For some reason, I was always a Foyt fan. From the earliest racing magazines I read, and believe me I was a precocious reader from the early nineteen-sixties on, A.J. always seemed demonstrably a cut above the rest. Maybe Robin Miller’s right and Parnelli Jones is the best ever on dirt in an open-wheel USAC car; maybe the folks who prefer Rick Mears have important points to score as well. But for me it was always Foyt. If he didn’t win, God be with the people around him. His temper, like his talent, deserves the word legendary. I well recall the scene at Indy when from the war wagon A.J. climbed, enraged by a botched pit stop, grabbed a laptop and proceeded to lay waste to it while a TV commentator cried out, “No, A.J., no! Control, Alt, Delete! Control, Alt, Delete!” It as a measure of how much the man wanted and still wants to win.
Take the 1964 Indy 500 as one example. It was a bloody race in a season many remember as ghastly in terms of how many drivers lost their lives both on the Championship Trail and elsewhere (in the World 600 that same Memorial Day, Fireball Roberts suffered the injuries that would kill him just over a month later). I saw that race on closed-circuit TV, and to call the Sachs/MacDonald crash hideous is still to sell it short. It was amazing that the race resumed at all, but it did. A.J. proved that day he simply wanted to win more than anyone else, outdueling Jones and then outlasting the field after Parnelli’s car caught fire on pit road.
Or take the ’67 500—nobody, and I mean nobody could touch Parnelli in the Granatelli turbine. In second place, A.J. couldn’t even see him. But then a ball bearing breaks and suddenly the turbine was powerless. Still, for Foyt the race was nowhere near over: a crash in turn four on the white flag lap meant he had to pick his way through it all, which he did, and passed Pat Vidan’s checkered flag for his third Indy win.
But we don’t have to confine ourselves to one race. As anyone who drove against him will tell you, Foyt was nothing less than The Man. If sports-car drivers scoffed at first, they didn’t for long. Richard Petty took one look at Foyt in Daytona and knew he was the real deal right away. It wasn’t difficult.
My favorite Foyt story is the time the USAC champ cars showed up at a race at the Milwaukee Mile, only Foyt’s rear-engine car didn’t show up. All he had was his (front-engine, mind, at that time already an anachronism) dirt car—so he ran it, and had a shot at winning the race. Had he done that, I don’t know if it would’ve changed racing history but as such it was an amazing accomplishment.
I’ve seen him race a couple of times in person but never met the man until this past Friday. I stopped by his paddock space after practice and sure enough, here he comes from the trailer. It was balls-hot, and he looked like he wanted to get some AC and make some plans about Vitor Meira’s #14. The man’s past 70, and I could not blame him one iota if that was what was on his mind. A couple of guys around my age were standing around, watching; so was a girl of about fifteen who was taking photos, like me. I told her, “That is the greatest racing driver ever to live. I’m not kidding you.” The old heads wanted autographs. I stood back and just took a couple of shots. Just after the last one, the golf-cart driver started out of the space. Foyt gave me a smile and a wave. I just said, “Thank you, A.J. Greatest ever—” I’d gotten what I wanted, just to be able to say I saw him up close, said my thanks for the career he’s had, take a couple of photos, and not get in his way.
That temper, mind.
With that, those three shots, with more to come from elsewhere at the track: