The National was foundering. In May of 1991, the sports-centered newspaper had just weeks left.1 As its shutdown loomed, Ed Hinton, with the support of his editors, Frank Deford and David Granger,2 set out to write on NASCAR driver A.J. Foyt, whose career also appeared to be in its twilight. Hinton felt like this story needed to be “a lithium shot,” his swan song at a publication whose ambition couldn’t save it.
The last issue ran June 13.
Deford was the paper’s editor-in-chief, a position he assumed after spending 27 years at Sports Illustrated. He’s now back at SI as a senior contributing writer. Granger was the hands-on editor of Hinton’s piece — his official title was executive features editor — and he’s now the editor-in-chief of Esquire.
“It was written from the decks of the R.M.S. Titanic, sinking hard by the bow,” Hinton says. “The National was going under, and we all knew, and to continue on … is probably the thing I’m proudest of.”
Hinton, who’d covered auto racing for years, had heard that Foyt, already over the hill at 56, was attempting a comeback from a brutal 1990 crash,3 and he knew a piece like the one he was planning would garner The National — and himself — some attention. No matter that Sports Illustrated — first Gary Smith, and then eventually Bill Nack — was on the story, too. Hinton was going to beat them, even if he felt as if facing off against Smith was comparable to George Patton fighting Erwin Rommel in the North African desert, he says.4
There was a widespread public belief that Foyt might retire after the crash, but he says he never entertained that idea. “I’d already made up my mind I was going to come back,” Foyt says. “There was no doubt. It was just other people saying I couldn’t do it. I was pretty bullheaded. I was going to prove a point.”
SI‘s approach was a bit more complicated. Neither Smith nor Nack had much of a racing background, and the magazine was on shaky terms with Foyt. In an April 1971 issue of SI, the magazine had quoted Foyt using a homophobic slur. But the SI writer hadn’t heard Foyt say it; instead, fellow racer Jackie Stewart had allegedly overheard the words, and told SI. Foyt sued for libel, took it to trial, and eventually won.
Hinton was on the story first, his plan to run it before the Indy 500 in May. He arrived in late winter at Foyt’s ranch in Hockley, Texas, and found not only the story of a man, but of racing’s biggest name at the center of a massive generational shift.
In May 1984, famed driver Rick Mears broke both his feet at the Sanair Speedway in Quebec. In the years that followed, drivers sustained terrible leg injuries because their feet, by the design of the cars, stretched beyond the front wheels and axles. By the early 1990s, the toll had become too much, and things began to change. Cars became safer, injuries were reduced.5
“Most race car safety measures are reactionary,” says Terry Trammell, an orthopedic surgeon who treated Foyt and is known for his work in auto racing. “They’re not proactive. It’s not looking at what happens next until it happens, and then you work to solve it.”
Those changes came at the same time as Foyt’s generation of drivers — tough, grizzled, ferocious — was retiring. Drivers were getting younger, racing was getting safer, and it all made for a sanitized version of the sport popularized in large part by its grit.
It was under those circumstances that Foyt learned how to walk for the second time in the early months of 1991,6 determined to give the Indy 500, which he’d won four times already, one last crack. As Foyt finished his rehab and began to launch his comeback, Hinton arrived in East Texas to attempt to wrestle racing’s biggest character into newsprint.
The Last Ride of A.J. Foyt
Foyt says it was the worst injury he sustained in his career.
The National May 7, 1991 By Ed Hinton
Eight a.m. and raining on Waller, Texas, out where Texas starts to look like Texas ought to, 40 miles northwest of Houston on the road toward Austin.7 Around the Formica tables at Stockman’s Restaurant the cattlemen are brought coffee with the spoons already in the mugs. George Jones is on the jukebox: … and the mem’ries get stronger …
Hinton’s original lede included a phrase that was cut before publication. It read: “Eight a.m. and raining on Waller, Texas, population big enough to whip your ass, out where Texas starts to look like Texas ought to …”
Hinton grew up in Sherman, Mississippi, and remembers kids used to talk of putting up a sign that read: “Sherman: Big enough to whip your ass.” He loved the idea and incorporated it into the story, but Deford thought “ass” was a gratuitous term. The other editors on the piece, Granger and Rob Fleder, disagreed. Hinton called Deford at home one night to plead his case, but he was quickly talked out of it.
“He said, ‘Ed, somebody’s got to be the country parson around here,’” Hinton remembers. “‘There’s nobody left to do that but me.’” When he suggested the lede would be fine without the phrase — “Frank was a maestro at rhythm and cadence,” Hinton says — the writer was sold, though he’s inserted the phrase whenever the story has been subsequently republished.
Today, Deford remembers little of the debate over the word, but he stands by his opinion. Although he doesn’t mind cursing in quotes — “In fact, I absolutely hate it when people are supposed to have said ‘butt’ when you know they said ‘ass,’” he said in an email — he still thinks the phrase would have taken away from the lede. “Here, in the first sentence, it just sort of seems forced, like way cool.”
Eight a.m., not 7:59, not 8:01, and an old bull of a man/legend lumbers in, barely walking, his myriad old wounds aching in the damp. As on most mornings when he’s home, he has driven a pickup six miles from his ranch to Stockman’s for breakfast.8
Although the story doesn’t entirely unfold in chronological order, this breakfast occurred at the beginning of Hinton’s reporting. When Foyt first arrived, he was hardly forthcoming, but that changed as time passed. “It just got better and better and better and better over a period of days,” Hinton says. “I couldn’t believe what I had. He had never given that extensive of an interview to any journalist I ever knew about.”
This may be the only place in the world where A.J. Foyt can walk in and nobody feels a vague urge to dive for cover.
He settles 235 pounds into a chair, and he says:
Iced tea for breakfast is the mildest of his dietary quirks — hell, he won four Indy 500s on breakfasts of chili and cheeseburgers. While hospitalized with his latest, worst set of injuries, he devoured candy bars and Cokes.9 His fighter-pilot vision, his uncanny depth perception — a major reason he’s still alive — has always flouted warnings to eat vegetables.10 “Squash, green beans, I don’t eat any of that crap.”
While Foyt was hospitalized, Trammell was his primary physician and surgeon, and those candy bars and Cokes became a major point of contention between the two. “He was gaining weight like crazy, and … I was always riding him for his weight,” Trammell says. “He has a mind like an elephant; he doesn’t forget anything, and years later he reminded me of that when I gained a little weight.”
Depth perception is crucial for drivers, who must see 1,000 feet in front of them while driving at speeds near 230 mph. Foyt was known for his eyesight, but his was more a gift of genetics than anything he fostered with a healthy diet. “He had incredible eyesight, but every once in a while now I’ll see him pull out a pair of reading glasses,” Hinton says. “He doesn’t like to do that.”
On a steady diet of fried food, cheese and ice cream, he has endured, even regenerated, as the toughest sonofabitch ever to drive a race car, if not the toughest ever to participate in sports.11
In Foyt’s era, drivers would sometimes compete in four races in five days, partying and living large in the moments in between. Among that cast, Foyt was the toughest of all, a character and a force; Hinton wrote in a later story that he “wore his toughness on his sleeve.”
But now a heart wound is imminent. The days are dwindling toward the last great ride of the greatest race driver ever:12 A.J. Foyt’s last Indy. The world will have to wait and see how he handles that. Not even he knows, and he will not allow himself to wonder.
Foyt disagrees about two things in this sentence: the assertion that it was his last race and being called the greatest race car driver ever. “I enjoyed being on top, but I’m no different than any racer out there,” Foyt says. “I’ve had a very good career, and I’ve enjoyed it. People say, ‘Oh, you’re so much better than so and so.’ I don’t believe it. I believe you’re just as good as whatever you put into it.”
He is 56. Been hurting since he was 30. But better hurting than dead — which he should have been since 1965.
“Don’t hurry. He’s dead,” said the first doctor to get to him that Sunday at Riverside, Calif. And that would have been that, and all these years they’d have reminisced about the late, great A.J. Foyt, had not his old hell-raisin’ buddy, Parnelli Jones,13 noticed a faint gurgling sound from the unconscious body and said, “Well, wait a minute,” and crawled into the overturned stock car and with his fingers started to dig the mud and sand from A.J. Foyt’s mouth and throat so he could breathe again.14
Jones, a longtime friend of Foyt’s, won the 1963 Indianapolis 500 after becoming the first driver to break the 150 mph barrier at the track the year before. At 80, he’s now the oldest living Indy 500 winner.
Stories of cheating death, like this one, were once the currency of auto racing. “I’ve never thought the American public went out to see people get killed,” Hinton says. “They used to go see the narrow avoidance of death … They just wanted to see somebody on the edge, and I think that’s gone from auto racing today.”
