A.J. Foyt celebrates 50 years at Indy

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From the Associated Press

Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. was a raw, skinny Texas kid with a lot of moxie and a little racing experience when he first strode through the gates of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway five decades ago.

Foyt had competed mostly in sprint and midget cars through the early and mid-1950s, but he had to buy a ticket to watch the Indianapolis 500 from the grandstands in 1956 and 1957 and needed a lucky chain of events the following year to give him a chance at the top level of American auto racing.

He’s remained there ever since, a testament to longevity that the Indy Racing League is celebrating this season at each of its tracks.


“It means I’m getting awful damn old. That’s about it,” the 72-year-old Foyt said in his usual irascible manner.

All gruffness aside, though, Foyt’s 50 years at Indianapolis mean much more than that. Even he acknowledges that, when he’s pressed.

“Well, when I first started, everybody said I wasn’t going to live to be 22 years old. Hell, it means a big, big deal to me,” he said. “I guess I’m glad I’m still looking down at the grass and not up at it where a lot of friends of mine are.”

When Foyt started at Indianapolis, the Speedway’s straightaways still were covered with bricks and a 500-mile drive was an exhausting, bone-jarring test of danger and endurance. Racing in those days was a mean, risky business.

Thirteen of the 32 other drivers who started in his rookie race in 1958 eventually died of racing-related injuries.

Foyt was so appalled by a first-lap crash that killed Pat O’Connor that he wasn’t sure he wanted to come back the next year. But he did, and each year after that, driving in a record 35 straight Indianapolis 500s and returning each of the past 15 years as team owner.


“Fifty years in IndyCar racing is incredible,” IRL president Brian Barnhart said. “His evolution into rear-engine cars with ground effects and going from 138 mph to about 225, no one will ever do that again.”

Foyt’s driving career included midgets, sprint cars, dirt cars, stock cars, sports cars and Indy cars. He is the only driver to compete at Indianapolis in five different decades, and the only one to win the 500 in an old front-engine roadster and in a modern rear-engine race car.

He also was the first to win Indy four times, a feat later matched by Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr., and he owned the winning car driven by Kenny Brack in 1999.

Foyt’s temper and competitiveness became as famous as his driving skill. But he never considered himself a daredevil on the race track.

“I’m not one of these guys who’s a hero race driver. The guy who tells you that is fooling himself,” he once said. “There’s not a man alive who wants to go out and break his arms or legs or back, and I’ve had all that happen to me. When you get right down to it, every individual body has a little fear in it -- unless he’s a complete idiot, and they don’t last very long.”

No one has lasted as long as Foyt.

He first came to Indianapolis in 1956 to race at an old quarter-mile asphalt track across 16th Street from the Speedway. The next day, he went to the Gasoline Alley gate at the big track, told the guard who he was and asked if he could come in to look around.


The guard refused, telling Foyt, “Come back when you’ve got a ride here instead of across the street.”

So he bought a ticket and watched the race from the grandstand.

The next year, he drove in five champ car races, along with a few dozen more midget, sprint and stock car races, but again was turned away when he asked to get into the pits and garage area at the Speedway.

Once again, he watched from the grandstand, but the abrupt retirement of 1957 Indy winner Sam Hanks gave Foyt his big chance.

Jimmy Bryan, the reigning U.S. Auto Club champion, took Hanks’ place with the Belond Exhaust team in 1958 and recommended the 23-year-old Foyt for his spot with the Dean Van Lines Special.

Foyt got the job.

He qualified at 143 mph and finished 16th as a rookie. Three years later, at age 26, he got the first of his four Indy wins. He won again in 1964, one of 10 victories that season, and again in 1967. After a decade of frustration at Indianapolis -- but 24 more IndyCar victories at other tracks -- Foyt won the big race for the fourth time in 1977, a record that was matched in 1987 by Unser and 1991 by Mears.

“He’s a very powerful figure in racing,” recalled Mario Andretti. “He was an inspiration to me the way he was so tenacious, always so involved over the years, whether in midgets, stock cars, sprint cars, champ dirt cars ... a lot of the things I always liked to do.


“Clearly, when A.J. was at his peak, he was a yardstick. If you wanted to win any race, you had to beat him somewhere along the line.”

There always was a rivalry between Andretti and Foyt, who were named co-drivers of the 20th century by the Associated Press. But Andretti said there always was admiration, too.

“Here’s a guy, with all of his outbursts of anger, I’ve never, ever seen him do anything stupid on the racetrack,” Andretti said. “And that’s because he had full control of his emotions when it needed to be.

“As a driver, that’s what you respect. You could trust A.J., always. He was the toughest guy and you wouldn’t get anything from him, but you could trust him wheel to wheel like no other.

“Why do you think we survived that era? A lot of it is luck, but we made our luck, too,” Andretti added. “He was very calculated, very smart. I’m one that really, really knows how good A.J. was.”

