REWIND: Miller on the making of A.J. Foyt

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REWIND: Miller on the making of A.J. Foyt

IndyCar

REWIND: Miller on the making of A.J. Foyt

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When we wanted to commemorate the 60th anniversary of A.J. Foyt’s first Indianapolis 500 win in RACER’s annual Heroes Issue, there was only one man for the job – our own Robin Miller. “I’ve known A.J. Foyt for more than 50 years, much to his chagrin,” quipped Robin. The pair had enjoyed an often feisty relationship, but the respect between a couple of straight-talking racers was mutual and their friendship had strengthened over the decades.

Turns out that Robin’s A.J. story would be the last he’d write for the magazine, so it’s apt that it should be about “Super Tex.” Of course, with Robin Miller as the byline, it’s a fine read, as entertaining as it is enlightening, and evocative of a golden age for racing. And ever the pro, it was filed ahead of the deadline. Thank you, Robin.    

Laurence Foster, RACER Editor-in-chief

On June 16, 1957, Johnny Thomson won the “big car” race at Reading, Pa., and Elmer George captured the USAC sprint-car show at Terre Haute, Ind. Meanwhile, 50 miles due south of the Vigo County Fairgrounds, a raw-boned, flat-topped, 22-year-old Texan was changing the trajectory of his life.

Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. had never been to Indiana’s Salem Speedway, and had raced very few paved tracks during his five years of barnstorming the country in midgets and sprints. His lone sprint victory had come the previous year at Fargo, N.D., and he was coming off a 100-lap midget win in Kansas City. He wasn’t a household name or really even an “up and comer” in Speed Sport News.

He was competing in the International Motor Contest Association (IMCA), which was a rung below USAC, but a damn good proving ground for kids trying to work their way up the ladder to USAC and then, maybe, the Indianapolis 500.

Like Winchester, Salem was a high-banked, half-mile, big-balls bowl that required as much testosterone as talent and sent a lot of good racers to the graveyard. Bob Sweikert, the 1955 Indy 500 winner, had been killed there in ’56, and stars like Bill Vukovich and Rodger Ward refused to run them.

But Foyt, in his own words, “wasn’t smart enough to be scared,” and passed Bob Cleberg with four laps left to snare the 30-lap feature.

Now it’s hard to imagine one IMCA triumph accelerating a career, but that’s exactly what happened. A few weeks later, Foyt was making his USAC “big car” debut at Springfield, Ill., in the Hoover Motor Express Special and finished a very respectable ninth. He ran Milwaukee, Trenton, Sacramento and the Phoenix season-closer (finishing seventh), and then got a phone call that was hard to comprehend.

“Clint Brawner asked me what I had planned for 1958, because he wanted me to drive the whole circuit in Al Dean’s car,” recalled Foyt. “I mean, this is the car that Jimmy Bryan had just won the national championship in and I was speechless, to be quite truthful.

“Clint said a couple of guys he really trusted had watched me at Salem and they were impressed, and I guess he liked how I handled my first few Champ Car races, because he was at all of them. Back then, if you were crazy enough to run Salem and Winchester, they figured you might be good at Indianapolis.

“My daddy and I listened to Indy on the radio every May and that was my big goal, so when Clint called, it changed my life. I never dreamed I’d be good enough to qualify at Indianapolis, but Al Dean gave me a chance.”

A surprise call-up to Al Dean’s crack team put A.J. Foyt in one of the best seats in the house for his 1958 Indy 500 debut. Image by IMS

It wasn’t instant stardom, but after qualifying 12th and spinning out at Indy when a water hose broke loose, he admitted that the first-lap pileup that killed Pat O’Connor set him thinking. “It really bothered me because Pat had helped me and given me advice and was such a good guy. Going around under yellow after that accident and seeing him still in the car was hard to take, and I thought maybe this is a little too tough for ol’ A.J.”

Of course, it wasn’t, and he bounced back to run second at the treacherous Langhorne triangle, third at Sacramento, and fourth at Phoenix to close ’58 with 10th in the points. Next season, while a first win still eluded him, he finished fifth in the final point standings.

“Clint was great to me, taught me so much, was very patient, and we never had a cross word,” recalls A.J. “We wanted to go sprint-car racing, but I didn’t have any money, so (George) Bignotti offered me a contract that included a sprinter and that’s why I changed teams in ’60.”

That was the beginning of one of the most dominating and volatile relationships in American motorsports history.

A.J. scored his initial win at DuQuoin, Ill., then added Ws at the Hoosier Hundred, Sacramento and Phoenix (all dirt then) to claim the championship for the Bignotti/Bowes Seal Fast team. He was 25 years old. By comparison, Parnelli Jones was 29 as a rookie at Indy, as was Bobby Unser, and Don Branson was 34. Adults didn’t trust kids with their expensive toys, but in four years a guy towing his midget around in a station wagon had vaulted to the top of the heap in the most competitive, and lethal, series in America.

