Twenty-five years ago, the cover story headline in The National Sports Daily was: “A.J. Foyt, The Toughest S.O.B. in Sports.” Last December, the headline in the new national online magazine The Drive was: “10 Reasons Why A.J. Foyt Is Still America’s Toughest S.O.B.”
Throughout his career, A.J. Foyt has been described as tough— mesquite tough—for his exploits on the track, and more recently, his off-track wars with health issues.
Battling back from a crippling staph infection which required a replacement of his artificial right knee last year, the 81-year-old Texan appears to be on the road to recovery.
“I’m really looking forward to being back at the races, especially the 100th Indianapolis 500,” said Indy’s first four-time winner, adding with a grin, “Because I never thought I’d live long enough to see it! Seriously though, it’s been a struggle lately because every time I get to feeling healthy, something else happens. You can’t let stuff like that get you down and I won’t.”
During his most recent recuperation which saw Foyt miss seven of 16 races in 2015, he leaned hard on his son Larry, who was named President of A.J. Foyt Enterprises, Inc. in December 2014. That November, A.J. had undergone triple coronary artery bypass surgery – just two weeks after announcing his team would expand to two cars with young Jack Hawksworth wheeling the No. 41 ABC Supply Honda.
As president, Larry was responsible for integrating the new second car team personnel into the existing No. 14 team. The 2015 season proved to be extremely challenging, fraught with growing pains. While problems rarely repeated themselves, new ones arose. After lessons learned, plus a change in management with the hire of Team Director George Klotz and an increase in the engineering staff, both Foyts expect strong results this year.
“I think we’ll be more competitive this year because we made a lot of changes within the team, got some more engineers but kept the same drivers,” A.J. said. “We know more what the drivers want and they know what we expect, so all that put together makes for a stronger team.
“We’re developing some new shocks so we’ve spent time in the shaker rig and will get some time in the wind tunnel which is important with the new aero kit this year. The on track testing has been going well. We’re working on the little stuff which might be enough of a gain to get us over the hump.”
Foyt believes his team has the capability to become one that contends for wins on a consistent basis.
And why wouldn’t he?
Foyt’s career is a treasure trove of memorable records and incredible feats. His record of achievement may never be equaled and certainly won’t be in his lifetime. Major victories, including the Indy 500 in IndyCar, the Daytona 500 in NASCAR, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans in sports cars, set him apart from all other race drivers.
Winner of a record 67 Indy car races and seven national IndyCar Series titles as a driver, Foyt is often viewed as an intimidating personality by drivers, all of whom are now two generations removed from the motorsports legend. It is an assessment he disputes.
“I don’t ask my drivers to do all that I have done, the times are different nowadays,” Foyt says. “But I do expect them to give me 100 percent. That’s what I like about Takuma Sato. That, and he’s fast and he wants to win. That’s the name of the game. When I was running, that was all I wanted to do--win, and that’s the reason I probably won as much as I did. I never did want to settle for second or third, and that’s what I like about him. I think Jack Hawksworth is just as focused on winning races.”
Sato took just 52 starts to become the first Japanese driver to score an IndyCar victory. He had won pole positions at Iowa and Edmonton in 2011, his second year in the series. He finished off his 2013 season with Foyt by winning the pole in the inaugural Grand Prix of Houston. The following year he won two more poles, bringing his career total to five. This past year, Sato made his 100th IndyCar Series start at Mid-Ohio and posted his season-best finish of second at Detroit in race 2. Hawksworth posted his season-best finish of seventh twice in the Detroit doubleheader in his first season with the team.
With Sato onboard, Larry’s role increased as his father’s health prevented him from attending races the past three seasons. Sato, in his fourth season driving the No. 14 ABC Supply Honda, became the longest tenured-driver in the team’s history--a testament to Larry’s cool-headed management style as much as to Sato’s talent and expertise behind the wheel.
A.J. has seen a lot of changes in his celebrated career, which began in 1953 on the small dirt tracks around Houston, Texas. He soon turned it into a globetrotting romp of racetracks throughout North America and in Europe, Australia and Asia.
However, the Texan’s most memorable races took place at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he became the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 (‘61, ‘64, ‘67, ‘77). Including the 2016 Indy 500, Foyt will have competed in 59 straight Indy 500s—including driving in a record 35 consecutive races. He holds the IndyCar Series records for most career victories (67), most national championships (7) and most triumphs in one season (10). He is the only driver to win these crown jewels of motorsports: the Indy 500, the Daytona 500 (’72) and the 24 Hours of Le Mans (’67).
