Singular Foyt presence still looms large

INDIANAPOLIS -- A.J. Foyt is raising ever-lovin' hell at his team managers, just like always (but this is just the other day, mind you, on his cellphone), ordering them to change the electronic combination locks on his equipment trucks. Otherwise, "them Andrettis and Penskes'll just go up there and take what they need, and I'm tired of that crap."

After all these decades, you reckon you can razz him a little without getting decked. That wasn't always the case.

"Foyt's Soup Kitchen, huh?" you say. "Just stand in line for your handout from A.J."

"The motherf---ers," he says of teams that for years hardly gave old A.J. the time of day but come to him for help now that he's running competitive cars again.

Invited -- you'd damn well better be invited or you're out of here on your ass -- you sit down across the table from him in his million-dollar motor coach, parked on the same hallowed ground where in 1958 he waited for days, sleeping in a '57 Chevrolet, because nobody knew who he was and wouldn't let him through the gates of Gasoline Alley.

You tell him all the various polls and pundits have him ranked No. 1 among all drivers in the Indianapolis 500's century as an American institution.

In response, he sits there giving you a look that asks just what the hell that's supposed to mean.

Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. never has given a damn about opinions, and he isn't going to start now, at age 76, here hiding out from strolling bands of fans on Community Day at the track.

For 50 years now, since his Indianapolis 500 win in 1961, the first of his four, nobody around Indianapolis Motor Speedway has doubted who A.J. Foyt is, or dared to stop his bull-like lumbering (some years limping) through any gates he pleases.

In that time, he nearly died of a broken back and crushed sternum, nearly suffocated, at Riverside, Calif., in 1965 … nearly burned to death at Milwaukee in '66, … got his feet and legs splintered and shattered at Elkhart Lake, Wis., in '91 … and yet he has kept on coming.

Even now, he keeps on. Even this week, as a team owner, he has stirred up a storm of controversy by renting out one of his cars, already qualified for Sunday's race, to his bitterest rival family of the past 46 years, the Andrettis.

Should that car, to be driven by Ryan Hunter-Reay, win on Sunday, might Foyt actually hug the Andrettis in Victory Circle?

He smiles, just a little, sort of.

"I'll be there," he says. "To Mario, I'll say, 'Keep your ass out.' 'Cause Mario ain't got nothing to do with this deal. This is all me and Michael."

As a team owner, Michael Andretti had landed a major sponsor for Hunter-Reay's car for the IndyCar season, but it failed to qualify for the 500. Knowing making the 500 is critical to sponsorship, Foyt rented Michael a car that was already in the field to carry the colors of the sponsor.

"Way I look at it, everybody needs major sponsors," Foyt says. "We don't need to run 'em off. Big major sponsors, I don't care if it's NASCAR, are hard to bring into the game. I had a chance to help them out. Help to save a big sponsor over there."

Most of all, "Let's face it: Michael is a lot different from his daddy."

Michael has always been duly reverent in the presence of A.J. Foyt. As for the old man, Mario, well …

In 1965, an immigrant kid from Italy started to challenge the badass young Texan on the heartland dirt tracks of America. This, even after a tough old chief mechanic leaned into the cockpit before the start of a race and said, "'Kid, forget about beating Foyt today,'" as Mario tells the story. "'The only guy who could stop Foyt from winning today would be a jealous husband in the grandstands with a deer rifle.'"

But Mario showed no reverence, no fear, no concession to Foyt, and they've been "at heads," as Foyt puts it now, ever since, even deep into both their retirements from driving.

Foyt talks about the good of the 500, the good of keeping sponsors at a time when IndyCar is wounded, struggling in the shadows of NASCAR. So, with all that in mind, would he have given a car to the Andretti team even if Mario were the owner?

His chief publicist interrupts.

"He'd have to think about it," she says. Now, he's trying to cooperate with her sense of diplomacy, really trying. But he can do that only to a point.

"Pretty damn serious thinking," he says.

As for Roger Penske's outfit, the team that has won this race a runaway record 15 times, Foyt still savors the memory of the year of Penske's great humiliation, 1995.

"Who'd have ever thought Penske would have two 500 winners [Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr.] and can't qualify for this race?

"I can truthfully say we've been in the back before, but we have never missed this race."

The last Indy 500 that was run without Foyt in it, as a driver or an owner, was 1957.

"I've seen Penske go buy two cars from [Bobby] Rahal [in a desperate, last-minute switch in '95] that was running fast, and they changed everything on the goddamn things before they went out there, and they still missed it."

