We shall proceed with the story of the World's Greatest Race Driver in a moment. But first, these anecdotes to set the proper mood:
The car comes smoking into the pits at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and slams to a stop. Its driver is yelling angrily even before he tugs off his crash helmet and yanks away the red bandanna covering his nose and mouth. He throws off his safety harness and climbs out, shouting at the men in his pit crew, chewing them out, with gestures. They listen, slack-jawed, and then, when he stalks off, their heads swing to watch him. Darkest gloom falls over the scene. Will somebody please say something appropriate?
"Well," sighs Anthony Joseph Foyt Sr., the driver's father and crew chief at the time, "getting too close to A.J. when things is going bad is about like trying to dance with a chain saw."
The race car flickers through the back straightaway at 170-plus mph when suddenly something snaps. The car veers sickeningly and slashes along the concrete wall. Half of the car is reduced to flying pieces of metal and fiber glass. A few minutes later A.J. Foyt lies fidgeting on a cot in the infield track hospital while doctors work on him. "Aw, hurry up, you guys," he growls. "I got to get back to my garage and get me another car." One of the doctors later points out that such shattering crack-ups quite often do more damage to a driver's psyche than to his body; yet, the doc says, "We checked Foyt's blood pressure, and so help me, it was lower than normal. He has absolutely no nerves at all."
"He's obsessed with winning," friends say. "He's driven by obsession."
This delights Foyt. "Ob-sessed! Who, me? Listen. I'm not driven by no obsession; any driving to be done around here, ol' A.J. is going to do it. Obsession is going to have to get a car of his own."
A.J. has been accused of fighting in the pits. It's said he vaulted out of his sprint car after a race at Williams Grove, Pa. and attacked another driver, who, A.J. said, cut him off. Foyt faces a possible USAC fine and suspension, and at the hearing held by USAC he conducts his own defense. "I didn't hit him," Foyt says. "Oh, I had him around the head pretty good, but I didn't hit him." Foyt's chief character witness is Roger McCluskey, a fellow-driver (who has since become the USAC official in charge of screening new drivers). McCluskey testifies earnestly that "A.J. didn't hit him. If he'd hit him, he would've torn his head off."
This is the veteran Foyt assessing a rookie sensation: "I warned him four times about chopping me off in the corners. It's dangerous as hell for both of us. But, well, if he's brave enough to sit there and do that, then I'm brave enough to sit there right alongside him. If we get into trouble we'll both skin the same way—and he damn well won't heal no faster."
Which brings us, as promised, to the story of the World's Greatest Race Driver. There was a special reason for starting with the anecdotes, all of which date back a few years, as we are about to see.
There's so much image-polishing going on these days, such a steady buffing of personality to a high gloss for television and media display that it's a definite comfort to note here, for the record, that the World's Greatest Race Driver hasn't changed. Only a few numbers have been altered. He's 46 years old now and several pounds heavier than he was in the glory days of the '60s. But he's not changed, not really. While many athletes have become modishly laid-back, blow-drying their psyches to match the times, Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. remains a constant, if being unstintingly mercurial can be said to be a constant. He was sweet and sour, fiercely competitive and sometimes ornery then, and he's sweet and sour, fiercely competitive and sometimes ornery now.
Foyt remains true unto himself. He's roughly as unquotable now as he was then. It isn't that his voice has a threatening quality; in fact, it has a pleasant sound, a gentle, almost soft drawl. It's just that Foyt speaks a special racing language that can be described as creatively salty and that he tones down only in the presence of women or preachers or Rotarians. He recognizes that he's part of the national subconscious—years ago, all other drivers were compared to Barney Oldfield; now A.J. is the bench mark—and he understands one more important thing. It's strictly intuitive and hard for him to explain. It's this: A.J. has earned all of this.
Here's how he has done it: No man has ever driven race cars better or more consistently; no one now driving has ever risked more in as impressive a variety of cars and perilous situations, taking himself to the far edge time after time. For years Foyt has driven at a scary, talented point somewhere beyond luck; mere luck would have run out years ago.
So you do it all, year after year, frighten them and entertain them, and there comes a moment in this deadly game when you and the audience are even; you're square at last. You've provided the thrills at great risk, and they've given you adulation. It's at this juncture that you get to snap and growl and bite off a head now and then.