Broken back, crushed sternum and bad concussion. And A.J. Foyt’s prime as a driver was yet to come:15 His third and fourth Indy 500 wins, victories in the Daytona 500 stock car race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car race, the 24 Hours of Daytona, the 12 Hours of Sebring — every one of the world’s most renowned races except the Grand Prix of Monaco, which he never entered because of his disdain for Formula One racing.16
“I’ve been up and down that ladder like a yo-yo,” Foyt says. “I’ve been on top a lot of times, on the bottom a lot of times. When you’re up on top, you kind of relax a little bit, and then you get dropped off, and you work that much harder to get back.”
Foyt did race Formula One briefly, in just three events from 1958 to 1960. The disdain of older, tougher drivers toward the series — which features more technologically advanced cars — stems from the perception that ability and talent matter less in that sport.
Formula One wasn’t considered racing at all by the tough guys around the dirt tracks that loosed A.J. Foyt onto the world and birthed his mean-as-a-bull image.17 The late Johnny White once recalled what it felt like when a raging young Foyt snatched him by the head as he sat in a sprint car at Williams Grove, Pa.: “I could feel my helmet breaking around my ears — krrrnch!”
“It’s a pity, an absolute pity, that the term ‘raging bull’ came out of the movie about Jake LaMotta, because A.J. Foyt in his prime was the all-time raging bull,” Hinton says.
Foyt’s is a record of diversified talent, guts and tantrums18 unequaled in all the world and likely to stand for the ages.
By the 1990s, Foyt had mellowed some, but Hinton says there was a time when no one in racing knew exactly how he would react — to anything. “There was a time around Indianapolis when Foyt was in his prime when you didn’t know what to expect from him,” Hinton says. “He’d as soon deck you.”
Several rooms — in several places — full of trophies are unnecessary reminders of his career, considering the head-to-toe museum he walks around in. Take that scar the breadth of a calf rope, running the length of his right forearm. That’s the ghost of the muscle tissue left hanging in a guardrail in Michigan in 1980.19 Those white splotches on his neck are old skin grafts, from fiery crashes down through the years.20
Hinton says Hoyt’s forearms looked “like Popeye the Sailor’s,” and in Michigan, his crash ripped out a massive chunk of muscle.
In the two decades since the story was published, Foyt has also had back surgery, gained weight, and now has trouble getting around. “All those old wounds I talk about in that story,” Hinton says, “they’ve just gotten to him.”
So this latest thing, though it might seem like the physical comeback of all time, in all of sport — this matter of A.J. Foyt’s feet and legs, gathered piece by piece out of a dirt embankment last September and now back under him, functioning, rather than hanging in some wheelchair, or amputated and buried ahead of him — this was just par for Foyt.
This was not so much a miracle, and not so much modern surgery and therapy, as it was that A.J. Foyt said he was going to keep those feet and legs and he meant it.
The doctors21 who got to Foyt last September at Elkhart Lake, Wis., were amazed he didn’t just pass out from the pain. He was conscious through it all, from the moment the brakes failed to the instant the car stuck in the dirt like a dart, its front end torn off and Foyt’s lower body rammed into the earth.22
Trammell was the main doctor on Foyt’s case, and he had been an on-site orthopedic consultant at races since 1984. He was also the on-track medical director for Championship Auto Racing Teams, doing most of the hands-on treatment. “We laughingly said that I was the orthopedist, so I did the nuts and bolts,” he says. “I didn’t do the politics.”
At the time, racing was going through a transition where longer noses were affixed to cars to mitigate foot and ankle injuries. Foyt’s car was equipped with a longer nose, but it came off during the race, and the car then rammed into an embankment on the dirt course. “The nose of the car was acting like a cookie cutter, and it cut right through the dirt bank,” Trammell says. “All the dirt went into the car. It was almost like being dropped from a height on your feet. It just crushed his feet and ankles.”
When the doctors got to him, his left femur was sticking up through the mud and various other parts of both legs and feet were more or less sprouting up every which way so that the doctors couldn’t tell at first which leg or foot was which, or whether they were still attached to A.J. Foyt at all. The doctors dug the dirt away with their hands23 and began administering morphine, 15 c.c. in all, enough to knock out a mule, and still it hurt so bad that Foyt rolled his eyes toward Dr. Terry Trammell and growled, “Just find a goddamn hammer and knock me in the head!”
