Racing legends honor AJ Foyt on his birthday

(From left) Former Daytona 500 winners Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt seen at Daytona International Speedway on July 5, 2007.

Marc Serota/Getty Images for NASCAR

As A.J. Foyt celebrates his 80th birthday on Friday, Jan. 16, some of the greatest names in auto racing history give their thoughts on what it was like to compete against the Indianapolis 500 legend.

Foyt’s personality was one of fire outside of the car but coolness on the racetrack. It didn’t take long for many of these legends to see through that and gain and deep respect for the Foyt – considered the greatest American race driver of all time.

Here are some thoughts from some of Foyt’s greatest rivals and closest racing friends as they wish him a Happy 80th Birthday:

Mario Andretti (1969 Indy 500 winner, 1967 Daytona 500 winner, 1978 F1 champion)

“It’s wonderful to see that, of course. He is still very much involved in the sport and has been such an asset to our sport for so many years. He is a true icon.

“How do you sum it up? He is one of those icons of the sport that rates right at the very top in the history of our sport. Any time you can be mentioned in the same sentence as A.J. Foyt you have to feel good about it. He is one of those who helped shape the sport. His record in itself is enviable because when you look at it overall from Day One to today he is right at the very top. Very few individuals can make that claim. Most of the drivers around would love to just use that as an inspiration to reach the top level.

“He is in a very enviable position, he always will be, because many of the records he set will never be equaled.

(From left) A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti chat in the garage area at a NASCAR Cup race.

“When I came into the ranks of the Champ Cars in USAC he was already accomplished. He was five years my senior – five years older than I am. He had that much more under him and was already quite established. At the time he was the yardstick for me. That is what I was measuring my performances against. If I could win a race over A.J, I’m pretty much where I want to be. There are not too many drivers that can make that claim. He was one of those drivers that became your inspiration.

“When you look at somebody you consider them the best that is what gives you all of the driver to try to emulate. That is what gives you the encouragement and the drive and the stimulation that you need to try to get everything out of yourself.

“He could be intimidating if you let him be but if you felt you were going to be in that same sandbox and play that game you cannot let it happen. That is what probably irritated him sometimes, perhaps, but I tried not to let him do that to me because I had my own goals. If I want to get anywhere at the level he is I couldn’t let him intimidate me.

“I can’t say I was very intimidated but I had the utmost respect and admiration for him at that time for sure, but I can’t say I was intimidated.”

Rick Mears (Four-time Indy 500 winner)

(From left) Rick Mears talks with A.J. Foyt before racing the Indy 500.

“He spanned the whole deal. That is why I say I could never put myself in his class. Whether other people do, I have no idea. I’ve never been built that way any way and that is what helped me over the years to strive to do better.

“Running at Le Mans with Dan Gurney and the stock cars – he did it all. There wasn’t anything he didn’t run. And that is how I always rated drivers. To me it was watching drivers even before I started competing in IndyCar. To me, a driver could drive anything that had a front end. That was a true driver. He and Al Unser and Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti – they drove everything. Some guys might pick it up quicker than other drivers.

“To me, a true driver can drive anything he can put his butt in and can figure it out. He was one of the best at that.

“We would stay at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Motel and he would come by my room to get to his room. If the door were open we would stand there and talk for 30 minutes. He was one of those guys I could talk to. He was typical A.J. – he always had a little motive from time to time and I could tell by the way he was talking to me that he was picking my brain when we got to the point where I was running well and was competitive. He and I always got along well. I don’t know if I ever had a cross word with him.

“He was one of the guys you could count on running within inches of all day long and not worry about him. He was a smart racer. When I finished second to Gordon Johncock in 1982 A.J. made the comment that ‘If I had been Mears third place would have won the race’ because when I pulled my nose out after Gordy cut me off going into Turn 1 on the last lap. I knew Gordy was going to go across the apron. He had a push in the car. It was Indy. It was the last lap. I knew there was no way he was going to lift and he was going to go across the apron because he had to get down there to make the car make the corner. When I got the nose up to him and he pulled me back going into Turn 1, it was his corner, period. I knew it and he knew it.

