A.J. Foyt is the toughest, winningest good ol’ boy motorsports has ever seen
Le Mans, France — Fifty years ago last June, on this very spot in central France, A.J. Foyt completed one of the most remarkable odysseys in racing history. Less than a week after winning the Indianapolis 500 for the third time in seven years, he flew to Le Mans to race a car he’d never driven on a track he’d never seen. Yet despite a mere 10 laps of practice, Foyt romped to victory with co-driver Dan Gurney in their Ford GT40 Mark IV. Ford’s 1967 triumph over Ferrari at Le Mans is often described as the high-water mark of American involvement in international motorsports. But for Foyt, it was just another milestone in the greatest motorsports highlight reel ever compiled.
The numbers don’t lie: A record-tying four Indy 500 trophies. Sixty-seven Indy-car wins, still a record. Seven Indy-car championships, ditto. Three United States Auto Club (USAC) stock-car titles. Two IROC championships. A USAC sprint-car championship. Twenty-eight USAC midget wins. A win at the Daytona 500, two at the 24 Hours of Daytona, one in the 12 Hours of Sebring. Ovals and road courses. Pavement and dirt. High-banks and flat tracks. “He was the yardstick you measured yourself against when I was coming up. If you were going to win a race, you had to go through him,” says Mario Andretti, who went on to have a pretty fair career himself. “One way to evaluate your wins is by who you beat. If you won, and Foyt was second, that was a cause for celebration. And if you finished second to Foyt, that wasn’t a bad day, either.”
I’d been trying to talk to Foyt about his win at Le Mans for more than three years for a book I was writing, and he’d always refused in his signature fashion—bluntly. I tried first by email. “No.” Then by phone. “No.” I sent him a copy of a magazine story I’d written about him racing at Langhorne Speedway, a former dirt circle in Pennsylvania—a story he’d supposedly liked—and asked him to reconsider. “No.” I asked for some time with him at Daytona in 2016, when he was the honorary starter of the Rolex 24. “No.” Then, by weird coincidence, I spotted him in a parking lot during the race. This was kismet, surely. I ran over and planted myself in front of him. “A.J.,” I said, “do you have a couple of minutes to talk about Le Mans?”
He glared at me, furiously working a stick of gum. After a long pause, he finally said, “If you can get Edsel Ford to come along.”
A teenage Edsel Ford II, the great-grandson of Henry Ford, had been at Le Mans when Foyt won the 24-hour race. “I don’t think he’s here,” I said. “What if I get Edsel’s son, Henry III? I just saw him a few hours ago.”
Fast forward 17 months, to June 2017. Foyt hadn’t been back to Le Mans since 1967. Never showed any interest in going back, frankly, and he’d turned down numerous invitations to return. But on the 50th anniversary of his epic win, Edsel, now 69, cajoled him into coming over to watch the new Ford GTs in action. So I’m not surprised when I see Foyt eating breakfast in a Ford hospitality tent on the Friday morning before the race. I nod hello but don’t bother to ask to sit down with him. Been there, done that. But as I’m interviewing Ford’s Raj Nair and Multimatic VP Larry Holt, two of the principal architects of the modern Ford GT program, I’m told that Foyt’s in a mood to reminisce. About Le Mans. Right now. Smiling sheepishly at Nair and Holt, I follow Foyt to a quieter tent.
As we walk, I can’t help thinking about how much has changed since Foyt’s last visit here. Not just the circuit, with its Mulsanne-splitting chicanes and hybrid race cars and the opulent hospitality suites, but Foyt himself. In his prime, he was a strapping Texas bull who stood like a colossus over the American racing scene, the strongest, toughest, winningest good ol’ boy the sport had ever seen. Or has ever seen, to get technical. Modern drivers are cogs in immense and complicated motorsports organizations, glorified technocrats supported by vast teams of engineers, designers, and mechanics. But Foyt is the avatar of a bygone age of rugged individualism, when the man behind the wheel was the hub of the racing universe and drivers with enough talent, guile, and guts could carry second-rate cars on their broad shoulders. Today’s top drivers are stars. Back in Foyt’s day, they were heroes.