And you also get to lean back and muse, as Foyt did on a bright Texas morning a few weeks ago when he sat in his office and said, "You know, I'm a lot closer to quitting than people say. I don't know when—but the day I quit I'll flat quit. I'll get up out of that car and say, 'You just seen ol' A.J. run his last race,' and I'll walk away. That'll be it. Oh, I don't know. Racing just ain't the same anymore. I don't mean the equipment so much; I mean, remember when we used to go racin'? Just jump in the car and run? Well, you can't do that anymore; they got too many rules now. Lord, in those old days, if you was better than the other guy, that is, if you was a good driver and also worked hard on your car, well, then you'd win, see? But now? Now they modify the rules. You could be running 200-and-something miles an hour and they [the officials] will make us back off to where the slow guys can keep up. That brings the pack closer together, all right, and them cars run in a bunch, all right, and it looks exciting to the fans. But the thing is, some of them younger guys don't know how to do it, which makes it dangerous. So that's about the way racing's going these days, and I'm kind of losing interest." Foyt pauses and scowls. "No, that's not it entirely. Maybe it's also that my interests are changing."
Wait a minute. What's this? Can it be an attack of mellowness, for heaven's sake, some new facet of Foyt emerging in his 47th year? He remains reflective for the moment. "I don't know," he says, "but if I was to fall over dead here talking to you, it's been a good life-style and I wouldn't change it."
Now that's more like it. Foyt carries his racing senior citizenship well. For one thing, all the physical promises of his youth have finally been delivered. His body has thickened, as it seemed it would—not to fat, but to a broadening through the rib cage, shoulders and neck. Foyt has grown bulky and bull-like. In his days as a young charger, say in the late '50s and early '60s, he actually had to work at projecting a hard look by thrusting his jaw out pugnaciously. Well, that's no longer necessary. The jawline has now firmed into place in that determined outcrop, and straight-on or in profile, there's no mistaking its meaning or intent. Foyt's face was once dotted with shiny, dime-size burn scars from a 1966 smashup, but now they've dulled to the point where they show only in strong sunlight. Most publicity handouts list Foyt at 5'11" and 200 pounds, but he's obviously carrying more weight than that, and if you want to know exactly how much, you go ask him.
Foyt is one of the few folks who can truly be said to flash a smile—a description too often used inaccurately. Foyt's smile doesn't spread across his face; he grins in a quick burst, all at once, flashing strong and white teeth. It's one of the gestures he has learned to use to great effect—like ol' Frank Merriwell in Tip Top Weekly: "Frank continued to laugh, and it had been said at Yale that he was most dangerous in an encounter when he laughed." But Foyt's smile is more disarming than dangerous:
It is June 1967, and on the sun-dappled terrace of the Hotel Ricordeau, a Michelin two-star restaurant just outside Le Mans, Foyt is staring in shock at trout meunière, served in the traditional French manner. He grins ferociously at the waiter and says, "Uh, what the hell is this, fella? I mean, this here fish has still got its head on, and I ain't going to eat no fish laying there looking so damn sorrowful at me every time I take a bite of him."
Same country, a few days later. Foyt and Dan Gurney have just won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the first Americans ever to do so. They shared the driving, wrestling a burly Ford sports car around the tricky 8.36-mile course for a record 3,249.6 miles at an average speed of 135.48 mph.
Le Mans is, of course, the pride of all Europe and the granddaddy of all tough road-racing courses, and Foyt is still full of the kick of what he and Gurney have pulled off, taking a fine, savage joy in it. He leans over and confides to friends, "Why, hell-fire. Lee-Mans? Listen here," and he flashes that marvelous grin, "it ain't nothin' but a little old country road. We got a lot just like it back in Texas."
Foyt is sitting in his office in Houston, still strangely mellow, as he looks back at his life and fast times. "Once," he says, "all I lived for was racing. And I know I used to take real bad chances now and then, but I don't anymore. Uh, uh. I've been in that old crash house too many times. Listen, now I've got a right kneecap that pops out all the damn time—I can just be standing here or walking along real easy and floop! there it goes—and it hurts me all the time." He scowls at the offending knee. "I'm going to try and make it through this season and, I guess, have it repaired next winter. But...."
He pauses, thinking about the surgery on the knee. He hates the thought. "Listen," he says. "I been in crashes, in bad crashes. I've been busted up and burned and twisted all around, and somehow I can take it. I can handle the pain. But," he holds up his right index finger, "but you know what really scares me? It's that part where you're in the hospital and they come in and prick your finger for the blood test."
