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Foyt was first to win four Indy 500's

Foyt kept the pedal to the floor
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

"He [A.J. Foyt] would make Bobby Knight look like a Sunday school superintendent. He was probably the most volatile man I've ever seen around the race track," says newspaper columnist Furman Bisher on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

A.J. Foyt has always believed in God, America and himself -- and not necessarily in that order. A man of conviction, he is loyal to his friends and indifferent to his enemies. He is brash and blunt. He expected no quarter on the racetrack, and gave none himself. He knew only one speed -- pedal to the floor.

AJ Foyt
A.J. Foyt was the first driver to win the Indy 500 four times.
While Foyt says he really didn't have any heroes, he also says, "I guess John Wayne would be one. I just respected the way he acted."

The same way people respect Foyt, a man with as much true grit as the Duke. Foyt was the man when it came to the Indy 500, which for generations was the most significant auto race in this country. The tough Texan is an Indy legend, the first driver to win the prestigious race four times.

The only person to have driven in the race for 35 consecutive years, he did 4,909 laps around the oval for a total of 12,272.5 miles (or about five trips from New York to San Francisco). He earned $2,637,963 competing in the Indy 500.

His seven national Indy car championships remain a record. So do his 67 Indy car victories, which are 15 more than the No. 2 driver, Mario Andretti. One year, Foyt won an astounding 10 of 13 races.

He succeeded in other forms of racing as well. He is the only driver to achieve this triple: victories in the Indy 500, NASCAR's Daytona 500 (in 1972) and the 24 Hours of Le Mans international sports car race (with Dan Gurney in 1967). And no other driver has at least 20 victories in the United States Auto Club's four major categories: Indy cars, stock cars (41), sprint cars (28) and midgets (20). In the eighties, with his career in Indy car racing on the down side, he won the 12 Hours of Sebring and the 24 Hours of Daytona twice.

Foyt was born on Jan. 16, 1935, in Houston and at three had his first car, a little red open-wheel racer with a one-cylinder Briggs & Stratton lawn mower engine.

His father, A.J. Sr. or "Tony," built a midget-type racer that could hit 50 miles per hour. At the old Houston Speed Bowl he arranged for his son to race one of the leading adult drivers in a three-lap duel. Little A.J. Jr. won the event at five.

At 11, while "babysitting" his sister, Foyt enlisted the help of friends to remove his father's midget racer off its trailer. Firing it up, Foyt raced around the yard. Turning it into a plowed field, he almost raked the corner off their house. The engine overheated, burst into flames bubbling the paint on the hood and A.J. suffered his first "racing" injury -- burnt hands.

After dropping out of high school in the 11th grade, Foyt won his first race when he was 18, capturing a midget event at Playland Park, a quarter-mile dirt bullring in his hometown. That victory launched one of the most exceptional careers in auto racing, remarkable in its dominance and longevity.

He joined the USAC in 1957 and competed in his first Indy 500 the next year, finishing 16th after spinning in the south chute after 148 laps. In 1960, he not only won his first Indy car race, but also his first national championship. He won four races that year.

In 1961, Foyt became the first driver to successfully defend his title and win the Indy 500. He captured the race with a then-record speed of 139.13 mph. He survived a late pit stop for fuel when Eddie Sachs was forced to pit because of a blistered tire.

His third national championship came in 1963, when he won three events and finished no worse than eighth in any race. But it was nothing compared to Foyt's dominance in 1964, the year he set his record winning-percentage of .769 with his 10 firsts in 13 races. (Al Unser Sr. matched the 10 victories in a year, but needed more races.) His most important first was his victory in the Indy 500 when he outlasted Rodger Ward and Lloyd Ruby to win with an average speed of 147.35 mph.

He also won his fourth national title. Another accomplishment for Foyt that year was his victory in the Firecracker 400 stock car race on July 4.

Foyt won his fifth national championship in 1967, coming in 80 points ahead of Andretti. He romped to his third Indy 500 victory, with a then-record speed of 151.207 mph. Narrowly missing a last-lap pileup on the main straight, Foyt finished more than two laps ahead of Unser, the second-place driver.

In 1972, Foyt led a dirt race by one lap with five to go when he pitted for a squirt of fuel. The fuel hose broke, spraying Foyt's head with two gallons of an alcohol-nitro mixture. In an incredibly terrible chain of events, his exhaust pipes burped fire and his head went up in flames. Foyt tumbled from his car while it was still moving. Despite the left rear tire rolling over his left foot, Foyt hobbled toward a lake that was in the middle of the infield. His father caught up with him and doused the flames with a fire extinguisher.

It would not be until 1977 that Foyt would win the Indy 500 again.
AJ Foyt
A.J. Foyt is the only person to have driven in the Indy 500 for 35 consecutive years.
At 42, he raced around the Brickyard at 161.331 mph. With prize money of $259,791, Foyt became the first to earn a million dollars in Speedway history. Foyt's four victories at the Indy 500 haven't been surpassed, though Unser and Rick Mears have tied his record.

Foyt's final two Indy car national championships came in 1975 and 1978. In the latter year, he also won the USAC's stock car championship, becoming the only driver to win both titles in the same year.

He won his last Indy car race in 1981, taking the Pocono 500. That gave him nine victories in "500 mile" Indy car races, a record. His last race at the Brickyard was 1992, when he qualified at 222.798 for the 23rd starting spot. He reached the top 10 at 300 miles during the race and finished ninth, five laps off the pace.

Foyt, who was one of the inaugural inductees into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1989, practiced at Indy in 1993, but retired on the first qualifying day.

A self-made millionaire, his A.J. Foyt Enterprises and race shop have been based in Houston since 1965. Foyt remains active in motor sports by fielding two teams in the Indy Racing League. He also serves on the board of directors of Riverway Bank and Service Corporation International, the nation's largest funeral business.

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