This Saturday brings the Indianapolis 500-mile race and a great confrontation of the old and the new. If the traditional Offenhauser roadster (below) cannot beat back the ominous rear-engine intruder it will surely become as obsolete as horse cavalry. Much of the old guard's hope is fastened upon A. J. Foyt, the white-helmeted driver shown here sliding through one of Indy's four 140-mph corners. Against the opposition's superior speed Foyt must draw most deeply upon his incandescent will to win if he is to repel the invaders. As the article on the following pages discloses, ol' A. J. just might be the man who can do it.
No matter what you hear about Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. (see cover) between this moment and the Indianapolis 500-mile race, remember that he is not a man driven by an obsession to win. They always say it, his neighbors in that semiresidential section of the Indianapolis Speedway infield known as Gasoline Alley, where for $1,000 per racing car the tenants are permitted to practice mechanics and amateur psychology. They say it, but A. J. says it isn't so. "Obsession? Who, me?" says A. J. Foyt delightedly. "Man, listen. I'm not driven by obsession. If there is any driving to be done around here, ol' A. J. will do it himself. Obsession is gonna have to get a car of his own." All that A. J. really believes is that you "get out in front and you stay out in front."
Foyt's towering hatred of defeat has made him both famous and affluent. He has been champion of the oval tracks three of the last four years, and since he has recently sprinted to the top in sports car competition as well, he is currently the hottest property in all racing.
Stories about Foyt tend to have an epic quality, telling of eventual triumph in the face of long odds. One tale has to do with a race for midget cars two years ago at Terre Haute. It was a piddling event, offering a winner's purse of $600. When his car failed to qualify because of a fast-deteriorating track, Foyt did not write the race off, as any reasonable man would have done. (Reasonable men as well-heeled and famous as Foyt would not have been there in the first place.) He paid another driver $100 for the 24th, and last, starting position. Foyt fought his way to first place at mid-race. He ran out of gas on the last lap, but by then he was so far ahead he was able to coast in the winner. "I figured," he says, "that it was a pretty good gamble."
May 31, 1964
Off the track Foyt's behavior is no less spectacular. Hot-tempered, handy with his fists and blunt in his speech, he was once fined $1,000 for tongue-lashing a racing promoter, and last year was suspended briefly from racing for roughing up another driver. Close associates are not immune to his whims. His chief mechanic, George Bignotti, once angrily quit. He came back, though, knowing that Foyt gives more of himself in races, 52 weeks a year, than any other driver.
When he chooses, Foyt can turn on the charm. He is extraordinarily handsome both in face and physique. His teeth are whiter than white, and when Foyt smiles they light up. This creates a brighten-the-corner effect so compelling that impressionable young women are apt to go swoony in his presence.
Foyt's willingness to take ultimate risks, to drive a little deeper into the corners than the next man, has brought him a six-figure income, three national driving championships and one "500" victory (in 1961). His $110,000 trophy-cluttered house in Houston, where he occasionally manages to visit his wife Lucy and his three children, sprawls over four building lots. Among other tangible signs of his success are a swimming pool, a Cadillac convertible, a Thunderbird hardtop, a Pontiac station wagon and a Triumph motorcycle.
But perhaps nothing gives Foyt greater pleasure than the knowledge that he has cracked the road-racing barrier. Track drivers like Foyt, schooled in the wheel-to-wheel cut and thrust of midget, stock car and big car racing on oval tracks, where shifting gears is not required, have long had a tendency to sneer at the sports car and Grand Prix crowd, which prefers the subtler techniques and more varied terrain of the road courses. "Sporty car" is the most common epithet used by the track man to express his hostility. Sneering back, some road-racing enthusiasts have disparaged the track sport as "boring" and the drivers as unwashed ruffians.
This unfortunate gulf was widened last year at Indianapolis when Scotland's Jimmy Clark and America's Dan Gurney, both road-racing men, brilliantly invaded the track men's most hallowed ground with Lotus-Fords, products of Grand Prix design. As the Indy drivers correctly judged, many new spectators of the road-racing persuasion had come to the Brickyard for just one reason, and that was to see the Indianapolis roadsters humiliated by the Lotus-Fords.
But it has been the track crowd's turn to crow in recent months. Deflating the notion that "roundy-round" drivers could never make the transition to road racing, Foyt swept both of the big sports car races at Nassau last December, becoming the first driver in the meet's 10-year history to do so. First he whipped a fine international field in a Chevrolet-Scarab to take Nassau's Governor's Trophy. Two days later, as road-racing devotees choked on their rum and Cokes, he made the lesson stick by hustling the Scarab in first for the featured Nassau Trophy. He raced on even terms with Gurney in February's Daytona Beach American Challenge Cup, and defeated him when Gurney's car broke down. In March he startled spectators at the Sebring 12-hour race by overtaking 51 cars on the first lap. He had gotten away tardily in the Le Mans start, which is sort of a calf scramble with hubcaps. Then, just as he was settling down to race, his Chevrolet Corvette threw a wheel, spun around five times in a 1,000-foot skid, and tipped up and almost over. Foyt leaped from the car and ran back to the pits for another wheel. He put the car back together and finished 23rd.