Foyt still carries himself with the swagger of a man who knows he could perform a singularly dangerous and exacting task more proficiently than anybody else in creation. But he’s now larger than life in more than the figurative sense. Thanks to a long litany of serious medical procedures, his face is round and puffy, and his prodigious paunch tests the outer limits of his polo shirt. He walks gimpily on two artificial knees that are above feet and ankles that have been repeatedly reconstructed after an endless series of gruesome crashes. But he’s still a magnetic personality who loves being the center of attention, and he’s accustomed to holding court like a king.
To break the ice when we sit down, I mention that I’ve got a black-and-white photo of him on the wall of my office, all crossed up in a Champ dirt car at Sacramento. “I won there three or four times,” Foyt says. (Five, actually, plus he was second twice and third once.) “The first time, I was running second and a rock hit me, and I thought it broke my arm. I kind of laid my arm down and was driving with one hand. That’s the first time I ever thrilled myself in a race car bad.” He snorts derisively. “You know, a lot of these race-car drivers say they’ve never been scared. I tell you what, they’re so full of shit, excuse my French. There wasn’t a race that at one time or another I didn’t thrill the hell out of myself. And they sit there and say, I’ve never been scared. Why are they lying to the public? Give me a break. They just talking to themselves.”
He punctuates this remark by thumping me lightly on the chest with the back of his hand. It’s a friendly good-ol’-boy gesture, one I’m familiar with after living for a time in Texas. But even though it’s nothing more than a gentle tap, I can feel the iron beneath the velvet, like a warning nudge from a police baton. Old and fat as he is—Foyt’s own words, mind you, not mine—he’s still a physical force, and you can sense the weight of his imposing presence. As he thumps me again, I’m reminded of a story told to me by Foyt’s old friend Parnelli Jones, the flintyeyed, hard-scrabble warrior who’d fought his way, often literally, up from jalopies to win the Indy 500, a Trans-Am championship, and a couple of Baja 1000s.
The two of them were running midgets at Ascot Park, a grubby half-mile oval built on a dump site in South Central Los Angeles that was once the busiest short-track in the nation. Foyt and Jones were great friends—but also great rivals. “We’re lucky we didn’t kill each other,” Jones says with a dry chuckle. In the trophy dash, Foyt punted Jones out of the lead, and Jones was hot. As he prepped his car for the main, Parnelli muttered about what he was going to do to that Texas son of a bitch. And make no mistake: Jones was no paper tiger. Another old racer described him as a wolverine; once he sunk his teeth into you, he’d never let go. Then, while Jones was adjusting a torsion bar, somebody grabbed him from behind in a bear hug. It was Foyt. Jones struggled to break free but couldn’t. What’s more, A.J. was laughing, which only made Parnelli madder. But the harder he fought, the harder Foyt laughed. Eventually, Jones started laughing along with him.
“The guy was so strong—so strong!” says Jim Dilamarter, Jones’s longtime right-hand man. “Strong willed and strong physically.”
Dilamarter tells another story about Foyt, one he heard secondhand from Foyt’s ex-boss George Bignotti, the legendary crew chief who fought constantly with Foyt during a tempestuous marriage that ended in a volcanic divorce. According to Bignotti, Foyt was about to take the lead of a dirt Champ Car race at Springfield, or maybe it was DuQuoin. A few laps from the finish, the left-side torsion bar broke loose below the cutout for the cockpit. So with his left hand Foyt grabbed the bar, which jerked violently every time he laid into the throttle, and finished the race driving with his right. With no power steering. On a dirt track with ruts the size of ocean swells.
A true story or a Paul Bunyan–esque tall tale? Hard to say. Bignotti is dead, and I can’t find any contemporary accounts that mention Foyt’s feat. But I’m not prepared to dismiss it as fake news. The more people I talk to about Foyt, the more stories I hear, and the more outlandish they become. One of the racers I interview is Bob Riley, the bespectacled engineer who’s probably the greatest American race-car designer of the postwar era. By training and disposition, Riley is a believer in empirical truth. And yet, he tells me, “You’d hear the most outrageous stories about Foyt, and all of them were true.”