Several of Penske's drivers through the years, and Mario and Michael Andretti, and three Unsers (Bobby, Al and Al Jr.) have made most lists of the all-time field of 33 in Indy's 100 years.

None, nor any other driver down through the decades, has come close to challenging Foyt for the mythical all-time pole.

You ask him whether he has even bothered to notice the polls and pundits, and that they have placed him at the pinnacle of this race's history.

He tosses the back of that big right hand at the air (thankfully not at your face) and says, "I noticed it one day, a paper had me …"

Across the table, he gives you that glare, that unique A.J. Foyt hybrid of fiery, towering pride and boyish humility and reverence for this place, and he says:

Yeah, in my time, I was pretty damn good. I mean, my records show that.

-- A.J. Foyt

"Yeah, in my time, I was pretty damn good. I mean, my records show that."

He was the first to win four Indy 500s, and he added historic victories in the 24 Hours of Le Mans (with Dan Gurney in 1967) and the Daytona 500 (1972) in his spare time along the way.

His fourth Indy win, in 1977, "has to stand out pretty good because it was my own car [he called his design a Coyote], my own motor [a Foyt V-8] and I drove it. That makes you feel good."

Hell, it ought to. He was the first driver to win in a car of his own design powered by his own engine. And he remains the last.

But the greatest driver ever here? He isn't buying that. Can't. Nobody can say, he reckons.

"Who's gonna say that waaay back [to Ray Harroun in 1911, up through Ralph DePalma in the early years, Frank Lockhart in the 1920s, Louis Meyer in the '30s, Mauri Rose in the '40s, Bill Vukovich in the '50s], I could beat them guys?

"Who right now can say I could beat these boys [the current drivers]?

"I don't know.

"Way I look at it, to be truthful with you, it's nice for people to say that. But: I'm A.J. I'm glad to be named amongst 'em. It's not that I'm any better."

His whole adult life, he has shown reverence for only three men: Anthony Joseph Foyt Sr., called "Tony"; longtime IMS owner Tony Hulman; and NASCAR founder Bill France Sr.

But they're all long dead now (although once, old Tony Foyt walked out of the grave to comfort A.J. in his direst hours, as we'll explain in a minute), so Foyt's reverence focuses now on one place, this place, and on those who came here before him, dying at rates unthinkable today in cars that didn't even have seat belts.

"I look at some of them cars that they drove that I wouldn't drive down the freeway at 100 mph. It would scare the hell out of me. And I know probably these boys think the same of what I drove [at 200 mph].

"To me, it's just different times. … Everything's different."

But, God almighty, he can't hold back the pride in his time, the era when it took "balls that wouldn't fit into a boxcar," as old-line NASCAR drivers used to say of the fire-scarred men who drove Indy cars.

"In my time, every time you hit the wall, with no fuel cell, you got burned automatically. I had already been burned a couple of times when I crashed and got burned pretty bad at Milwaukee in '66.

"I did not know if I wanted to come back in '67. I didn't really plan on coming back. I was gonna run Joe Leonard for the championship that year."

But Leonard was offered bigger money by another team, "and he left, and then I said, 'Well, I'm gonna go for the championship myself now.'

"And we did win it."

Hell, '67 was his most glorious year. He won the Indy 500 by hurtling headlong through a fiery pileup and a blinding cloud of smoke on the final lap. A fortnight later, he was in France insulting the French by calling the storied Circuit de la Sarthe and its deadly Mulsanne Straight "nothin' but a li'l ol' country road," and then he and Dan Gurney went out and blew away the international competition, easily winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Ford GT-40. They remain the only all-American driving team, in an all-American car, to win Le Mans.

Then what really miffed the French was that he wouldn't eat the food at the victory party: "Li'l ol' fish with the heads still on and the eyes lookin' up at you, and, uh-uhhhh," he once explained to you.

The only trouble with 1967, for A.J. Foyt, was that Mario Andretti won the Daytona 500.

But now, at the table in his motor coach, he is back in 2011, arguing on and on that you can't compare eras in motor racing. He cites a prime example, his long-ago protégé in NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt.

Foyt instantly liked the rough young driver from the Carolinas. You should have heard them argue, one-upping each other, about the guns they owned, until Foyt finally trumped with his 50-caliber machine gun mounted on a Jeep on his ranch down at Del Rio, Texas, and Earnhardt stomped off in a huff with nothing more than a .375 Weatherby, capable of knocking a grizzly bear flat, to brag about.

"I thought the world of the guy, and the guy in his time was a helluva race driver," Foyt says. "Could he beat the boys today? Who knows? Could he have beat 'em before that [in the Richard Petty-David Pearson era of NASCAR]? Who knows?

