A.J. Foyt

A.J. Foyt

16/1/1935

A.J. Foyt, Jr. is one of the most accomplished men to ever drive a race car. His Indy car driving records remain intact despite being out of the cockpit for over 10 years. The first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 holds records for most victories (67), most national championships (7), most victories in one season (10), and most consecutive starts in the Indy 500 (35). He is the only driver to win all three crown jewels of motorsports: the Indy 500, the Daytona 500 and the 24 Hours of LeMans. Foyt, whose name was made in Indy car circles, evolved into a motorsports legend by winning in NASCAR, USAC stock cars, midgets, sprints, IMSA sports cars and of course, LeMans. Foyt won 12 national titles and 172 major races in his driving career, which spanned four decades and three continents: North America, Europe and Australia. He has won in five countries—U.S.A., France, New Zealand, Canada, Great Britain—and in 15 of the 19 states in which he has competed. Yet it was through his adversities that A.J.’s qualities burned brightest. His determination and toughness set him apart from his competition and led to a career that made him auto racing’s most honored champion. Foyt was born in the post-depression years to a hard-working family in the Heights, a poor section of Houston. His father was an auto mechanic by trade whose passion was auto racing. Foyt grew up working on his father’s midget cars while listening to the stories of the old timers. He learned the value of a dollar and a strong work ethic. Foyt focused solely on racing. He dropped out of high school several months before graduation to get a jumpstart on his professional career which began in 1953 at Playland Park in Houston. It wasn’t long before his career took him out of Houston and out of Texas. But the traveling was tough. He slept in his tow vehicle and washed up in gas stations to save money on hotel rooms. After a disappointing month of USAC midget racing in the 1957 Florida Tangerine Tournament, he had to ask his parents to wire him money so he could travel home. Despite the lack of results, his talent didn’t go unnoticed. Soon he left his own race car at home and began driving for better funded teams. But those rides came at a price. He remembers plowing fields during the week for car owner (and farmer) Bob Higman so they could go racing on the weekends. Foyt’s rise to the top levels was meteoric by today’s standards. In August, 1957 (the same year he borrowed money to get home) he landed a ride in championship cars. The following year he began competing in the Indy 500. As a rookie attempting to make the race, he still couldn’t afford a hotel room. Many homes in the Speedway area rented cots to up-and-coming drivers. Foyt took full advantage of this. He made the race, finished 16th and earned $2,969. Over the years, Foyt proved he was physically and mentally tough. The equipment used at that time did not have the safety features of today’s cars and gear. It wasn’t a matter of if you got hurt, it was a matter of when. Foyt battled back from career-threatening accidents to not only race again, but to win again. In 1965, he broke his back, fractured his ankle and sustained severe chest injuries in a stock car race on the road course at Riverside, California. The track doctor pronounced him dead at the scene but fellow driver Parnelli Jones saw movement and revived him. Still healing 10 weeks later, Foyt began a record run, winning his first of 10 poles and five races that season. A year later, he burned his hands and face at Milwaukee when his fuel tank ruptured after hitting the wall. When he didn’t win a race that year, and finished 13th in the points, the media began talking about his retirement. “When I didn’t win in 66, the media began asking when I was going to retire and that made me more determined than ever,” he said. “I had a bad year, but I wasn’t ready to hang it up and I didn’t like people hinting I should hang it up. It made me even more determined to win again.” Foyt won Indy for the third time in 1967 and went on to win a fifth national title. Two weeks after Indy, he traveled to France and won the 24-Hours of LeMans with teammate, Dan Gurney. Foyt’s toughness was tested throughout his career, at least once a decade. The day after the 1972 Indy 500, Foyt competed in a dirt race on the one mile track in DuQuoin, Ill. He was burned during refueling on a pit stop. He also broke his leg when he was run over by his own car as he jumped out while it was still moving. He missed three months of racing but still managed to win the USAC Dirt Champ Car title that season. In 1977, he became the first driver to win Indy four times. In 1981, an accident at Michigan Speedway nearly ripped off his right arm. His own self-styled therapy program-—painting miles of fencing on his 1500 acre ranch—enabled him to return to the cockpit in 1982. He was back in the winner’s circle in 1983 when he won the 24 Hours of Daytona for the first time. The death of his father in May of that year nearly accomplished what his terrible accidents couldn’t—retirement. “My father was such a part of my career that when I lost him, I lost my best friend and I really didn’t want to go on racing,” he said. “I was lost and I didn’t really know how to handle it. It took me a long time to deal with it.” He competed in only one Indy car race, the Indy 500 but was out after just 24 laps. He raced in stock and sports car events including the Firecracker 400 and the Paul Revere 250, both at Daytona on the July 4th weekend. After crashing in the stock car practice and injuring his back, Foyt went on to win in the sports car event that night. The next morning he could barely move. A quick flight home by private jet, and a visit to his Houston doctors, revealed he had broken several vertebra in his back. Doctors warned him he couldn’t race until his back healed or he’d risk paralysis. Foyt sustained the worst injuries of this life in 1990 when his brakes failed on his Indy car at Elkhart Lake Wisconsin’s Road America. Foyt sailed off the mile long straight at nearly 190 mph and flew over the sand trap to land in a dirt embankment. The impact shattered his legs. “The injuries weren’t life-threatening but I have never felt so much pain in my life,” he recalled. “I begged the rescue team to knock me out with a hammer because the morphine wasn’t doing anything.” Foyt underwent several surgeries during his three-week hospital stay. He spent the next six months in a grueling therapy program under the guidance of Steve Watterson, the strength coach of the Houston Oilers NFL football team. “I knew people wanted me to retire, heck my own family wanted me to. But I didn’t want to go out on crutches,” Foyt said. “I was determined to walk to my race car without crutches.” At 56, Foyt limped to his car, without crutches, and qualified second for the 1991 Indianapolis 500. He was eliminated early when debris from another accident broke his car’s suspension but not before he had shown his own brand of toughness before 400,000 race fans. Indeed, the headline on the now defunct sports daily, The National, proclaimed him “The toughest S.O.B. in Sports.” Throughout his storied career, Foyt has defied the odds to emerge triumphant. His accolades include being named the Driver of the Year in 1975, inaugural inductions into the National Motorsports Hall of Fame (Novi, Mich.), the Sprint Car Hall of Fame, and the Miami Project/Sports Legend in Auto Racing (1986). He won the American Sportscasters Association Sports Legend Award in 1993, previous winners were Arthur Ashe and Mohammed Ali. Most recently, he was voted Driver of the Century by a panel of experts and the Associated Press. As a team owner, Foyt has won the national Indy car title five times (1967, 1975, 1979, 1996 (with Sharp) and 1998 (with Brack). It was also with Brack that Foyt won the 1999 Indy 500 for his fifth visit to victory lane. He is looking to make it number six with his grandson A.J. Foyt IV, the youngest driver ever to start in the Indianapolis 500.

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