“The speed didn’t bother me. I never felt like I was in over my head, and getting killed never entered my mind,” he responds when asked about his quick transition. “I also know I was lucky because I had two of the best teachers that ever worked on a racecar.

“You gotta remember that they only started 18 cars back then, and usually at least 30 showed up, and if you drew a late number you were hosed. But I loved the mile dirt tracks and I guess I was good, but I worked hard at being good.”

Pre simulators and the like, Foyt hones his reflexes on a unicycle. Image by IMS

Wearing No. 1 for 1961, Foyt came to Indy intent on turning things around at 16th & Georgetown. In three previous starts, he hadn’t led a lap and 10th was his best finish. But he qualified seventh and then staged one of the greatest duels ever with pole-sitter Eddie Sachs. They swapped the top spot nine times after the halfway point, before Tex took charge on lap 170. He’d pulled away to a six-second lead by lap 183, when he got the bad news on his pit board: “Come In.”

A faulty fuel nozzle had left the Bowes team way short of fuel on its third and final pit stop, and after A.J. pitted he was 13 seconds behind. Then, with three laps to go, Sachs stormed into the pits to replace his worn right-rear tire and changed history.

“We had a helluva duel and Sachs was damn good, and I got lucky that day and he didn’t,” recalls Foyt, who led a race-high 71 laps. “But I also was unlucky after I got a pretty decent lead, so that’s just racing.”

Victories at Langhorne, DuQuoin and the Indiana State Fairgrounds helped him clinch back-to-back national titles, and even between their incessant arguing over setups and strategy, Bignotti and Foyt seemed almost unbeatable.

Then the unthinkable happened in 1962. After winning three of the first four races, A.J. quit and went to Lindsey Hopkins. Bignotti hired up-and-coming Bobby Marshman; Bob Bowes was so disenchanted he sold the team to Bill Ansted and Shirley Murphy, while the USAC paddock shook its collective head.

“We were always arguing, because we both thought we were smarter than the other one,” says Foyt. “George was damn good, but I knew what I wanted with my car and we both wanted to win more than anything.

“He wasn’t wrong; he just wanted to do things differently, and we argued so much I decided we should call it quits, even though we were leading the championship. I guess a lot of people were shocked.”

It only took seven winless races to reunite the tempestuous twosome, and they were back in victory lane first time out at Sacramento.

“We should have won three titles in a row, but we managed to salvage second and figured we were better off together than apart.”

The Ansted-Thompson team came out swinging in ’63 and scored five wins, a trio of runner-up finishes, two thirds and one eighth place to garner No. 1 again, but that turned out to be ho-hum compared to 1964.

The start of the 1964 Indy 500. Ford-powered, rear-engine cars filled the first row, but A.J. Foyt’s fifth-starting, Offy-powered roadster (No. 1) would be at the sharp end when it counted the most. Motorsport Images

With the rear-engine revolution about to over-run the Speedway, Foyt had a Huffaker, Lotus and a Shrike to go with his trusty old roadster. He’d commissioned a new roadster in 1963 that he updated and lightened for ’64. Called it Old Faithful, and was it ever.

Phoenix kicked off ’64, with a new one-mile oval replacing the old dirt track, and Foyt started second and finished first in his roadster. Next up was Trenton, where he won the pole and mopped the field. He survived the fiery hell of Indianapolis and beat Ward by more than a minute to secure his second Borg-Warner Trophy. He captured his fourth straight pavement race, at Milwaukee, by over a lap, and then used his trusty Meskowski dirt car to flog the field at Langhorne. Then it was back to Trenton, where he won by two full laps for his sixth W in a row.

The streak looked in jeopardy when USAC went to Springfield, Ill. in August and A.J. only qualified 16th. But his charge to the front was a thing of beauty and he led the final 35 laps – beating Don Branson and Bobby Marshman to the checkered flag to make it seven for seven.

But he succumbed to the temptations of the Lotus-Ford that looked so strong at Indy and ditched his Watson roadster for Milwaukee. He qualified third, but only lasted one lap when his transmission pitched. The streak was over, but not the winning as he bounced back with victories at DuQuoin, the Hoosier Hundred and Sacramento – to give him an incredible 5-0 sweep of the dirt miles.

Ten wins in 13 races, his fourth national title in five years, the last man to triumph at Indy in a front-engine car and, oh yeah, he also found time to win NASCAR’s Firecracker 400 at Daytona. “It was a helluva year and probably my best one,” says Super Tex. “George and I made a good team when we weren’t screaming at each other, but after 1964 we decided to go our separate ways. I think it all worked out.”

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