“To me it was not brain surgery to figure out I could stay here and crash or I have three more corners to try to make it to the checkered flag.

“I remember A.J. telling me that about third place, but no, he wouldn’t have done that. He didn’t win four times at Indy by making a decision like that. That was A.J. being A.J. – part of his intimidation. But I know better because I’ve run wheel-to-wheel with him. He didn’t finish races and championships by doing things like that.”

(From left) Dan Gurney and Anthony Foyt celebrate their win in the 24 Hour race at Le Mans, 12th June 1967.

Dan Gurney (Former F1 driver, Indy 500 driver and Indy 500 winning team owner

“A.J. did a great deal of successful NASCAR racing and he became a great road racer and he was terrific in IndyCar racing. In those days when you were driving midgets, sprint cars, dirt cars and IndyCars you had to adapt to the conditions of a very mixed recipe of racing.

“When we won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1967, I chuckle even today. That ended up being the time at that moment when we started spraying champagne. While it wasn’t planned I got to spraying. Nobody thought it would catch on but they still do it today, even in other sports.”

Parnelli Jones (1963 Indy 500 winner)

Driving a Mercury for car owner Bill Stroppe, Parnelli Jones is seen during a NASCAR race at Daytona.

“He actually had a real talent of highs and lows. He would start throwing hammers and stuff like that in the garage area and get these guys all shook up and then he would come around and hug them five minutes later. I never really had that problem with him.

“We knew the rear-engine cars were coming in 1962 and in 1963. In 1964 both A.J. and I had rear-engine cars available to us; they just weren’t sorted out well enough to make a decision to run them so we chose to stick with the Roadsters for good reason. But we knew at the time it was just a matter of time the rear-engine car was the way to go. One thing about it, we also had a tire problem in 1963 and had those big, tall, narrow, skinny 18-inch wheels. In 1964 Firestone made us a real good tire and A.J. ran the entire 500-mile race on the same set of tires, which I don’t think, had ever been done before.

“It set that era apart. It was a big change. One thing about Indianapolis is you often ran the same car that you ran the year before and it was a generation where the cars were real proven. There was a lot to be said about that reliability. It’s like Foyt and I chose Roadsters in 1964 because it was more reliable and we had a wider tire.

“I’m glad he’s turning 80. I hope he’s healthy enough that he reaches 90 or more.”

Kenny Brack (1999 Indy 500 Winner)

(From left) Kenny Brack celebrates with car owner and A.J. Foyt after winning the 1999 Indianapolis 500.

“When A.J. hired me it was a strange thing, really, because I live in Florida and wondering if I were going to drive any more in IndyCar racing because I didn’t have a ride and the phone rings. It’s A.J. Foyt and he was bigger than God at the time. I didn’t really believe it. He was a legend – not somebody you really talk to. He asked if I were interesting in driving for him next year and I said, of course. He asked me to fly to Las Vegas and I told him I would fly there only if he were prepared to sign me. He called back a few hours later and told me to get my butt out there. I didn’t know what hotel he was at so I’m bumming around Vegas trying to find where he was.  After a while I found him at Harrah’s. We had breakfast.

“He was ordering steak and pancakes – a really big portion of food — and I was ordering Yogurt. He asked me, ‘What’s that’ and I told him, ‘Yogurt.’ He said, ‘I tried that once and I didn’t like it!’ I thought maybe I’m fired before we get any further.

“What do you say to a guy that achieved everything? You probably say, ‘Congratulations. Hat’s off, Man.’ He isn’t going to go up to St. Peter looking all new, he will go up there say, ‘Hey, what a ride.’

“He is a long way from that. He is still very competitive and very youthful in his mind, even at the age of 80. He is a very unique character.”

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