INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A.J. Foyt has always enjoyed a good show.
He once famously took a hammer and pounded on his car during a race. He has thrown computers, helmets and sometimes punches, never worrying about beating up on his rivals. The crowd roars for him no matter what he does, loving every move made by their no-holds-barred, no-apologies tough guy from Texas.
Being the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 brings that kind of respect. So does doing it his way.
At 81, Foyt knows he is slowing down, which is never really a comfortable thing for a race car driver. After everything he’s survived, the truth is that Foyt is fortunate to be here for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday — and he knows it.
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“Most people thought I wouldn’t live past 22,” Foyt said recently with a laugh.
A serious crash in 1965 in Riverside, California, left Foyt with a broken back, a crushed sternum and a bad concussion. It might have been much worse if Parnelli Jones hadn’t helped pull Foyt out of the car after one doctor thought Foyt was already dead.
He burned his face, neck and hands in Milwaukee in 1966, broke his leg and ankle at a dirt car race in Illinois in 1972, fractured his arm at the 1981 Michigan 500, broke two bones in his back while practicing for the 1983 Firecracker 400 and was nearly forced out of the sport when his brakes failed at Road America in 1990. Foyt fractured his left foot and heel, dislocated his left knee and right ankle and a broken toe on his right foot in that crash.
Had he quit sooner, racing fans never would have seen Foyt trading barbs with Mario Andretti in perhaps the most famous rivalry in the history of the sport. Or publicly scolding Kevin Cogan for a crash at the start of the 1982 Indy 500, or becoming the first real superstar of American racing.
Foyt’s biggest battle was still to come. In November 2014, complications from heart bypass surgery forced doctors to put Foyt in an induced coma for eight days. Things were so uncertain, Foyt said, that his wife, Lucy, agreed to respect his wishes not to use extraordinary measures to save his life.
Somehow, the seemingly indestructible man from Houston fought his way back and returned to the stage in true Foyt fashion.
“When my daddy had open-heart surgery, I remember the doctors saying if he got hit in the chest it could be real bad,” he said. “So I remember asking the doc afterward, ‘If I got hit in the chest how bad would it be?’ They asked me why I wanted to know ‘because that titanium plate is stronger than your bone was.’ I said, ‘I just wanted to know.’ Then my wife said ‘No, he’s asking because he thinks he’s going to go get into a fight.'”
She might have been right, Foyt acknowledged.
Fortunately, he made it back to Indy last May and now the race has its greatest ambassador back again for its most historic event and its centennial celebration.
It seems a fitting tribute given everything Foyt has seen and done at this track where he became a fan favorite long before concrete garages appeared in Gasoline Alley, the Pagoda was rebuilt or the race was broadcast to a curious audience back in the mid-1960s.
“I still remember staying at the speedway hotel when I was a kid and we would get up early and walk over with him to the track,” his son and current team president Larry Foyt said, describing the short stroll from outside the second turn. “We would go out to Gasoline Alley and you’d hear fans yell at him and you could tell it was different, different than any other driver.”
Super Tex never wanted to be any other driver because winning his way was tough enough. His 67 IndyCar victories included seven straight in 1964, both series records that still stand. He won seven Sprint Cup races, too, including the 1972 Daytona 500. He won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1967, the 24 Hours of Daytona twice and the 12 Hours of Sebring.
Foyt believes he never would have shared The Associated Press’ Driver of the Century Award without his incredible resume at Indy. Here, he made a record 35 consecutive starts from 1958-92 and won it all in 1961, ’64, ’67 and 1977.
He retired in 1993, but has continued coming to the track every year as a team owner. His down-to-earth charisma and an old-school charm turned casual race fans into lifetime supporters.
Even today, grown men stand outside Foyt’s garage waiting for him to sign an autograph or share an old memory.
“The other day, someone came up and told me how in one of A.J.’s first years here, I think it was 1958, he came to Indianapolis and he didn’t have a place to stay. So A.J. slept in their house,” Larry Foyt said. “It just goes to show you that when you think you’ve heard everything, you haven’t.”
It’s not just the old guard that remembers the way Foyt helped drive the sport’s popularity. Ed Carpenter traces his own career path through Foyt’s legacy, and the 35-year-old driver-team owner whose stepfather’s family owns the track can’t even begin to fathom what May would look like without Foyt here.
“To me, he is what the speedway is,” he said. “It’s crazy to think that he’s been coming here almost 60 years.”
The good news for IndyCar is that A.J. Foyt has no intention of leaving this scene just yet.
He’ll keep coming back as long as his body allows, as long as the fans want him and as long as he continues to be the most beloved showman in racing.
“I’ve had my fun through the years, and if I were to be reborn, I’d do it the same way,” Foyt said. “To come from nothin’ to this, what else can you ask for?”