"I mean, in his time, he was good.

"When you look way back, certain race drivers were at the top of their class. Time moves on, I guess is what I'm saying."

Time passed Foyt by circa 1990, he reckons now.

"I feel like I raced maybe three or four years too long."

But he just by God wasn't going to go out that way, limping on legs torn to bits below the knees at Elkhart Lake. At the crash scene, he hurt so bad that 15 cc of morphine didn't faze him, and he howled at the doctors, "Just find a goddamn hammer and knock me in the head!"

Still, "I was determined to prove a point that I could come back and run fast," which he did here in '91.

After months of agonizing surgery and rehabilitation, still limping badly, he climbed back on the horse -- into the race car -- for a test here in April of '91, just to see whether he could still do it.

On the very first lap at high speed, he touched the brake pedal and it went to the floor, useless. Just like at Elkhart Lake the previous fall.

He coasted back in, laughing, ordering his crew to rework the brakes, then he went back out.

"I had a big flashback," he remembers of the brake failure here. "I didn't know if I wanted no part of this crap no more.

"Well, I mean, I ain't gonna lie to you. It scared the crap out of me. A lot of these race drivers say they never been scared. I can't name you one damn race, not one, that at one time or another, I didn't thrill the hell out of myself. And you hear this, 'Oh, nothing thrills me.' They're bull-----ing their selves. I've run as fast as any of 'em, I've won as much as any of 'em, and when they're saying that, they're just telling you -- excuse my French -- bull----."

What scared him most about the Indy brake failure was that his feet "weren't even healed up good. … When I got in that car, they weren't feeling good anyway. I didn't need 'em shoved up my butt."

The man who brought him back to Indy in '91 was his daddy, who'd been dead eight years.

A.J. lay in that hospital in Milwaukee, the morphine doing little more for him than making him vomit his stomach dry. But old Tony came and stood by the bed and talked to A.J.

A.J. was certain of that 20 years ago, and he's certain of it now.

"Oh, yeah. That was a weird deal. I'll still tell you what I told you then: He more or less says, 'You're hurt bad, but you're gonna be all right.'

"I mean, just like I'm talking to you now. I know that sounds crazy to a lot of people. You say that to people, they'll say, 'Well, they had you drugged up.' Yeah, I was on drugs and all like that. But why [Tony came], I don't know."

"To believe that," you say, "people have to understand how close you and your daddy were."

"Well, we were. We weren't like a father and son. We were like maybe two very, very close friends, or brothers."

But still, he still knows Tony came to him in Milwaukee?

"Oh, yes."

So here he came back in '91, and "We almost won the pole that year."

And don't think Mario Andretti wasn't livid, didn't raise all hell, when Foyt edged him with what appeared to be the pole speed early in that qualifying round.

On live national television, Mario strongly implied that officials had let Foyt cheat, maintaining that even via the in-car camera you could see the turbocharger pressure gauge going well over the legal limits.

A man of California cool and peace, Rick Mears, kept the old boys from each other's throats when he came along later in qualifying and won the pole, moving them both over on the front row.

Whatever, "I knew I was slowing down," Foyt remembers. He had meant to make '91 his last ride at Indy, but got caught up early in someone else's crash. So he came back in '92 for one last drive, and that was it.

When CART teams pulled out of here in 1996, taking "the stars and cars of Indy" to a rebellious rival race in Michigan, Foyt had this mantra:

"The race makes the drivers," he said then. "The drivers don't make the race."

"I've always said that," he says now.

You push the issue. Isn't there a singular exception, the very embodiment of the Indy 500, A.J. Foyt?

"People didn't know me from winning Daytona. They didn't know me from winning California. They didn't know me from winning Pocono.

"They knew me from Le Mans a little bit. They don't know me from Sebring [which he won]. They don't know me from the Daytona 24-hour race [which he won] or Nassau [the old Grand Prix of the Bahamas, which he won].

"Race after race after race, they just really know me from Indianapolis."

Having made himself rich decades ago, and Texan to his marrow, Foyt has long owned and raced thoroughbred horses.

"I've got some now," but, "I'm not near as active. I haven't even seen none of the new ones run. They've won four or five races."

But he has always loved horse racing analogies, and now he applies one to the Indy 500, even in its wounded state after the civil war in Indy car racing that dragged on from 1996 to 2008.