Riley had some of the best. Like the time the team was running late for a flight, so Foyt had a flunky call Delta to hold the plane until they arrived, which the airline did. Or the time Foyt qualified on the front row at Indy despite having no feeling in his feet (he was still recovering from a wreck the previous year). Or, best of all, the time in the early 1970s when Foyt first sat in the brand-new Coyote Indy car that Riley had just designed for him and realized the cockpit was so tight he couldn’t reach the gearshift lever. But even as Riley was contemplating the imminent end of his fledgling career as a race-car designer, Foyt said matter-of-factly, “Oh, don’t worry about it. I’ll just shift with my left hand.” Think about that for a second. Think about wanting to win so badly that you’d reach across your body to shift gears with your left hand. In an Indy car capable of going faster than 200 miles per hour.
“That’s the kind of drive I had,” Foyt says. “If I got beat in racing, I couldn’t wait to challenge you the next day. I don’t know if a lot of guys got drive like that anymore. Hell, I had to do it to eat. I didn’t have no damn salary or hotel. I had a car I had to sleep in and rented a cot in a basement for almost a year for 10 dollars a week or something—you know, an army cot. I thought that was a lot better than sleeping in my car. Try putting one of these drivers in something like that.” This prompts another jab to my chest. “I think it’s just like the country and the politicians. It’s a different world. I think I lived at a good time. You still have good racing, hard racing, but it’s a completely different type of racing.”
As a driver, Foyt tarnished his reputation by continuing to race until he was well past his sell-by date. And as an Indy-car owner, he’s never had the resources to compete straight up with Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi. So a lot of fans are familiar with Foyt’s exploits without appreciating why he’s a legend. “People saw him in his 40s and 50s and thought, ‘Who is this fat, pathetic old man who’s a promoter’s option?’ ” says journalist Robin Miller, who’s been following Foyt for 50-plus years and is referring to an old privilege of racing promoters to start drivers who may not have qualified but are still big fan draws. “It made me crazy, because they couldn’t imagine what he was like in the ’60s and ’70s, when he was kicking everybody’s ass. When they were running Champ Cars on dirt, nobody was better—ever. And when they made the transition to rear-engine cars, he didn’t like it, but he picked it up pretty darn good. He was so good, so fearless, and such a master of adapting to racetracks as they changed. If he’s not the greatest driver in American history, then he’s Number 1A.”
Foyt was born in Houston in 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression. Racing was in his genes. His father, Anthony Joseph Foyt, Sr., better known as Tony, was a racer who ran a garage. Tony gave his son a toy race car when he was three and built him a midget that he ran in exhibition races when he was five. Foyt started racing professionally at 17 in another midget prepared by his father, a Kurtis-Kraft with an Offy engine salvaged from a friend’s fatal wreck. He quickly worked his way up to sprint cars and finally to Champ Cars, so called because they raced on the Championship Trail, competing for the USAC national championship. All the tracks on the circuit were ovals, mostly dirt, and the crown jewel, then as now, was the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The provenance of the engine in Foyt’s Kurtis was more than a macabre footnote. Back in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, racing was a blood sport. The cars were deathtraps, and the tracks were slaughterhouses. You could paper a large wall with the obituaries of the drivers who were killed during that era. “There’s just maybe two or three of us left from back when I first started,” Foyt drawls, “and the others didn’t die of old age.”
Here at Le Mans, Foyt’s already taken a look at the updated circuit and noted all the safety upgrades. Not just the chicanes on the 3.7-mile-long Mulsanne Straight, added in 1990, but the guardrails. “We didn’t have any walls or nothin’,” he recalls. “We just had those whitewashed trees.” In 1967, believe it or not, the Mulsanne Straight, the fastest stretch of racetrack in the world, was lined with oak trees, and the only concession to safety was painting the trunks white so they’d be visible at night. “You knew if you went off at 200 mph, you was in a lot of trouble,” Foyt says. “You probably wasn’t going to come back.”
Foyt knew that the veteran New Jersey–born road racer Walt Hansgen had been killed in 1966 in another one of the bruising Ford prototypes. But as dangerous as Le Mans was, the tracks in the States were even worse. Making it around the high banks of Salem and Winchester was an exercise in seeing how long you could hold your breath, and the one-mile perfect circle known as Langhorne was so treacherous that some top drivers flatly refused to race there. And then there was the Brickyard, of course, where Foyt became famous. Pat O’Connor was killed in a 15-car crash during the first lap of Foyt’s first Indy 500 in 1958. When he won the race in 1964, the headline in the newspaper he brandished in Victory Circle blared: “FOYT WINNER IN 500. SACHS, MACDONALD DIE.”