A crash story. A.J. was running full bore, barreling along, belly to the ground, when the brakes went blooey. Directly in front of him were Marvin Panch and Junior Johnson, and to avoid wiping them out, Foyt made the heroic move that sooner or later all drivers face. He took his stock car off the track and into the embankment. Unhappily, it went up and over. And over. And over.
That happened on Jan. 17, 1965 at the Riverside (Calif.) 500. In the hospital he remained typically stoic. "My insides is bent out of shape," he said, "with pieces all here and there. But I'll make it."
Several weeks later Foyt was asked how badly he'd been hurt. "I was hurt so bad," he quipped to the AP, "that I couldn't enjoy the nurses."
Blam! There's the grin.
There were a lot of crashes, of course. Crashes are the percussion section of racing. But through almost 30 years of competition, A.J. Foyt has come to be America's, and perhaps the world's, greatest race driver ever. Other names always arise: five-time world driving champion Juan Manuel Fangio, Jimmy Clark, Stirling Moss, Richard Petty, but the inescapable fact remains that, while they were stunning in their talents, they were specialists. Nobody else has won as much in such a variety of equipment as Foyt has. If that critter's got wheels, as they say in racing, ol' A.J. can drive it.
As most folks know by now, Foyt began striding across the American landscape in the mid-1950s, a midget and sprint-car racer who just sort of materialized out of the half-mile ovals and dirt tracks of Texas and the Midwest. He was born to it, down in Houston to be exact, where his dad operated a garage and campaigned a couple of midget racers on the side. Young A.J. had his first racer at four—at four?—a tiny car powered by a Briggs & Stratton lawnmower engine. "I swear," says A.J. Sr., "he put his foot in it right from the start." A.J. Jr. was a good mechanic and a race driver by the time he was 17—"I was making $75 a week being a mechanic and driving, and I just couldn't wait," he says—so he dropped out of school and went racing full-time. Well, the 11th grade isn't bad.
Dirt-track racing is full of grit and smoke and upside-down race cars, and it's the absolute greatest training ground in the world for motor sports. It's dirty purism: The racers build, repair, race and trailer their own cars from country track to country track, and most of them drink a lot of beer and do a little bare-knuckle fighting on the side. It's their form of ballet. In that sense, Foyt was a standout right from the start. There was a time when he chose to race in freshly laundered and starched white pants and honest-to-God silk shirts. It seemed to be a modest enough affectation, Lord knows, until someone made the mistake of calling him Fancy Pants.
I been in crashes, in bad crashes. I've been busted up and burned and twisted all around, and somehow I can take it. I can handle the pain.
I been in crashes, in bad crashes. I've been busted up and burned and twisted all around, and somehow I can take it. I can handle the pain.A.J. Foyt
By the time Foyt appeared as an Indy rookie in 1958, his reputation was established. He was known to be tough and touchy. Back around that time racing sponsor J.C. Agajanian once pleaded with Foyt to grant SPORTS ILLUSTRATED an interview. "All that circulation," Agajanian said, "all those readers. I'm telling you, A.J., this story would make you famous."
"Aw, bullbleep," growled Foyt. "You want to know what will make me famous?" He pointed down to his right foot, the one he stomps on the throttle of a race car. "That there foot is what'll make me famous."
And he was right. Foyt went on to drive anything that rolled, achieving remarkable successes in sports cars, stockers, midgets, on pavement, on dirt, with engines mounted in front of him or behind, but it's his record on the championship-car circuit and at the Brickyard that remains the most telling. Foyt has now won the USAC driving championship seven times and the Indy 500 a record four times, in 1961, 1964, 1967 and 1977. He's the alltime money-winner at Indy, with $1,347,694.97 so far. He has raced the most miles there, 8,567.5 to date, and he has been on the pole four times; only the late Rex Mays held that position as often. But there's one more statistic that perhaps tells a lot more about motor sports and Foyt: Of the 33 drivers who started with him in his first Indy 500 in 1958, he's the only one still active. Sixteen are now dead—13 of them killed while racing.
"Well," Foyt says, "that's why I'm more careful now. It'd be pretty damn dumb if I got into a race car and got killed at Indy or Daytona at my age."
