For aj foyt
Keywords: nascar, a.j. foyt, sprint cup series, indycar, formula one, autoracing, nascar
Description: Motor racing legend A.J. Foyt has had his share of close calls -- on the track and off -- that surely would've killed a lesser man. Which makes his 80th birthday on Friday truly a milestone to celebrate.
With a bit of luck, the good ones advanced through midgets and sprint cars to what were then called the Championship Cars that competed in the Indianapolis 500.
Those less fortunate never made it to the Brickyard. In fact, many of them gave their lives in pursuit of the Indy dream. It's no clichй to say that racing was a much more dangerous business back in the day.
Foyt certainly had his share of wrecks that might have killed a lesser man. But the rugged Texan always somehow bounced back.
He cheated death off the track, too. Spiders, killer bees, staph infections and bulldozers all did their level best to knock Foyt off his feet for good.
Most recently, he spent nearly a month in a Houston hospital recovering from complications that arose following triple bypass heart surgery in November.
"I've had a lot of accidents and have always recovered pretty fast," Foyt said recently in a statement. "But this is altogether different from an accident because it's a health problem. All during my career I never had any health problems, so I don't think I realized how lucky you are when you're healthy.
"This last deal really caught me off guard, and I think I've got it whipped now, but it's going to take time."
In that light, A.J. Foyt's 80th birthday Friday is truly something to celebrate. He's lived a remarkable life.
He ate beans from a can and slept in the back seats of cars as he worked through the grassroots ranks before getting his break at Indy in 1958 with legendary mechanic Clint Brawner and the Dean Van Lines Special.
He won his first USAC national championship in 1960 and his first Indianapolis 500 a year later. Foyt qualified for the Indy 500 a record 35 times, and his four Indianapolis wins also stand as a record, now shared with Al Unser and Rick Mears.
IndyCar racing was diverse in a very different way in those days, with a mixture of paved and dirt ovals and the occasional road course. Foyt was one of the best on dirt, notching 24 of his 67 IndyCar wins on dirt tracks.
"He was one tough dude," recalled rival driver Parnelli Jones. "On those 1-mile dirt tracks we used to run, you had to be super-fit to go wrestle one of those thing. You could beat them by being physically stronger, and A.J. in my opinion, he was the toughest when it came to wrasslin' the thing."
But Foyt's strength went beyond physical. He was mentally tough, and he made it a point to try to intimidate other drivers. Foyt often had half the field whipped by the time they took the green flag.
"I just wish some of these younger guys could have seen Foyt when he was young -- seen how bad he wanted to win races, and therefore set our bar a lot higher," said Bobby Unser, whose war of words with Foyt continues to this day.
"He was an inspiration to me the way he was so tenacious, always so involved over the years, whether in midgets, stock cars, sprint cars, champ dirt cars," added Mario Andretti, who shared the Associated Press' Driver of the Century honor with Foyt after the vote ended in a tie. "Clearly, when A.J. was at his peak, he was a yardstick. If you wanted to win any race, you had to beat him somewhere along the line."
His versatility extended well beyond Indy cars, with other major victories including the Daytona 500, the Le Mans 24 Hours and the 24 Hours of Daytona.
But as Foyt often says, Indianapolis made A.J. and modern IndyCar drivers certainly have an appreciation for Foyt and his legacy.
"Sometimes I imagine what it must have been like 30 or 40 years ago and it blows your mind away," said Helio Castroneves. "If they look at us and think we're not as tough as drivers were in the past, they have the right to do that.
"I respect them because back then it was more about who was going to survive than who was going to win. They didn't have SAFER walls; they didn't have cars that could survive big impacts. They were driving cars that weren't much slower than ours. I drove one of those cars and I was amazed. You felt like you were on ice all the time."
Dario Franchitti's respect for Foyt extends beyond his driving skills to the impact he continues to make on the sport as a team owner. Foyt has entered his own cars since the mid-'60s. He oversaw construction of the Bob Riley-designed Coyote chassis throughout the '70s and even took over Ford's IndyCar engine program for a while.
