In this age of slick, specialized auto racers with multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals, Foyt is a throwback to the old days of grit-tough racing. An expert auto mechanic, Foyt knew how far to push a car to its limits, and on some occasions finished the race right before the car was about to break down or blow a tire. During one race, a radius rod—a piece of Foyt's suspension—snapped and started to fall off. Instead of taking himself out of the race as most drivers would do, Foyt grabbed the piece of metal and held it in place with one hand, while using his other hand to finish, and win, the race.
While driving, Foyt's technique was nearly flawless. Fellow racers noted on several occasions that Foyt was as cool as ice while he drove. Foyt almost never made mistakes, and would never let his emotions affect his driving as some other racers did and still do. Out of the car, however, it was a different story. While Foyt's racing prowess was legendary, so was his hot temper. When he was angry, he berated his pit crew, officials, reporters, or whoever else got in his way. Sometimes, he would beat on his race car with a hammer if it didn't run the way he wanted it to, regardless of who was watching. During the 1985 Indianapolis 500, Foyt's pit crew misunderstood what needed to be fixed on the car, so Foyt jumped out, irate, and tried to fix the problem himself. Unfortunately, he accidentally set the car on fire and knocked himself out of the race in the process.
Despite his short fuse, Foyt's loyalty to his fellow racers is also legendary. On several occasions, he has gone out of his way to help other racers' careers, such as when he let Al Unser Sr. , a rookie, drive Foyt's backup car in the 1965 Indianapolis 500. Foyt was also famous for helping keep racers safe. His knowledge of what cars could do, coupled with his driving talent and instinct, saved himself and others on many occasions, as he helped to avert potentially fatal accidents during a race. He also helped out during bad accidents, such as in 1968 when he pulled fellow racer, Johnny Rutherford, from Rutherford's burning Indy car.
Most importantly, Foyt was utterly committed to his racing throughout his career. Enamored of the sport since he was five years old, Foyt's passion never flagged for more than fifty years, even though he sustained injuries that could—and have— disabled others. In the end, Foyt's amazing drive helped him to become one of history's most amazing drivers.
MORE ABOUT A.J. FOYT
THE EARLY YEARS
THE MOVE TO INDYCARS
1935 Born January 16 in Houston, Texas
1938 Father builds him a small race car to drive around the backyard
1955 Marries Lucy Zarr
1957 Wins first USAC (United States Auto Club) midget race
1958 Finishes 16th in his first Indianapolis 500
1959 Wins first USAC sprint car race
1960 Wins first Indy car race at the Duquoin 100
1962 Wins first USAC stock car race
1964 Wins first NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) race
1965 Breaks his back and foot during the Riverside Motor Trend 500 NASCAR race and is presumed dead by medics who arrive on the scene
1965 Ten weeks later, he wins the pole at a Phoenix Indy car event
1966 Sustains severe burns in an Indy car during practice
1972 Sustains burns and a broken leg in a dirt car race in Duquoin, Illinois
1981 Fractures right arm at Michigan 500
1981 Mother dies of heart failure on the night that Foyt qualifies for Indianapolis 500
1983 Father dies of cancer on the night that Foyt qualifies for Indianapolis 500
1983 Breaks two vertebrae during practice; nevertheless, he wins the Paul Revere 250 sports car race the same night
1990 Sustains serious leg injuries in Indy car race in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin
1992 Races in last Indy car race at the Indianapolis 500
1993 Announces his retirement from Indy car racing shortly before he is scheduled to qualify for the Indianapolis 500
1994 Competes in his last NASCAR Winston Cup race at the Brickyard 400
1996 As a team owner, wins first Indy Racing League title with driver Scott Sharp
1998 As a team owner, wins second Indy Racing League title with driver Kenny Brack
1999 As a team owner, wins Indianapolis 500 with driver Kenny Brack
PAIN, SUFFERING AND INJURIES
While Foyt racked up impressive records and statistics in his long racing career, he also racked up several injuries, some of which were life-threatening. In a sport as dangerous as auto racing, injuries are common. What is uncommon is the fact that Foyt repeatedly bounced back from injuries that might convince other racers to pack it in. His first serious injury came in 1965 during a NASCAR race in Riverside, California. His brakes failed, and to avoid crashing into Junior Johnson and Marvin Panch ahead of him, he steered onto the shoulder but the car dug in and started flipping down an embankment. By the time the medics reached Foyt's car, Foyt was not breathing, his skin was blue, and they assumed he was dead. However, fellow driver Parnelli Jones noticed slight movement, and scooped the mud out of Foyt's mouth, and saved his life. Foyt broke his back and fractured his left heel and bruised his aorta. He was back racing two months later.