One of the more bizarre scenes in racing came at the 1964 Indy 500, after an early-lap smashup sent a ball of fire exploding into the sky in Turn Four. The race was red-flagged, stopped while the charred wreckage was cleared away. The surviving cars were pushed and tugged to the main straightaway in front of the grandstand. And then, just before a restart, an announcement was made that veteran driver Eddie Sachs had died in the crash and rookie Dave MacDonald was in serious condition in the hospital (he, too, would die). During the announcement, Foyt stood with his head bowed, but with his eyes open and his jaw firmly set. He was pulling on his soft, red kidskin driving gloves and carefully punching them between the fingers with the edge of his hand to make sure they were tight. Then he climbed into his car and rolled out and won the race.
When it was all over at sundown, Foyt stood alone in Gasoline Alley. He was still in his driving coveralls. At the start of the 500 miles there had been a tiny hole in the right elbow of the suit, and the force of the wind during the race had ripped it wide open. Foyt had been fond of the fun-loving Sachs, a good driver who was often described as the Clown Prince of racing, and had been impressed with young MacDonald. "Looky here," Foyt said. "You can't let this get you down, about those guys getting killed. You got to carry on in racing. You can't let anyone get too close to you in this game; if they get killed, it breaks your heart. Maybe you haven't noticed it about me, but I haven't got any close friends in racing. If you are going to race, you've got to race alone."
Seeing life and death as clearly as Foyt does, it would be dumb if he got himself into an accident at his age. Most assuredly, an accident won't occur because of any wild moves by Foyt—and here's the part where it gets tricky: If A.J. is indeed driving a bit more careful, as he puts it, then it sure isn't noticeable from the stands or at trackside.
Here's Cale Yarborough, one of the toughest of stock-car racers and an old Foyt competitor: "Well, ol' A.J. is still quick, all right. The thing about him is that with his driving talent, he could even lose a step, like they say in other sports, and then do a shuffle and make it up on you. You're out there, racing door handle to door handle, and some guys, they'll put a sudden move on you. But not A.J. He won't even put any foolish moves on you. He's a real racer."
And Gurney, now a car builder, says, "What A.J. may have lost in daring, he makes up for in cunning. He's the consummate driver. One important thing about survival: If his machine isn't exactly right, well, he won't soldier on through with it. He'll demand that the car is perfect—or he'll park it and not race at all."
Foyt punctuates his speech with sound effects—it's the only way he can easily explain something that otherwise defies quick description—and it comes out in a form of verbal italics and exclamation points, all accompanied by fierce gestures and twists of the body. On this morning last May at Indy's Gasoline Alley, he's considerably less than satisfied with the way his car is running, and he has assembled his crew in the garage. They stand in a ragged semicircle around the car which has been stripped of its fiberglass skin and is down to its bare steel skeleton. This is some tableau: This is the Indy version of Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp.
Foyt explains that he has just come back from the No. 2 turn, where he listened to Johnny Rutherford's car go through the corners. "He came shooting through there going shooooommm!" Foyt explains, "and then, when he backed off her a bit, she went raaaaawwwwr! Like that. See what I mean?"
The odd thing is that they really do see. Foyt's dad and all the crewmen nod in perfect understanding, each one looking down at the naked engine as if he expected it to say rooooiiinnng at any moment.
Foyt is looking at pictures of his horses: Winner's circle pictures, barn and paddock pictures—all sunshine and grass, not a blacktop straightaway in sight. The poses are pretty much the same as they've always been—man standing beside horse/car. But it's when he's with horses that Foyt looks happiest. And this is the emerging Foyt: Gentleman breeder and racer of thoroughbreds.
Off-track nowadays, Foyt lives grandly in his sprawling suburban Houston home with his wife, Lucy. The house is more than big enough—it was built on four lots—and the kids are pretty much raised. Anthony Joseph Foyt III, 24, works for his dad; daughter Terry Lynn Foyt Roberds, 22, lives in Houston, and the youngest, 18-year-old Jerry, is in college, "a business major," Foyt says firmly. There are two grandchildren, Tony's daughter and Terry Lynn's son, in whose presence Foyt turns to Jell-0. Lucy, who once sat nervously in the stands virtually every time A.J. went racing, now attends only selected major events. There's another change in Foyt's life; the race driver without peer, mechanic and builder of fast cars, forever competitive, is about to take on the Sport of Kings.