Foyt survived the most hazardous era in motorsports history, but not by much. His first come-to-Jesus moment occurred when the brakes in his Ford Galaxie failed at the end of the back straight during the NASCAR race at Riverside in 1965. He swerved off the track to avoid spearing Marvin Panch and Junior Johnson and hurtled down an embankment. “I said, ‘Maybe that’ll slow it down,’ ” he recalls. “Well, shit. Didn’t work.” The car sailed off the track, vaulted off the embankment, and gyrated in midair like an Olympic gymnast before thudding down on its roof in a cloud of dust. According to legend, the first doctor to get there said, “Don’t hurry. He’s dead.” But Parnelli Jones yanked an unconscious Foyt out of the cockpit and revived him. A broken back sidelined him for three months.
The hits kept coming. Foyt was burned after crashing at the Milwaukee Mile in 1966. He was burned again the next year at Phoenix, then burned a third time when his car caught fire during a pit stop at DuQuoin. (Adding injury to injury, he broke his leg and ankle after jumping out and getting run over by his own car.) His career nearly ended after he pancaked his car against an Armco barrier and suffered a compound fracture in his right arm at Michigan International Speedway in 1981. In 1992, he broke his left shoulder not once but twice during crashes at Daytona and Phoenix. But his Indy-car wreck at Road America in 1990 was the pièce de résistance.
At the end of the front straight, the brake pedal of his Lola snapped off at about 200 mph, or a good 140 mph faster than he needed to be going to make it around Turn One. Foyt passed Dominic Dobson like an express train barreling through a station open only for local stops. He plowed into a dirt embankment, which folded back the nose of his car and rearranged his lower extremities so thoroughly that, at first, the medical team wasn’t sure which leg was which. Foyt never lost consciousness despite the ferocity of the crash, but he wished he had. “Just find a goddamned hammer,” he said, “and knock me in the head!”
It looked like he might never race or walk again. He did both, and he made sure everybody saw it, at Indy, where he made his comeback eight months later. “I told my family, ‘I don’t want to go around a racetrack in a wheelchair or a walker,’ ” he says. “That’s why I worked so hard every time I’d been hurt. Like I come back in ’91. The papers kept saying I’d be on crutches.” He glares at me, as if I were to blame for all the reporters who doubted him. “I said, ‘If I come back, I’ll walk to my damn race car.’ I wasn’t walking very good, but I did walk to it, and I sat on the front row.” Yep, qualified second at age 56 at an average speed of 222.443 mph, nearly 80 mph faster than he’d gone during his first Indy in 1958.
Foyt began his career in ladder-frame, front-engine cars not far removed from the dominant Millers of the 1920s. By the time he quit in 1993, tearfully announcing his retirement after a qualification run at Indy, he was wedged inside a winged, mid-engine, ground-effects, carbon-fiber monocoque that required not only a different driving style but also a completely different mind-set. “You had to drive smart back in those days,” he says. “You had to watch the way you shifted. I knew some guys who were fast in the beginning, but they were shifting without the clutch, and after a couple of hours, they tore up the gearbox. You ran hard and you ran fast, but you had to always know what you were doing. That’s the difference. They’ve got to be alert today, but they’ve got so much foolproof stuff. These Indy-car drivers, they look at a computer and say, ‘I’m screwing up here.’ Back then, the computer was your butt. You come in and talked to your chief mechanic to see what you could do. It’s still hard, but it’s a lot easier for them to know what they’re doing wrong.”Foyt doesn’t have much time for the younger generation—“Mamas’ boys,” he calls the worst offenders—and the road-racing fraternity has been a burr in his saddle since Grand Prix drivers started showing up at Indy in the mid-1960s. Eddie Cheever ticked both boxes when he first met the irascible Texan in 1990. Cheever was coming off a decade in Formula 1, and Foyt wasn’t impressed. Cheever asked Foyt if he had any advice. There was a pause. “Keep turning left,” Foyt drawled and didn’t say another word. “It was,” Cheever recalls, laughing now, “as good a ‘f*ck off’ as I’ve ever gotten in my life.” Cheever later spent two happy years driving for Foyt in the Indy Racing League.
