A.J.'s Back on Track
The $450,000 car (with a $1 metal brake bracket that had just snapped) blasted through a wooden fence and took to the air before plowing three feet into a dirt embankment. Foyt's left leg snapped, the tibia bone shooting up through his kneecap and piercing his thigh. His left heel was crushed, the right heel ripped from its socket. The pain was worse than anything Foyt had ever experienced in 40 crash-strewn years of racing. The worst part was, he never lost consciousness.
"Can't y'all get a goddamn hammer and hit me in the head with it?" he asked the rescue workers, who spent 30 minutes prying him out of the wreckage.
Foyt wasn't joking then, and he isn't joking now when he says that come May 26 he'll be back behind the wheel trying to notch yet another Indianapolis 500 victory. "I'm gonna run it one more time," he says, wobbling about on legs whose reknit bones barely support his bullish 215 lbs. "Then I'll quit."
The auto-racing world thought A.J., who turned 56 in January, would pack it in last September. He was considered too old to come back from such crippling injuries. Besides, he has nothing to prove. He is already the winningest driver in Indy-car history, with 172 major victories. And he is the only man to ever win the Indy 500, the Daytona 500 stock-car race and the 24 hours of Le Mans—an amazing trifecta requiring totally different racing skills. A self-made millionaire who never finished high school, he owns a 1,500-acre ranch in Hockley, Texas, where he breeds Thoroughbreds; a second ranch in West Texas; and two homes, one in Houston and one in Austin, as well as a Honda dealership.
Foyt had clearly done it all. But not by his reckoning. There was the matter of the record he shared with Al Unser Sr.—both have won Indy four times. The cantankerous old buzzard was determined to go for No. 5. "Before the wreck I set my goals to run Indianapolis once more," he says simply. "And I always meet my goals."
Foyt paid his first visit to the winner's circle when he was 5. Driving a car built by his mechanic father, A.J. Sr., he beat a grown-up named Doc Cossey in an exhibition race at his hometown Houston Speed Bowl. "It was a setup deal," he has said, "but it was my first taste of victory. All the races and all the money and all the fame have not dulled that desire to win one bit."
A.J. (the initials stand for Anthony Joseph) was 11 when he received his first injury—he was driving his car around the yard when it caught fire and burned his hands. He was 23 in 1958 when he drove in his initial Indy 500 and watched in horror as his friend Pat O'Connor flipped and burned to death. Over the years Foyt has survived flaming wrecks of his own, accidents that burned his neck, hands and face so badly that they no longer tan in the hot Texas sun.
The fire has appeared to rage inside Foyt as well. His temper is nearly as storied as his driving. Take the 1,500 acres of East Texas pine woods he bought in 1965. He and A.J. Sr. cleared 600 acres and built fences, barns and houses by themselves. After A.J.'s mother, Evelyn, died in 1981 and his father in '83, Foyt bulldozed the house they stayed in. "Hurt too much to look at it," he explains.
A man of steady habits and fierce loyalties, he has been married 36 years to Lucy, a housewife who is the mother of his three children, A.J. III, 35, daughter Terry, 33, and Jerry, 27. When Terry was little, one of his horses made the mistake of rolling on her. A.J. shot the animal to death on the spot.
Nor has Foyt limited himself to targeting ornery equines. In 1963 Indy car racing was dominated by Firestone. When that company balked at Foyt's suggestions for improving their product, he flew to Akron and talked the folks at Goodyear into making him a racing tire.
It took two years for Goodyear to develop a product that satisfied him. Meanwhile, Foyt won his second Indy 500 in 1964 (his first had come three years earlier), grudgingly using Firestones but wearing a Goodyear driving suit. A full-blown tire war ensued, and by 1975 Goodyear had pushed Firestone out of racing.
Yet, by all reports, Foyt parks his temper outside the track when he's driving. Indeed, his concern for his fellow drivers is almost legendary. At a race in Phoenix a few years ago, three-time Indy winner Johnny Rutherford crashed and burned. Foyt, who had already dropped out with mechanical failure, rushed onto the track and helped pull Rutherford from the car.
"He followed me to the hospital to make sure I was okay," says Rutherford. "Then he took me to the hotel to make sure I was comfortable. I never forgot that."
Mario Andretti, who has battled the Master, as he calls him, for 30 years on racetracks around the world, says it doesn't surprise him a bit that A.J. would attempt one more Indy 500. By contrast, Steve Watterson has been utterly amazed by Foyt. The strength-and-rehabilitation coach of the Houston Oilers, Watterson began working with A.J. last November, just four days after he shed his casts.
Watterson used lo think football players were the world's toughest people. "I've worked on destroyed joints before," he says, "but nothing of this magnitude. I couldn't even fathom what he'd been through."
For three months, 6½ hours a day, Foyt drove himself through a punishing rehab that left Oiler players half his age watching in astonishment. Why did he push himself with such cool fury? Foyt merely shrugs. "I just didn't want to be a damn cripple for the rest of my life," he says.
Watterson knows better. "A.J.'s driven to drive that car again. He lives it, he tastes it, he sleeps it. It's an addiction."
It is April 5, and Foyt is in Indianapolis to have his ingrown big toenails removed and to lest his new car. He winces noticeably as he hobbles out onto the speedway and, with the help of his crew, stuffs himself into the racing compartment of his sleek black car. "My goddamn toes don't want to fit in there," he says of the oversnug space. The Chevrolet Indy V-8 engine roars to life, and Foyt eases his British-made Lola onto the track. He drives three laps at 180 mph and returns to the pits. Then he heads out again.
"He's gassin' this one," says one of his crew as Foyt shrieks around the empty track. A few hours later he pushes the car, which has never been driven before, up to 213 mph. The temperature around his nail-shorn toes is 110°F. The temperature of the water in a pipe on which he rests his back is 190.
"I'm still way off," says Foyt, out of the car, his face still beet-red. "I don't have all my feeling back in my feet. I still got a lot of pain, but I like challenges. I'm not going lo back off." He pauses, lakes in the contours of the speedway—and, by extension, his life. Then he says, "I hope I can win the damn tiling, walk away and say the hell with it."
BILL SHAW in Texas and Indianapolis