Foyt's famous fourth victory at Indianapolis in 1977 came in his own Coyote chassis with Foyt/Ford power.
"He not only went through that very dangerous time, but he also kept racing for decades after that," observed Franchitti. "He had some horrible injuries -- properly messed himself up. But look at what he won, and what he won in. Incredible. So varied, and that says a lot. Even the cars he won Indy in were radically different.
"He's a hard competitor; you still see that," Franchitti added. "I think it's all he's ever known. He started racing so young, and it's just instilled in him. It's part of him, and I don't think he's lost any passion for it."
It must surely be difficult for a man renowned for his toughness to heed his doctor's advice to take it easy.
But with the day-to-day operation of A.J. Foyt Racing now in the hands of son, Larry, A.J. is trying to do just that so he can spend his 58th consecutive month of May in Indianapolis.
Foyt's team is expanding to two cars full time this year, with Jack Hawksworth joining returning driver Takuma Sato in Honda-powered entries.
Sato, the hard-charging Japanese driver, ended a decade-long victory drought for the Foyt team with a win at Long Beach in 2013.
"It's a funny combination, Takuma Sato and A.J. Foyt," observed reigning IndyCar Series champion Will Power. "You look at it from outside and you think it wouldn't be a good mix, but then you see Sato on the track. I think A.J. really appreciates a guy who puts everything into winning a race, and that's Sato all summed up."
Of course, there's another side to the Foyt legend, and that's his colorful and sometimes profane personality.
Asked for his favorite Foyt memory, Power immediately replied: "Arie Luyendyk in Texas! That was quite funny," referring to the time Foyt slapped the Dutchman in Victory Lane in 1997 after a scoring error mistakenly credited the win to Foyt's driver, Billy Boat.
Foyt helped the IndyCar Series trend on social media a couple of times in 2014 by dropping expletives during television interviews, sparking memories of some of Foyt's most infamous TV moments from the past.
As a parent, I'm not sure whether to be ashamed or proud to say that thanks to the magic of YouTube, my 8-year-old son does a spot-on rendition of Foyt's classic interview with Chris Economaki immediately after the crash at the start of the 1982 Indianapolis 500 triggered by Kevin "Coogan," as Foyt famously called Cogan in a TV interview.
After taking the restart in that '82 race, Foyt pitted with gearbox problems. When his crew was slow to offer a resolution, Foyt scrambled out of the cockpit and took matters into his own hands, beating on the balky shift linkage with a hammer.
On another occasion, Foyt was caught on camera throwing a laptop computer. At Portland in 1995, he got up and left midrace.
"Foyt walked over to our pit and said, 'I'm having so much fun here I'd rather go home and feed my hogs,'" recounted PacWest Racing owner Bruce McCaw. "And he walked off, radio and all -- the only radio that could talk to the car!
"His driver, Eddie Cheever, came over later and asked me where A.J. went," McCaw added. "I told Eddie he said he wasn't enjoying himself, so he left. Cheever just couldn't believe it."
Yet for all the cartoonish behavior that has been documented over the years, there's still another side to Foyt. Mears, Franchitti and many other drivers have stories about the way Foyt offered advice or mentored them.
"Hooking up with A.J. was a big jolt in my career," said sports car driver Scott Sharp, who was the 1996 Indy Racing League co-champion driving Foyt's car. "Being with someone like him is what a lot of road racer-type people need. He showed me where I wanted to run on the track, how I wanted the car to feel. He basically molded my driving style in the way that he saw fit.
Just about everyone who comes into contact with Foyt has a common story -- intimidation, only to later discover the tough Texan had a softer side. Even a tough customer like Parnelli Jones.
"Foyt has a great knack for getting excited and throwing hammers and all that, cussing you out and everything, and then hugging you five minutes later," Jones said. "He and I almost came to blows a couple of times in the sprints and midgets. You turn around and you're pissed off and he's laughing.