One of the longest-running tropes about Foyt is that he’s mellowing with age. Of course, they’ve been saying that since the ’70s, and he seems just as prone to fireworks as ever. Consider the chaotic scene in Victory Circle after the inaugural True Value 500K at Texas Motor Speedway in 1997. Billy Boat, driving for Foyt, had been declared the winner due to a scoring snafu. When Arie Luyendyk, who’d actually won the race by more than a lap, marched over to complain, Foyt went—well, what’s the next stage of anger after ballistic? Red faced, he backhanded Luyendyk upside the head, then locked his hands around the Dutchman’s neck like a man trying to pry loose the frozen collar of a large pipe and flung him to the ground before security guards prevented him from stomping Luyendyk to death. Foyt was 62 at the time.
Foyt later went on camera to deliver a comically unapologetic apology. “I know it looked awful bad on TV,” he allowed. Then, after a few pro forma remarks about regretting how he’d behaved, Foyt broke into an impish grin and added, “I guess you’d have to say, ‘That’s A.J.’ ”The next day, the IRL awarded the win to Luyendyk. Foyt never returned the trophy.
If he’d been born a few generations later, Foyt would have been given a permanent slot in Anger Management 101. During a Winston Cup race at Talladega, he and Alan Kulwicki were black-flagged after banging fenders during a caution period. After serving the penalty, Foyt purposely sideswiped Kulwicki on his way out of the pits, earning him another stop-and-go. Foyt roared through the pits at 100 mph, ignoring the stop sign and sending NASCAR officials scurrying for safety. That got him banned for several months. Earlier in his career, he’d also been suspended by USAC for roughing up Johnny White after a few, uh, misunderstandings in sprint cars. But the suspension was overturned after fellow driver Roger McCluskey testified that Foyt hadn’t actually punched White. “If he had,” McCluskey said, “he’d have tore his head off.”
But Foyt didn’t always direct his anger at drivers or race officials. If all else failed, inanimate objects would do. At Ontario Motor Speedway, Foyt was convinced that a newfangled timing transponder had caused his ignition to fail. So he used a wheel hammer to knock the transponder off the car. Then he set the transponder on the pit wall and proceeded to pulverize it.
And who can forget the incident captured live on ABC’s broadcast of the 1982 Indy 500, when Foyt’s race ended in the pits with his car hung up in second gear? Crewman Billy Woodruff worked fruitlessly on the gearbox for several minutes while Foyt stewed in the car. Finally, fed up, Foyt wriggled out of the cockpit and flung down his gloves. When he yanked off his helmet, you could almost see steam billowing out of his ears. He pulled off the engine cover and growled, “Give me the screwdriver.” ABC then devoted 30 seconds to watching Foyt pound the screwdriver with a hammer. “I was the guy holding back the panel, hoping that he didn’t hit me by mistake and praying that he didn’t knock it out of gear,” Woodruff recalls. “He didn’t. But he almost knocked off the head of a 5/16th aircraft bolt beating on it with that screwdriver.”
Surprisingly, considering how strong and hardheaded he was, Foyt wasn’t a car breaker. To this day, Parnelli Jones is still beating himself up over the Indy 500 that got away in 1967, when he had the race in the bag but kept pushing his STP-Paxton turbine car too hard and retired with fewer than four laps to go. And who was there to pick up the pieces? Foyt, naturally. While he was arcing through the last corner of the last lap, there was a nasty four-car crash on the front straight. Foyt miraculously sensed something was wrong even before he could see the accident. He immediately slowed down, threaded his way through the wreckage in low gear, and took the checkered flag at a walking pace. “I had some drivers who literally broke off the shift lever from shifting so hard,” Riley says. “A.J. had a very delicate touch, and he had an amazing feel for what the car was doing, whether it was the shocks or the springs or whatever.”
