Sunday will be A.J. Foyt’s 65th consecutive Indianapolis 500 – three as a spectator, 35 in a row as a driver and the last 27 as a car owner. It will be the only IndyCar race he attends during 2020 and, as most of us already know, it’s the only race he cares about.
At 85, he looks damn good considering he’s been through a triple bypass, a staph infection that brought on sepsis, rotator cuff surgery, back surgery and had his right knee and left hip replaced. That doesn’t count two bouts with killer bees, evading a poisonous snake and dumping a bulldozer into a lake.
The good news is that he’s as feisty and outspoken as ever and walking a little wobbly (he will not use a cane or walker) but getting around OK nonetheless. He likes Tony Kanaan, he might know Charlie Kimball’s name but likely has no clue that Dalton Kellett is from Canada or driving one of his cars.
He would never admit it but he misses the fans at IMS, because he still gets a louder cheer than anyone when he’s spotted.
A.J. agreed to sit down for NBC at the Foyt Wine Vault on Main Street in Speedway and reflect on his amazing life and love for 16th & Georgetown.
ROBIN MILLER: You came to the Speedway in 1955 when you were 20 years old and sat in the Turn 2 grandstands. What do you remember about that race?
AJ: I grew up listening to the race on the radio with my father on Memorial Day and that first year there weren’t nearly as many grandstands as there are today, no crash-proof walls and the front straightaway was still bricks.
RM: Did you ever imagine being in the starting line-up three years later?
AJ: I never dreamed I’d be good enough to ever qualify at Indianapolis and that first year was a dream come true. You never expect it.
RM: Back in the 1950s, car owners didn’t trust anyone under 30 to drive their cars so how did a 23-year-old land one of the best rides with Dean Van Lines?
AJ: I think I got that ride because I won an IMCA race at Salem and they figure if you’re crazy enough to run the high banks you’d be pretty good at Indy. Al Dean was a great owner and gave me my chance.
RM: Were you humbled or cocky?
AJ: I guess I got a little cocky.
RM: And your debut starting 12th and finishing 16th after a water hose blew and you spun out. Intimidating?
AJ: Not really but Pat O’Connor’s accident really bothered me. He’d helped me at a USAC race with my steering gear and then gave me advice before Indianapolis what to do and not to do, he was so helpful and such a good guy. Going around under yellow after that first-lap wreck and seeing him still in his car was hard to take and I thought maybe this is a little too tough for ‘ol A.J.
RM: Considering you broke your back, shattered your feet, damn near lost an arm and got badly burned a couple times, it’s hard to imagine how you made it to 55 let alone 85.
AJ: We’re all just passing through so you never know when your time is going to be up and I know mine should have three of four times but they weren’t ready for an SOB like me. I knew the odds when I hooked that seat belt and I was just hoping I’d be the one to unhook it at the end of the day. The only thing that really bothered me was fire, because back then when you crashed you usually caught fire and there were no fuel cells for a long time in the ’60s.
RM: And of course you insisted on wearing golf gloves instead of the fireproof ones that came along in the ’70s.
AJ: I had to because I couldn’t feel the car with those thick gloves. You gotta feel the race car with your rear end and your hands – that’s the way you learn to drive.
RM: Langhorne was one of the most challenging and dangerous tracks in the world — badasses like Rodger Ward wouldn’t run there so why were you so good there?
AJ: It was very fast and a tiring, treacherous track with no power steering and you were always sideways but I liked it.
RM: When USAC took the dirt races off the championship schedule it was the beginning of the end for that organization and cut the lifeline for midget and sprint drivers from that day forward. Agree?
AJ: I think so, because back then you had to run dirt, pavement, road courses, short ovals and superspeedways, so it shows the true champion. I’d still like to see dirt racing return as part of the championship but it will never happen.
RM: You began your Indy career in a front-engine roadster with eight-inch tires at 143mph and ended it going 223mph in a rear-engine rocket with wings and super sticky, ultra-wide tires. Which was tougher?
AJ: It was a helluva lot harder those first years because the tires were as hard as concrete — if you let the back end out you took a ride. You had to be more careful with roadsters, whereas the rear-engine cars you could feel more and they were easier to drive. Roadsters wouldn’t let you make a mistake.
RM: So what was your favorite car?
AJ: A sprinter on a tacky half-mile dirt track, because you had a lot of horsepower and you had to control it with your right foot.
RM: You were a good mechanic who could also build engines, so what was your greatest attribute? The fact you were brave, talented, mechanically savvy or smart?
AJ: I think all four, because you had to know a little bit about everything on the cars. I use to run my right-rear tires backwards to get more sidebite but you’re not allowed to have any ideas today and I think there are too many rules. I think my mechanical knowledge was a big asset and helped my driving. Today, a computer tells these kids what the car is doing and if not a lot of them are lost.
RM: You became the face of the Indy 500 with your four victories, great comebacks and ornery disposition. You always say Indy made A.J. Foyt and I always counter and say, no you and Mario, Parnelli, Herk and Gurney made Indy, at least for me.
AJ: The Speedway made me because when I won the race the whole world knew it. It’s the greatest race there is and I don’t think it’s any better today than it was in the ’60s and ’70s, it’s just different. And I also made big news at Indy by being an ass every now and then.
RM: Why is Indianapolis still so important to you?
AJ: I don’t care how many years you’ve been here but come race day you tighten up a little bit because it’s the race every driver wants to win. It’s like the Kentucky Derby. I’m gonna come back as long as I can because I still enjoy it. I’ve lived my whole life to come to this race.