,’’ Foyt said, modestly acknowledging the Indy honors.
“And I don’t think my personality is much different today than when I was here racing when I was young. When I started I was the young guy racing with older guys and I had to protect myself. I’ve never thought of myself as a tough guy, but then again, I never took any BS either. That’s just me.
“The doctors tell me I shouldn’t get so upset anymore and I tell them, ‘You’re not in the game I’m in.’ ’’
That game today is team owner for the No. 14 ABC Supply Company Indycar driven by Brazilian Vitor Meira, who considers Foyt along the lines of late Formula 1 champion Aryton Senna. Although Foyt stays “involved” with the team, his son Larry now handles the day-to-day operation.
“I make sure people don’t push him around,’’ Foyt explained. “I let him (Larry) call the race but I’m sitting there right beside him and anytime I see him call something wrong, I tell, “No, not that way.’’
Owning a team is Foyt’s connection to the sport he loves. He insists he never second-guessed his decision to stop racing when he climbed out of the car for the last time in 1993. But he knows his legend is because of his driving.
Two-time NASCAR Cup champion Tony Stewart is among the many drivers who particularly appreciated Foyt’s contributions to the sport. Some would argue Stewart’s as close to Foyt-like as modern day drivers come. And Stewart considers Foyt his racing hero — so much so he uses Foyt’s famous No. 14 on his own Chevrolet in the Sprint Cup Series.
“That’s the thing that people don’t realize about A.J.,’’ Stewart said. “He was so innovative and he was really good at designing his own race cars and was sharp. He knew everything about his cars and knew what he needed and it didn’t matter.
“If he showed up at the race track, guys were worried.
“It didn’t matter what kind of car it was, he drove it and he was fascinating.’’
Although he collected a record 67 IndyCar wins and seven championships and is the only driver to have won LeMans, the 12 Hours of Sebring, the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500, Foyt was most fascinating at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where home-made banners have hung this week celebrating A.J. and the love-love relationship he enjoys with the track.
His 35 consecutive Indy 500 starts (1958-1992) are a record and in addition to his four wins as a driver (1961, ’64, ’67 and ’77), he won as a team owner with driver Kenny Brack in 1999.
“You cannot beat tradition,’’ Foyt says, his voice getting louder and more insistent. “You have a lot of great speedways, but you’ve only got one Indianapolis. You don’t know me from winning Daytona, LeMans or Pocono. You only know me from winning one race. Indianapolis.’’
And what about Foyt’s own favorite Foyt moment? It’s a predictable setting with a happy ending.
“You know there’s several 500s I won I shouldn’t have, and a couple I didn’t win that I should have,’’ Foyt explained. “I’d have to say 1977 was the best. It was a car I built and Mr. and Mrs. Hulman rode around with me in it after the race. That had to be one of my favorites, to be the first to win it four times.
“The other thing is both my mother and father were still living and both got to see me win the race. Right after that they both passed on.’’
“My mother died in 1981 and my daddy in 1983. Both died on the first day of qualifying, two years apart. It’s hard to believe. But it happened. It was like they both lived to see me and make sure I got in the race.”
“You know, it’s been a fun life for me. And if I left today and was reborn, I wouldn’t want nothing any different. I know what it is to be on the bottom and I know what it is to be on top.’’
As Meira explains it, “A.J. wants from you what he does and that is to give the best to the team. You push as hard as you can.
“I heard all these stories that A.J. is crazy and this or that. But A.J. just pushes hard and you have to appreciate that. The day that he changes, everybody will be concerned about it.’’