Foyt’s mechanical sympathy helped him enjoy a late-career renaissance in sports-car racing. In 1983, he went to Daytona to share an ill-fated Aston Martin Nimrod with Darrell Waltrip. When the car broke early, Preston Henn, the flamboyant, publicity-conscious owner of the Swap Shop chain of supersized flea markets, hired Foyt on the spot to finish out the race co-driving Henn’s Porsche 935. At the time, Foyt had never so much as sat in a 935, a twin-turbo monster prone to wicked oversteer. Oh, and it was raining. Foyt asked crew chief Kevin Jeannette what he needed to know about the car. “I told him the gearbox was just like a Volkswagen’s except that reverse was to the left and up instead of back,” Jeannette says. “He said, ‘What makes you think I’ve ever driven a Volkswagen? Furthermore, what makes you think I’m going to need reverse?’ ”
Bob Wollek, a temperamental Frenchman, pitted the 935 from the lead. When he realized Foyt was getting into the car, he had what you might call a Foytian moment. “Well, I’m upset about it because he doesn’t know the car, he doesn’t know the rain, he doesn’t know anything,” Wollek snapped to pit reporter David Hobbs. “Now we are leading by one lap, and Mr. A.J. Foyt is driving for the PR, and I’m f*cking upset about it.”
Foyt ran fast and faultlessly through the rain, and the Swap Shop 935 won easily. After the race, the team made a special effort to keep Foyt and Wollek apart, because they weren’t sure what Foyt would do if he heard that Wollek had been bad-mouthing him. “I would have tried to knock the hell out of him,” Foyt says with another belly laugh. “But after that, we became great friends. And I used to tease him about this race [Le Mans]. He ran second or third here four or five times, and I’d always say, ‘That’s the easiest damn race I ever won in my life.’ ”
“So why didn’t you ever come back here?” I ask him.
He grins at me. “Why did I need to come back?” he asks. “I come here as a rookie and won. I didn’t have nothing to prove.”
Everything fell into place for Foyt in 1967. He was driving for Shelby-American, which was Ford’s primo road-racing organization, rather than Holman and Moody, which focused on stock cars, and he was paired with Dan Gurney, who was America’s most accomplished road racer. Problems with the windshields prevented Foyt from getting much seat time in the car during practice. But during his first stint in the race, he slotted in behind fellow Ford Mark IV driver Denny Hulme. “So we come out of the pits, and I followed him for about three or four laps,” Foyt says. “And I said, ‘Well, hell, I learned this track pretty quick.’ So I passed him and went on.” For the record, Hulme won the F1 World Championship later that year.
From Foyt’s perspective, there were only two hiccups during the race at Le Mans. “I guess at three, four, five in the morning, I got in a lot of trouble over at the White House,” he says. “That thing got so damn slick I almost ran off there. Oil was all over, and I overrevved the motor, but I was grabbing everything trying to stop. It was that or wreck the car.” The other problem was when he pitted in the middle of the night and Gurney was nowhere to be found. Because Gurney was so much taller than Foyt and the seat wasn’t adjustable, Foyt had to adopt an awkward straight-arm driving position. “I come in and said, ‘Man, my arms are killing me.’ ‘Oh, A.J., you gotta get back in.’ I said, ‘Hot damn, I don’t know if I can go another shift!’ So I had to pull two shifts there.”
Gurney took the lead after the first hour, and the big red No. 1 led to the stroke of four o’clock on Sunday. Hell, no other car was even in the same ZIP Code. “A couple of newspapers said we was the rabbits because we were leading so long,” Foyt recalls. “But we weren’t straining the car to run fast. We were just fast.” He and Gurney broke the old distance record by 242 miles and finished four laps ahead of the second-place Ferrari 330P4. “Shucks. This wasn’t so tough. Indy was harder,” Foyt declared afterward. “Le Mans ain’t nothin’ more than a little old country road.”
But the passage of a half-century has given Foyt some perspective on what he accomplished. Even though Le Mans was by no means his greatest race, it’s become an integral part of the Foyt legend—the cocky, gum-chewing American circle-track bad-ass showing those damn “furriners” how it’s supposed to be done. Everywhere he went in the paddock at the 2017 running, in which the highest-placed Ford GT finished second in class, Foyt was besieged by autograph seekers who wanted a piece of tangible evidence that they’d met the man who conquered Le Mans. And that seemed to gratify him.
“You’ve got other 24-hour races, but there’s only one Le Mans,” he says, sounding uncharacteristically introspective. “It’s like Indy,” he continues, returning to the race that is clearly A.J.’s first love. “Say what you want about it, but if you win Indy, it lives with you the rest of your life.”