"This race to me is like the Kentucky Derby. It's got tradition that you cannot buy. It's just tradition, I'm sorry. Daytona's a great race. And it's got good tradition. But it don't have the tradition Indianapolis has. The Preakness, the Belmont, they're great horse races, right? But you only got one Kentucky Derby.

"And it don't make a damn which horse wins it, good or bad. That horse dies known for winning the Kentucky Derby."

Swedish driver Kenny Brack won the 500 here in 1999, driving for Foyt. It remains Brack's only claim to fame.

"We was in Colorado about a month after we won this race," Foyt recalls. "We were running about fourth or fifth, and Kenny was bitching a little bit. I says, 'Kenny, stop!'

"He said, 'What?'

"I said, 'Lemme ask you something. Anybody remember you winning this race last year? Anybody say anything to you?'

"'Oh, no.'"

"I said, 'You know that race you won about a month ago?'


"I said, 'That'll live with you the rest of your life.'"

He remembers every one of his wins here, and some of his losses, like they just concluded this morning.

"In '61, see, I had to make a [late] fuel stop because my fuel hose broke and I didn't get a full load of fuel. And he [Eddie Sachs] was running so hard he wore his tires out trying to run with me. At the time, we carried 75 gallons of fuel. I didn't have enough, so they said late stop.

"We was havin' a helluva race up until then [when Sachs' tires wore out]. In that one, I had a race won, I lost, and then it came back."

Early in the '64 race, Sachs and young Dave MacDonald died in a fire cloud, from those huge loads of fuel. But Foyt would have dominated that day anyway -- "We ran strong in the roadster," the last front-engine car ever to win Indy.

"I knew them boys that got killed. Sure, it was a victory, but it wasn't a victory like I won. It wasn't that they were beating me; it's just knowing that you had some friends that lost their lives."

In '67, "Parnelli [Jones] and I lapped the field. But he had such an advantage that the only way I could beat him was if something happened.

"I couldn't outrun the turbine car. It [Jones' advantage] would be like me running Daytona now with no plate, and the rest of 'em had plates."

But, in perhaps the most notorious loss in Indy history, the turbine broke a small bolt with seven laps to go, Jones was out of the race, and Foyt led by a lap over the rest of the field.

Still, at the end, "It was very dramatic," Foyt remembers of flying blind through that cloud of smoke and sea of wreckage between the fourth turn and the checkered flag.

On the last lap, "For some reason, I backed off a little bit going into [Turn] 3, 'cause I had a lap on the field. I lifted because I could see all that group of cars ahead of me kind of jockeying around. I said, 'Man, this ain't looking good.' And then when I got off 4, 'Holy crap, it don't look good.'"

"I couldn't see nothing… I think my heart missed a beat.

"But I said, 'Whoever I hit, I'm gonna carry 'em past that start-finish line.' I already had my mind made up. You know me. I was in the smoke, and I said, 'Whoever I hit, I'm gonna be wide open when I get there, and whoever I hit, we're gonna go by the finish line.' "

He didn't hit anybody. He sailed clear of the cloud of smoke to the thunderous roars from Indy's grandstands, and that was the newsreel footage that preceded him to Le Mans and captured the fancy of all of Europe the next month.

"Then you take '77."

No, first you take the decade leading up to '77, and all that frustration trying to become the first four-time winner here. But especially the two years before '77.

"All right, '75, '76, nobody could run close to me. I run out of fuel once, then the rain caught me, and then finally I won it."

Here you gotta razz him again.

"You remember the first thing you said when you walked into that media center in '77?" you ask him. "You snatched up that microphone, and you said, "Goddamn, we did it."

Yeah, he remembers. He tosses that right backhand at the air again.

"Well, after two years of losing, you get to thinking can you win it again or not? Like Earnhardt at Daytona [the Man in Black went winless in the Daytona 500 until his 20th try.]

"I used to tease him: 'Man, I won that damn thing.'"

"'Aw, shut up,' he'd say.

"Tony Stewart, I tease. We're good friends. I say, 'Well, you still ain't done the big stuff yet.'"

A.J. Foyt has done all the big stuff, all over the world, except for the Grand Prix of Monaco, and that's only because he despised the concept of team orders in Formula One and refused to participate.

Here, at the place that made him -- and a place he made, whether he will admit it or not -- "I would say I won a couple that I shouldn't have, but I lost three or four I should have won.

"Like '69."

And here he goes with another oblique shot at Mario Andretti, whose only win here came in '69, even though he led more career laps here than Foyt, 556 to 555.

"In '69, I sat on the pole and run away from everybody," Foyt says. "And the manifold had a little crack. I still came back and finished eighth. That's how strong I was.