Actually, he has been in horse racing for a few years, but quietly—making his move slowly, sneaking up from the back of the pack, but more and more now, he's getting set to stand on it.
"You want to talk about a sport that's scary," he says. "You pay $50,000 or more for a horse—and you don't even know if it can run. It sort of puts you in shock. But I'm going about this the same way I got started in automobile racing, that is, pay as you go and do it in cash. Don't owe nobody. Now, then. If a car don't run, you can fix it. But a horse...." He blinks at the wonder of it. "Everything you do is a chance. Uh, Barbizon's Flower: She run second in the '79 Debutante Stakes for 2-year-olds. Well, I bought her and her full sister—and her sister can't run a lick. But that's it. You can't never tell. Some cheap horses'll outrun the expensive ones."
A.J. III serves as his dad's full-time trainer. "I just sort of throwed that kid in with the wolves," Foyt says, "but it's like when I was learning car racing. You got to get in there and make your own mistakes and learn by them. And he will, too. A couple of times I've fired that kid's fanny, but he works hard and we're actually making a little bit of money. Sometimes we're scaring ourselves to death doing it, like they say in car racing, but we're doing it."
The Racing Family Foyt is not only serious about this horsey business, but it's also going to pay off one day soon, according to Bill Rudy, director of public relations for Churchill Downs. "Foyt is tenacious," Rudy says. "You might say he displays the same qualities in horse racing that he does in driving race cars; it's exactly what will make him a winner. He's taken some setbacks, true, but in five years or so he's going to be a definite threat in this sport." In the meantime, Rudy points out, horse racing has additional benefits for Foyt. At Churchill Downs and other tracks, A.J. finds the escape he seeks. The folks in thoroughbred racing couldn't care less about a man's piston-driven ways; Foyt could arrive fresh from winning the 500, with goggle marks still outlined on his face in grease, and the people at the barns would say, "Ah, yes. That's Mister Foyt, the horse-owner, you know."
So here's the master plan according to Foyt: Start at the bottom and work up, campaign maybe 20 to 25 horses at a time and keep trying various fuel mixtures and suspensions until you win the Kentucky Derby. If you can do it at Indy, you can do it anyplace. After all, look at the Foyt silks as described in the official Churchill Downs racing program: Orange and white, with the letters A.J. on the back. The sleeves—ah, the sleeves. They feature black blocks on white. Black blocks on white? Of course. The checkered flag. Shooooomm!
Slowly, Foyt is getting the hang of how these horsey chaps operate. For now, he and his son have a stable of more than 100 horses and a 10-year plan. They keep about 20 2-year-olds in training at their Hockley, Texas ranch, a 1,000-acre spread 35 miles from Houston that Foyt built himself.
The ranch may be one of the tonier spots in Texas: Three houses, eight barns, paddocks, a bunkhouse and a lovely five-eighths-of-a-mile training track with ponds in the infield. All of it is surrounded by the obligatory white fences.
To Foyt his new sport is simple as well as scary: You keep buying and breeding and training and dealing, and pretty soon you get a horse that will make you rich. You come up with, "well, something like a Secretariat, see? A horse that'll make a million for you."
Then he leans back and flashes the explosive grin. Then there is a lightning bolt of insight: "Right now, what we got is a gang of horses and one poor little ol' human who is racing out there and making the million," Foyt says. "You know what? Hell, I'm the Secretariat of this whole operation."
Foyt comes streaking down the straight in his brand-new, bright Coyote-orange No. 51 Gilmore-Valvoline Oldsmobile, hitting maybe 190 mph, and despite the speed, what happens next seems to freeze on the retina like a camera shot: Foyt glances left at his pit crew, raises his right hand from the steering wheel and daintily waggles his fingertips at them in a cheery hello. Shooooom, and he's gone again, into Turn One.
This is early in the 1981 Daytona 500; Foyt is destined to run only 120 laps before a dropped valve spring will force him out. He'll be credited with 35th spot out of 42 entrants. But right now: "Honestly, I've never seen him in a better mood," says Jim Gilmore, Foyt's pal and sponsor for the past 10 years. Gilmore, who's from Kalamazoo, is principally a radio and television station owner; he doesn't have a product to sell like other racing sponsors; he's in the sport for love and kicks. "After all," he says, "it's a new season and we've got a new car—and where else can you have such fun at our age?" Gilmore is a shaggily gray-haired, cheerfully rumpled man who may be Foyt's biggest fan. Certainly he's the only one who has one of Foyt's Indy Coyote race cars, parked in his den, doing duty as a piece of pop-art sculpture. And after Foyt won his fourth Indy, he gave Gilmore the diamond-encrusted ring that went with the victory.