Moreover Foyt captured every open-cockpit track race he entered this year—two for big cars at Phoenix and Trenton, counting toward the national championship, and three for sprint cars. Thus he approaches the "500" as the best all-round American driver in history.
Foyt is also the driver most in demand. He is under contract to the Indianapolis automotive parts millionaire Bill Ansted, and for the "500" Ansted gave him his choice of either a front-engine or rear-engine Offenhauser. Foyt liked the front-engine model best, and of course has qualified it for the race. But for a time this spring Foyt was flirting with the idea of switching to a new Lotus-Ford. Ford has openly courted Foyt for more than a year. The Thunderbird turned up in his Houston driveway because, one Ford man said, "We want him to be seen driving the best car, now don't we?" Before official practice began at the Speedway, Ford invited him to try out the Lotus-Ford "just to see how it feels there, A. J." According to Foyt, it felt awful; he had to sit hunched over in the tiny cockpit. If Foyt does not beat the odds against him Saturday, however, there is likely to be a Ford in his future. Tire-makers long for his services, too. Goodyear employs him to test racing tires and supposed that he would use Goodyears in the "500." But drivers can be intractable when they conclude that one product has an edge over another. Not only Foyt but also three other Goodyear test drivers will race on Firestone tires May 30; Goodyear clearly has some distance to go to catch up with long-dominant Firestone. An extraordinary facet of the tire battle is that Foyt, who feels a special obligation to Goodyear, declared after qualifying that he would wear his customary Goodyear coveralls in the "500" and would turn down prize money offered by Firestone if he won the race.
Foyt was not always the object of so much yearning. "Looky here," he will say, holding up both big, scarred hands. "I got these scars from working on engines. I got them the hard way, when there wasn't money for mechanics."
A. J. Foyt was born 29 years ago in Houston, and some of his earliest memories are of hands already roughened and scarred in toil on racing cars. His father owned a garage and campaigned midget cars. In Houston now they tell about A. J. at 4 and the miniature red racing car his father built for him. It boasted a real one-cylinder Briggs & Stratton engine and, so the stories go, one could tell from the way he got his foot into the throttle that A. J. was going to be a champion.
"Oh, we had that little ol' car, all right," says A. J. senior, "but a lot of kids have little race cars and don't grow up to be A. J. Foyts. I'll tell you when it really started. It was in 1946, right after the war, when A. J. was 11. I owned two midget cars in those days, and Mrs. Foyt and I took one of them to Dallas for a race. We left one of them home, and we left A. J. home, too.
"When we got back—it was about 5:30 in the morning, I guess—we found the whole yard tore up. I mean, everything was gone. The grass was chewed to pieces and there were tire gouges all around. The swings we had in the yard had been knocked down. I knew right away that A. J. had got some of his buddies to push him and they had got that midget started up. It didn't have a self-starter, of course. And then, when I went into the garage and saw the midget, I knew why A. J. had quit. He had caught the thing on fire and burned up the engine. It was sitting there with the paint all scorched.
"I went into the house and right into his bedroom. He played like he was asleep, but he wasn't, I could tell. But my wife said, 'Don't say anything to him right now when you're so mad.' So I didn't get him up. But I knew right then, standing there in that kid's bedroom, that he would have to race; there just wasn't going to be any other way. The next day I told him, 'If you want to race, all right, race.' But I made him promise to always drive something good." And, no doubt, to stay off the grass.
A. J. raced his father's midgets to begin with. Quitting school in the 11th grade, he began his racing apprenticeship at age 17. "I couldn't study anymore," he says. "I was racing for my dad and working in his garage and taking home $75 a week, and you know how it is. I just couldn't wait any longer."
A. J. soon became a kid star in the Southwest. Something of a dude, he wore silk shirts and spruce, freshly laundered white trousers in every race and soon acquired the nickname Fancypants. Evidently his temper was as short then as it is now. When he ventured north in 1957 to try big cars in the big time, word of his willingness to use his fists as well as his foot followed him.
After a year's seasoning in 100-mile events, Foyt burst upon Indianapolis. Some drivers, outstanding on other tracks, develop a kind of paralysis at Indy and find themselves unable to cope with its higher speeds, its unusual pressures. Foyt, however, cockily talked himself into one of the best cars on the grounds, the Dean Van Lines Special, and managed to place it 16th in his first "500." Three years later, with Bignotti in his pit, he drove the Bowes Seal Fast Special to victory. Few "500s" had been as thrilling. Leading and with only 15 laps to go, Foyt had to pull in for fuel. Eddie Sachs then went ahead and seemed certain to win, but three laps before the finish he, in turn, was forced to make a pit stop—for a new tire—and the race and a $117,975 check went to Foyt.
It was after the following year's "500" that Foyt and Bignotti parted. One of Foyt's wheels came loose and threw him into the infield in a violent spin at a time when he was running third to the leader, Parnelli Jones. It would be reasonable to assume that no alliance could have survived the sulfurous language Foyt later addressed to Bignotti about that wheel.