Foyt has been severely burned on several occasions, as in 1972, during a dirt-car race in DuQuoin, Illinois, when he was set on fire. During a pit stop, the fuel hose broke loose and sprayed two gallons of alcohol-nitro mixture onto Foyt's back. Assuming that it would evaporate, Foyt started to drive out of the pits. Unfortunately, one of his car's side-mounted exhaust pipes backfired, setting Foyt ablaze. In his panic, he jumped out of the car, intending to jump into a lake in the infield. However, the car was still moving, and the left rear tire rolled over his leg, breaking his leg and ankle. Still on fire, Foyt attempted to hobble to the infield, while his father chased after him, eventually catching up to him and spraying him with a fire extinguisher.
Foyt experienced his most painful injury during an Indy car race in 1990, at the Road America course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Once again, Foyt's brakes failed. Since he was going 190 mph and was coming up on a 90-degree turn, Foyt did the only thing he could to avoid a fatal roll—he went off straight hoping to be stopped by the sandtrap which he flew over and his car plowed into a dirt embankment. In the process, Foyt broke his left knee, dislocated his left tibia, crushed his left heel, dislocated his right heel, and suffered compartment syndrome in both feet. Foyt remained awake as the doctors tried to unearth him; he pleaded with them to hit him in the head with a hammer and knock him out. Following these massive injuries, Foyt's peers assumed that he would announce his retirement. However, Foyt surprised everybody by undergoing a grueling physical therapy regimen with the Houston Oilers' strength-and-rehabilitation coach, Steve Watterson, in an attempt to come back and win a fifth Indianapolis 500 race. He qualified on the front row for the 75th Indy 500 to the amazement of everyone. He competed in his final 500 the following year and finished ninth.
AWARDS & ACCOMPLISHMENTS
- Foyt won a career record seven Indy car national championships (1960-61, 1963-64, 1967, 1975, and 1979).
Foyt won a career record sixty-seven Indy car races.
Foyt won a career record nine 500-mile races (the Indianapolis 500 in 1961, 1964, 1967, and 1977; the Pocono 500 in 1973, 1975, 1979, and 1981; and the California 500 in 1975).
Foyt is the only driver who has won the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Foyt is the only driver who has won the Indianapolis 500 in both a front-engine and a rear-engine race car.
Foyt's USAC career record for total victories is 158. He is the only driver who has won twenty or more victories in USAC's four major categories: Indy cars, stock cars, sprint cars, and midget cars.
1960-61, 1963-64, 1967, 1975, 1979 National Indy car championship
1961 Wins Indianapolis 500 race at an average speed of 139.130 mph, a new race record
1961 Wins record twenty USAC (United States Auto Club) races in one year
1964 Wins Indianapolis 500 at an average speed of 147.350, a new race record
1964 Wins a record ten Indy car season victories (out of thirteen starts)
1965 Wins a record ten pole positions in Indy cars this season, including the Indianapolis 500
1967 Wins Indianapolis 500 at an average speed of 151.207 mph, a new race record
1967 Foyt and teammate, Dan Gurney, become the first Americans to win France's 24 Hours of Le Mans race
1968, 1978 USAC stock car championship
1972 Daytona 500
1972 USAC dirt car championship
1977 Wins record fourth Indianapolis 500
1979 Becomes the first driver to win USAC's national Indy car and stock car championships in the same season
1981 Wins record ninth victory in 500-mile Indy car races at the Pocono 500
1983, 1985 24 Hours of Daytona
1985 12 Hours of Sebring
1989 Inaugural inductee into the Motorsports Hall of Fame
1991 USAC and Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) reserve the number fourteen for the exclusive use of Foyt as either a driver or team owner, to be retired upon Foyt's retirement from the sport; this is the first time either of the two organizations have retired a racing number
1992 Qualifies for record thirty-five consecutive Indianapolis 500 races
1993 Wins the American Sportscasters Association Sports Legend Award
1999 Foyt named Driver of the Century by the Associated Press