And then comes the sudden change. Two cars whomp together, one of them spinning out of control on Turn Two, and suddenly the yellow caution light flicks on. The pitch of roaring V-8 stock-car engines subtly changes—from raaaawwwwr to whaaannnng, as Foyt would put it—as the drivers back off the gas. And now in clusters, running dangerously close, Foyt and the others head for the pits. The orange Olds comes yowling in and slams to a stop. Foyt's mood is still mellow; he talks calmly, if forcefully, to the crew.
The men work efficiently and ultra-fast. The Olds bobs up and plunks down under their ministrations. Gilmore hands Foyt a drink of water in a paper cup attached to the end of a long pole and then phrooooom! the car roars away.
But suddenly Foyt is back in the pits. A rotund NASCAR official, wearing a radio rig on his head, is there to greet him. The NASCAR guy listens to some instruction on his earpiece and tells Foyt the bad news: It seems that after his last pit stop, Foyt had bypassed the traffic controller's stop sign. He had entered the track ahead of the pace car and had begun gaining on the field under the yellow light. Not allowed. So he had been flagged back into the pits, and he would now have to remain there until he'd lost the ground he'd made up on the leaders.
Foyt's face darkens as if a tornado were taking shape inside the cockpit. His helmet is bobbing up and down as he yells choice yells; he slams his palms on the steering wheel, and then he draws down his chin and bends his head forward. Slamming in the clutch, he pops the car into gear and starts revving the engine. The roar rises to a painful scream of metal. Foyt keeps zapping the engine; with each zap the car shudders, gathering itself up to explode forward. But the NASCAR official, holding his hand up, palm pointed toward Foyt, remains in front of the car, just at the left front fender.
Gilmore winces and says with a half-smile, "I'm not sure that I'd stand in front of A.J.'s car at a time like this."
Later that day, after his car had come limping in, Foyt went to his equipment truck in the infield and quickly changed into a fresh shirt, fresh jeans, fresh mood and expensive handmade cowboy boots of what appeared to be anteater hide. He emerged with a grin, popped open a can of Pepsi, slid behind the wheel of Gilmore's grape-colored Cadillac sedan and allowed that, well, possibly the penalty had caused the valve stem to go bad. But what the hell, that was racin', right? And then he flashed the smile at everybody and drove off, paying absolutely no attention to the race still going on around him.
And now, back in Houston on this bright, historic morning—the Day A.J. Revealed His Mellow Side—he volunteers, for the first time anywhere, how he came to be a millionaire. "All I ever wanted to do was race," he says. "Jump in the car and run that sumbitch, and do it better'n anybody else. Well, along came 1960 and I won my first national title in championship cars, and I said to myself, 'Well, hell, this here is it; I'll never ever again make this much money in one year in my life.' " But then came the really good years, adorned with more national titles and the four Indy victories, and as Bill Ansted, one of Foyt's early sponsors, noted dryly, "A.J. may not have had much education, but he certainly knows how to read a contract." And suddenly Foyt, who had been poor all his life—"just walking along there with a race helmet under one arm"—was a millionaire. In fact, until three years ago, he confesses, he lived solely on his income from stock-car and midget racing and invested all the rest. That's like Reggie Jackson living on the royalties from his candy bar and socking away everything else.
In 1971 Foyt bought a Chevrolet agency in Houston and has since built it into one of the largest in the region—5,000 new car sales a year. And typically, though he's the owner, he has never cashed a salary check from the place. On the side, as time permits, Foyt serves on the board of directors of Houston's Greenway Bank and SCI (Service Corp. International), the country's largest funeral service outfit, and he owns a piece of the Houston Astros. Not bad for a kid who dropped out in the 11th grade. And now the money—in cash, not credit—goes into horse racing. He grins at that thought. "Well," he says, "I mean, you ain't never seen a Brinks truck following a funeral procession to dump the money into the grave, have you? Well then."
It remains for Foyt to wind down one activity while cranking up the other. Because they can afford it, Foyt and Gilmore will hit selected 1981 major races pretty much on their own, without being tugged and pulled at—and definitely not dominated—by major sponsors. "Listen," he says. "I'm not drawn back every year by a lot of money from this major company or that one. I'm drawn back to racing by the competition and because I enjoy it."