“It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve been racing Indy cars for nearly 60 years,” said Foyt. “I’ve had so many good memories, and some not-so-good, but I wouldn’t trade any of it.”
Winning has been the hallmark of Foyt’s career: winning in Indy cars, NASCAR, USAC stock cars, midgets, sprints, IMSA sports cars and, of course, Le Mans. He won 14 national titles and 172 major races in his driving career, which spanned four decades and three continents: North America, Europe and Australia. He has won in five countries—U.S.A., France, New Zealand, Canada, Great Britain—and in 15 of the 19 states in which he competed as a driver.
Yet it was through his adversities that A.J.’s qualities burned brightest. His determination and toughness set him apart from his competition and led to a career that made him auto racing’s most inspiring champion.
Over the years, Foyt proved he was physically and mentally tough. The equipment that he drove did not have the safety features of today’s cars and gear. Foyt battled back from career-threatening accidents to race—and win—again.
He broke his back at Riverside in 1965 and again at Daytona in 1982, sustained burns on his face and hands at Phoenix in 1966, was run over by his own race car, breaking his ankle at DuQuoin in 1972. He nearly lost his right arm in 1981 at Michigan, and in 1990, he nearly lost a leg—he still limps from the effects of his crash at Road America.
“I knew people wanted me to retire, heck my own family wanted me to,” he said of that 1990 accident. “But I didn’t want to go out on crutches. I was determined to walk to my race car without crutches.”
At 56, Foyt limped to his car, without crutches, and qualified second for the 1991 Indianapolis 500! He was eliminated early when debris from another accident broke his car’s suspension, but not before he had shown his own brand of toughness before 400,000 race fans, and millions of TV viewers.
After finishing ninth in his 35th straight 500 in 1992, the motorsports icon retired from driving Indy cars in 1993 on Pole Day (May 15) at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His decision was abrupt as it was final.
“When I won Indy the first time back in ’61, I had a chance to meet Ray Harroun who won the first Indy in 1911,” Foyt revealed. “I asked him when he knew when to quit. He said, ‘It’ll come to you, you’ll just know.’ And he was right.”
In the past decade, Foyt has faced his most serious health issues which include: systemic shock from an attack of killer bees (2005), left knee replacement (2006), nearly drowning in an enclosed bulldozer he dumped into a pond (2007), multiple stent implant cardiac surgery (2011), staph infection (2012), back surgery, hip replacement and right knee replacement (2013), triple bypass surgery (2014), staph infection and second right knee replacement (2015), spinal stenosis-triggered sciatica (2016).
Foyt’s triple bypass surgery in November 2014 followed by serious post-operative complications, led to a nearly month-long hospital stay, and for the first time, a week-long induced sedation as doctors worked to get him back on track. Another two-week stay in the hospital in December due to more, but non-life threatening, complications set a personal record for Foyt, whose previous hospital stays (due to race-related injuries) were three weeks or less.
“I’ve had a lot of accidents and have always recovered pretty fast,” said Foyt, adding, “but this was altogether different from an accident, because it was a health problem. All during my career I never had any health problems, so I didn’t realize how serious they can be or how lucky you are when you’re healthy.”
Throughout his storied career, Foyt has defied the odds to emerge triumphant. His accolades include being named the Driver of the Year in 1975, inaugural inductions into the National Motorsports Hall of Fame (Novi, Michigan), the Sprint Car Hall of Fame and the Miami Project/Sports Legend in Auto Racing (1986). He won the American Sportscasters Association Sports Legend Award in 1993. He was named to
NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers and voted Driver of the Century by a panel of experts and the Associated Press. In 2000, he was named to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, and more recently, he was voted into the North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame.
As a team owner, Foyt has won the national Indy car title five times: 1967, 1975, 1979, 1996 (with driver Scott Sharp) and 1998 (with driver Kenny Brack). It was also with Brack that Foyt won the 1999 Indy 500 for his fifth visit to the Brickyard’s victory circle.
As Foyt campaigns throughout the 2016 season, he and his ABC Supply Racing team will be working hard to add yet another milestone to a career defined by them.