"So what I mean [that's a vocalized pause he picked up from his old friend Richard Petty years ago], it seems like sometimes when you should win you don't, and sometimes when you shouldn't win you do.

"So as long as the good offsets the bad, who cares?"

He will drive the pace car here Sunday. For the first time ever here, he will lead the field to the green flag driving a car with fenders on it.

He won't admit it, but he got his juices going a little bit the other day, practicing in that pace car.

"Yesterday was the first day that I've run up to about 125 or 130. I went off into Turn 1 and the car felt like maybe a tire was a little low, so I just let the car go up on the grade, you know, I wasn't gonna turn yet."

It was sort of the way a NASCAR driver lets the car drift early in a run, with right-front tire pressure low before the heat fully inflates it.

Indy's pace car coordinator was riding with Foyt.

"And he says, 'TURN!' He seen that wall coming at him, and I think it scared the crap out of him.

"He said, 'TURN!' and I said, 'I'm all right. Don't worry. You know me.'

"I did let it go on up the grade. He's sitting there like, 'Oh, s---, here comes that wall!'"

Was it fun to be back out there, even at half the speed he used to run? Bring back any goose bumps?

"Not really. I just wanted to make sure I could feel the car. And I'm gonna run some more laps just to make sure I don't screw up. When you've laid off as long as I have, I don't care if you're running 100 mph or 200 mph, you don't want to do something stupid. And it's so easy at that speed to do something. Your closing speed is pretty quick."

He'll drive just for the start, not for all the caution periods likely to come in the race. After the start, "I'll have to go get on my pit box."

And run his team, with Vitor Meira as his driver. Michael Andretti's staff will be responsible for pitting the loaned car driven by Hunter-Reay.

And he still doesn't see what's so all-fired controversial about him putting Hunter-Reay, whom he deems "a good boy," in a car.

Hell, Foyt put Donnie Allison in one of his cars in 1970, and Allison finished fourth, was named rookie of the year and remains the highest-finishing NASCAR driver ever in the Indy 500.

In 1976, when half the garage area was ridiculing Janet Guthrie for her attempt to become the first woman ever to qualify for the 500, Foyt put her in one of his cars, gave her a chance, though she missed the field that first year.

In 1980, the rookie he gave a ride was a wild kid named Tim Richmond.

In the dark, lean years since the devastating split of '96, "When they needed cars here to fill the field, I did that out of my own pocket."

Through the great years and the tough years for Indy, "My second car that I always ran here, I carried my sponsors' names on it because they were nice to me and very good people. But I didn't get paid nothing extra for it. That was A.J. So every time something happened, it was out of A.J.'s pocket if the car got totaled out."

And now, this deal is "just kind of a friendship, helping somebody out, even though Andretti and Foyt has been at heads."

He doesn't think of this as a sellout but as an investment. He already has the money for the loaned-out car making the Indy field. If Andretti's crew and driver win, the money goes to Foyt.

And so, "I hope they do win. I won't get mad. I'll make some money."

So really, the Andrettis are working for Foyt?

He winks.

"Bottom line, yeah."

Bruno Junqueira was the driver displaced by Hunter-Reay when the Foyt-Andretti deal (that still sounds like an oxymoron) came down. But Junqueira had been a beneficiary of Foyt's custom of giving drivers rides in the first place.

"Nice kid," Foyt says of Junquiera. "Before I did anything, I talked to him about it. And he said, 'I understand clearly.' He said, 'If you wouldn't have given me a ride, I'd have been home in Brazil.'

"He said, 'Nobody called me; you asked me if I would, and I said yes.' I'd guaranteed him X amount of dollars to come here. He understood."

When reporters set his cellphone vibrating and chirping over the Andretti deal, "I was out at a CVS buying my grandson a birthday card."

Even at 76, gray-haired, way too overweight to fit into an Indy car's cockpit anymore, A.J. Foyt can't go anywhere in Indianapolis, to this day, without being recognized and swarmed.

"Oh, they know who I am. I had one old ugly lady the other day. I mean, ugly. Big, fat, got a black beard, I mean, mustache, big old mole.

"Says, 'A.J., do you remember when you gave me a hundred-dollar tip?' I'm thinking, 'There's no way you could have looked that good that I would give you a hundred-dollar tip.' I just said, 'Oh, not really.' What can you say?

"You can't believe some of the crap I've seen."

And then he bows his head as boyishly as he did right after he said, "Goddamn, we did it!" in '77, as the humility returns.

"I gotta say one thing: A lot of people know me. That's the reason you see me hiding a lot."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.