Precisely. The statement crackles in the air, and thus goes the Foyt philosophy of life. To the race—ah, the race—and the hell with the rest of it. The driving is what counts. When the race is over, the rest of it is empty smiles and false marquees and the pretend-modest posturing that's expected of all drivers. It's Gary Coopering a sport that should be pure. But no false pose from Foyt. For A.J., it's enough to race so boldly that your nerves sizzle and your very life is on the line; it is too much to be expected to park that car and immediately be nice to old ladies and God knows who all.
"I guess it's an honor," Foyt says, trying to figure it out, "but I swear people won't let me alone. Sometimes they must think I'm a sorry s.o.b., but there are times when I got to concentrate on my racing, to have some peace and quiet. And that's what bugs me about this sport; it's the pressure of the people. It didn't used to be this way, or is it that I'm getting older? I don't know.
"Maybe it's television. They've had shows on TV that are supposed to take place inside a man's head. Call it immediate news or whatever, up close and personal, something. But people see the shows and then they expect that me and other sports figures will be like that in real life—inside out just for them, up close and personally theirs. My car can be running real bad on the track and I'm worried as hell about it, and I can be talking confidentially to one of my mechanics, and some fan will come right up and throw an arm around my shoulder and start talking to me. Will I take just a minute to step over here and pose with his wife and kids? Or they do worse. It's tugging and pulling. Over here, A.J., and c'mere, A.J. Well, here's what has gradually happened: I've always been outspoken, but I've got a commitment to racing, by God, and I'm going to keep that commitment. So I've been known to say 'kiss my ass' and go out racing. Well, then the fans get on me—it seems like they've been more vicious in the past few years—and then the newspapers and magazines have wrote bad on me, and I just can't help it. I'm just ol' A.J., and you got to take me the way I come."
Fair enough. And in the countdown to the 65th Indy 500 two weeks ago, Foyt continued unwaveringly to add to his own legend. He had left the bedside of his critically ill mother, promising to win this one for her, he told newsmen. And right from the start he had hammered out impressive speeds in his sleek new Coyote, once howling to an unofficial 214 mph in a practice run down the main straightaway. Later in the week A.J. fiercely brow-beat a local newspaper reporter whose account of that high-speed run had riled Foyt.
The next day, Foyt hit an official 196.078 mph to lead the first weekend of qualifying. That put him on the pole for that moment but because rain had shortened the opening weekend's program, it also left him with a full week of waiting to see if he would hold the pole. He didn't. In last Saturday's qualifying session, the pole went to Bobby Unser, and when Mike Mosley also bettered his time, Foyt was relegated to third on the grid. The day after his 196.078-mph run, Foyt's mother died back in Houston.
It took a gritty, forceful personality to stand up to all of that, but when Indy is run this weekend, there will be Foyt, unswerving as ever. The world, as he says, will have to take him as he is.
Well, it turns out there's no other way, and at least that's something one can count on. Which brings us to one final anecdote. Let it be instructive to the folks out there in thoroughbred racing: A.J. Foyt is coming. And while the venue might change, rest assured that A.J. will not.
"It was at last year's Kentucky Derby," Foyt says. "I was just pulling out of the parking lot at Churchill Downs and this stranger came up to the window of my wagon. He sort of bent over and looked in. He indicated to me that he wanted to say something, so I rolled down the window and he kind of leaned in and...." Foyt pauses to sniff the air, indicating that it was thick with the smell of bourbon and crushed mint leaves. "And he said something to me about how he didn't like my horses, and I sort of shrugged. And then he said to me, 'A.J., yer a——off.' Now, he had some friends with him, and I reckon that he was trying to be a big shot in front of them. Maybe he'd seen me on television or something, and now he had me live." Foyt sighs, remembering it. Only the costumes and the setting had changed, but here was a familiar scene being replayed. "I came boiling out of the car," Foyt .says, "and fwwaaaaap! I hit that sucker. I hadda hit him twice. He was saying, 'Please don't hit me again, Mister Foyt, please don't hit me again.'
"Well. That's it, you see? It's exactly what I've been telling you. I may not have that race helmet under my arm, but I'm still the same A.J. Foyt and nobody says——off to me, no matter where it is."