By Memorial Day 1963, though, Foyt and Bignotti had patched things up. The only failing in Foyt's car was a slight deficiency in speed, and he finished third behind Jones and Clark.
This year exotic new racers have diverted attention from the drivers, but it would be folly to minimize their importance. "Of the 33 drivers," says Rodger Ward, the durable warrior who won in 1959 and 1962, "there are 10 men to beat. The other 23 cannot win unless something happens to the top 10." Diplomatically, Ward refuses to name his elite group. Foyt has no such reluctance. "There are nine or 10, like Rodger says," Foyt comments. "That would be Jim Hurtubise, Don Branson, Parnelli Jones, Ward, Dan Gurney, Jimmy Clark and Bobby Marshman." He grins and adds: "An' ol' A. J. Foyt."
If Bignotti is again handling the wrenches, it does not mean that his relationship with Foyt has become a placid one. Let Foyt detect something amiss and he is likely to screech up to the pits shouting, "Goddam it, the wheels are jumping this far off the track. Now fix that or I'll do it myself." When things are going well, however, he flashes a grin and says, "That George, ain't he beautiful with that smile. George, you ol' dago, you're all right." Says Bignotti: "A. J. is not...uhhh...the easiest guy in the world to get along with. But I guess we work better together than we do apart. A. J. is one of the few drivers in this business who understands everything about cars. He doesn't have to do his own work anymore, but if he had to he could build his own car. When some little thing goes wrong he can tell you exactly what it is, and when he says he can fix it himself he is telling the truth."
Foyt also understands the Speedway. "I know this ol' track pretty good now," he said the other day, "but I can never tell exactly how I am going to drive it until the time comes. If I get ahead, I simply follow the groove of rubber that the cars have laid down in practice. If I am behind, I work my way up to the front the best way I know how. I run scared, but it isn't exactly scared. More a kind of tight feeling. My hands get tired hanging on to the wheel. Sometimes on the straights I open my hands and push down on the wheel with my palms to rest my fingers. If things are goring real well I might drive with one hand. Coining off the last turn into the home straight I like to look over and check the crowd. Sometimes I pick out a lady in a fancy hat if it has a lot of color to it." Rodger Ward says: "Foyt is just a natural athlete and a natural racing driver. He's the man who goes south with the money."
Like some other drivers, Foyt punctuates his sentences with sound effects. "Blam" and "shoof" are fair examples of what he is likely to toss into a conversation, but his favorite is "voom." 'Voom approximates the sound of a racing engine, and its use often merely signifies high spirits. Jim Hurtubise, for example, rarely passes Foyt's Gasoline Alley garage without leaning in and bouncing a "voom" off the walls.
Foyt's bank account has plenty of voom, too. Men close to him agree that he earns upwards of $100,000 a year, which makes him one of the country's highest-paid school dropouts. "He may not have had much education," says Bill Ansted, "but he certainly knows how to read a contract."
The one thing Foyt has not been able to master is his temper. Friends believe he has mellowed considerably this year, but, remembering a 1963 eruption, have their fingers crossed. The trouble began during a sprint car race at Williams Grove, Pa. when it seemed that Driver Johnny White was deliberately cutting Foyt off in the turns. When the race ended, A. J. went steaming to White's pit. According to an official, whose report caused Foyt's suspension from racing, Foyt slugged White. According to Foyt, he did not. "Oh," says Foyt, "I had him around the head pretty good. I was holding him, all right, but I didn't hit him." Driver Roger McCluskey vouched for Foyt's story. "A. J. didn't hit White," said McCluskey at a hearing at which Foyt's reinstatement was being considered. "If he had, he would have torn his head off." Foyt handled his own, defense, for which he was "prepared like a Philadelphia lawyer," and of course was reinstated.
There are those who believe that Foyt's temporary suspension combined with his exposure to the less violent world of, sports car racing his steadied him. Foyt has driven sports cars only two years. The first time out, at Riverside, Calif., he put an E-type Jaguar into a wall. Only his ego was damaged, and that briefly. Last year he joined the large, lavishly equipped team of his fellow Houstonian. the oil heir John W. Mecom Jr. Catching on quickly—"I always did like to shift gears"—he surprisingly placed second last fall in an important race at Laguna Seca, Calif., wheeling home in a car that was threatening to fly apart. Foyt was steering with one hand and' holding the car in gear with the others Nassau, Daytona and Sebring confirmed him as a major new road-racing talent. Foyt is inclined to take a jaunty view of this sudden eminence. "Oh," he says, "them sporty cars is all right, but, remember, I'm just a poor working boy who can't afford to race for fun."
Nevertheless, it is regrettable that' Foyt's heavy American racing schedule will prevent him from taking a crack at the Grand Prix series leading to the" world driving championship. Foyt in at Lotus or a Ferrari in road racing's biggest league would be worth crossing oceans to see.
But Foyt is worth watching wherever he races. "I look at it this way," he' says. "You can't really relax or you fall behind. Mother told me years ago that when you get to the top there is only one way to go, and that's down. But I am still on top. Voom!"