Foyt’s last full season of competition was 1978. He drove in seven races in 1979, winning five of them and finishing second in one, but won only once after that and closed his career with a streak of 83 races without a victory.


Retiring was difficult, even with a record 67 career wins and seven national championships.

Foyt, the only driver to win Indy, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and NASCAR’s Daytona 500, once said he would stop racing after 30 years at Indianapolis because that seemed like a nice, round number. He kept delaying the inevitable, though, and shattered his legs and feet in a crash at Elkhart Lake, Wis., in September 1990, the most serious injuries of his career.

By the next spring, he was back at Indianapolis and said he would retire at the end of that season.

Foyt drove in eight races in 1991, then changed his mind about retiring. He was back at Indianapolis in 1992 and finished ninth, and he planned to drive again in 1993 before two crashes by Robby Gordon, whom Foyt had hired during the off-season, forced another change of heart.

Twenty minutes before the start of qualifications, he announced his retirement, and this time he meant it. He drove again, in the inaugural Brickyard 400 NASCAR race in 1994, but since then, he’s returned each May solely as a car owner, winning IRL series championships with Scott Sharp in 1996 and Brack in 1998. His drivers had three of the top six places at Indy in 1999, with Brack first, Billy Boat third and Robbie Buhl sixth.

In November, Foyt hired son Larry as team director and Darren Manning as driver for this season. Less than a week before the start of practice for the May 27 race, Foyt added two-time winner Al Unser Jr. to the team for Indy.


“Driving the No. 50 car for A.J. on his 50th anniversary, you know, I’m just super proud,” Unser said. “I mean, those are really the only words I can come up with. He helped my dad get going in 1965, and now there’s another Unser driving for A.J. I couldn’t be more proud.”



Record run

Indy 500 records held by A.J. Foyt:

-Most races: 35

- Most consecutive races: 35

- Most victories: 4*

- Most miles driven: 12,272.5

- Most races led: 13

- Most races finishing all 500 miles: 8**

- Most times led: 39

- Oldest in race: 57, in 1992

* -- Tied with Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears;

** -- tied with Ted Horn



A.J. Foyt’s career timeline

- 1953 -- Wins first midget race at Playland Park in Houston.

- 1957 -- Wins first USAC midget race in Kansas City, Mo.; competes in first Indy car race in Springfield, Ill.

- 1958 -- Drives in first of record 35 straight Indianapolis 500s, finishing 16th as rookie.

- 1959 -- Wins first USAC sprint car race in Salem, Ind.

- 1960 -- Wins first Indy car race in DuQuoin, Ill.; wins first national Indy car championship; wins USAC sprint car eastern division championship.

- 1961 -- Wins first Indy 500 and three other Indy car races; wins second national Indy car championship.

- 1962 -- Wins first USAC stock car race at Ascot Park in Gardena, Calif.

- 1963 -- Wins third national Indy car title; wins first sports car race, in Bahamas; competes in first NASCAR Grand National race at Riverside.


- 1964 -- Wins second Indy 500 among record 10 Indy car victories; wins fourth national Indy car title; wins first NASCAR race at Daytona.

- 1965 -- Breaks back and foot in NASCAR race at Riverside; wins record 10 Indy car poles.

- 1966 -- Suffers severe burns in Indy car practice at Milwaukee.

- 1967 -- Wins third Indy 500; wins fifth national Indy car title; wins 24 Hours of LeMans with co-driver Dan Gurney.

- 1968 -- Wins first USAC stock car championship.

- 1972 -- Wins NASCAR Daytona 500; wins USAC dirt car championship; suffers burns and broken leg in dirt car race at DuQuoin, Ill.

- 1976 -- Wins sixth national Indy car title.

- 1977 -- Wins record fourth Indy 500.

- 1978 -- Wins second USAC stock car championship.

- 1979 -- Wins record seventh national Indy car title; wins third USAC stock car championship.

- 1981 -- Suffers serious arm injury in Indy car race at Michigan.

- 1983 -- Wins 24 Hours of Daytona sports car race.

- 1985 -- Wins second 24 Hours of Daytona; wins 12 Hours of Sebring sports car race.

- 1987 -- Qualifies for record 30th straight Indianapolis 500.

- 1990 -- Suffers serious leg injuries in Indy car race at Elkhart Lake, Wis.

- 1992 -- Finishes ninth in record 35th and final Indianapolis 500.

- 1993 -- Announces retirement from driving Indy cars on pole day at Indianapolis.

- 1994 -- Finishes 30th in final NASCAR Winston Cup race, the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.

- 1995 -- Competes in first NASCAR Truck Series race at Phoenix.

- 1996 -- Wins first Indy Racing League title as car owner, with driver Scott Sharp.

- 1998 -- Wins second Indy Racing League title as car owner, with driver Kenny Brack.

- 1999 -- Wins first Indianapolis 500 as car owner, with driver Kenny Brack.

- 2002 -- Wins seventh IRL race as car owner, with driver Airton Dare.

-- Associated Press