When Trammell and his crew got to Foyt, course workers were already on the scene trying to help. They’d brought out shovels and were attempting to dig Foyt’s limbs out of the earth, a terrible idea given the magnitude of his injuries. “We had to turn it into like an archaeological dig, carefully with our hands, because he had bones sticking out of his skin into the dirt,” Trammell says.
Meanwhile, Foyt kept insisting that he could extract himself from the car. Eventually, he became such a distraction that Trammell ordered his crew to stop so Foyt could try. “He didn’t quite pass out, but he got pretty close to it,” Trammell says. “He cooperated thereafter.”
On this usual morning at Stockman’s, A.J. Foyt can grin, even laugh about all the physical pain, all these years. You want to make him somber, subdued, start him muttering? Then go ahead. Bring this up:
What do you imagine it’s gonna feel like, A.J., when you limp out there in front of 400,000 people at 11 o’clock on the morning of May 26, 1991, and slide down into that car to start your 34th — and your last — Indy 500?
He snaps the reflex denial, the defense mechanism with which he has approached every Indy of his life: “I’m looking at it as just another race.”24
Hinton believes Foyt was telling the truth, that after so many years, nerves hardly came into play. Still, though, the race seemed to mean something more. “It was almost like he wanted to make his life statement there,” Hinton says.
Think about it, A.J.: Four Indy 500 wins and your 34th straight start and 400,000 people standing in unison to deliver what amounts to the Nobel Prize of cheers, a thunderous, relentless ovation awarded not for a day nor a single win nor even any near-immortal season, but for lifetime achievement.
He gazes down at the table top. He unwraps his flatware from the paper napkin and doodles with a fork.
“To be truthful with you, I’ve kind of dialed it out of my mind. Trying to KEEP it out.” And here there is a bare hint of a warning, a glimmer of the long-ago fiery ire. He pauses.
“It’s just — it’s gonna be just another race and, I mean, things might change, you know, but like I say, right now, that’s …” He trails off, turning the fork over and over on the table.
Two p.m. and atypically hot for April in Indianapolis, and every one of the 290,000 seats at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is empty.25 In all of sports there is no more haunting sight than these, the most massive grandstands on the face of the earth, empty, echoing with the turbocharged whine of a single car.
There was, however, a large media contingent present. By this point, SI had handed its Foyt story over from Smith to Nack, and Nack had yet to ingratiate himself. Foyt wouldn’t even speak to Nack at the test run, and so the SI writer consulted Hinton. “Nack … says to me at one point in the pits of Indianapolis, ‘He’s got to start treating me like a human being, doesn’t he?’ And I said, ‘Foyt? Well …’”
In the pits, a handful of people — mostly mechanics in black shirts with white letters reading “A.J. Foyt/Copenhagen Racing” — squint down the track, awaiting the approach of the black dot emitting the distant whine.
A.J. Foyt is here for a private test session, to shake down a new car, but mainly “to test myself … to see if I really want to do this.” He has to know ahead of time. He doesn’t intend to come out here for qualifying on May 11 and make a fool of himself.26
He didn’t. Foyt finished second in the qualifier to Mears.
Minutes earlier, from inside a full-face helmet, his eyes crinkled with suffering as he crammed his 6-foot bulk into the tiny cockpit of the new Lola — a car built in England to accommodate the typical modern-day Indy-car driver, who is about 5’8″, 160 pounds.27 Yet, once settled in, the eyes again became those of a boy, at home, at peace.
The typical driver today is much smaller, Hinton says, with 6-foot Dale Earnhardt Jr. and 5-foot-11 Jimmie Johnson the exceptions. “I don’t think there’s ever been an Andretti who lived that’s taller than 5-foot-7,” Hinton says.
And now the black dot grows on the hallowed horizon of Indy’s front straightaway, creeping along at a mere 120 mph on a warmup lap. As it comes to the start-finish line, the Lola jumps as A.J. Foyt’s rebuilt right foot goes to the floor, unleashing all of the Ilmor-Chevy engine’s 700 horsepower. Digital stopwatches begin to blink in the pits, and from the backstretch now you can hear the turbocharger screaming. But suddenly a crewman presses his radio headset closer to his ears, listens, and shouts to the others.28
With racing stories, it was often difficult for Hinton to maintain the narrative of the piece while still providing detail for a mass audience that doesn’t fully understand the technical aspects of racing. Often, he says, he was asked to insert explanations for readers who might be unfamiliar with the sport. “It was a pain in the ass to do, but you had to do it,” he says. “Honest to god, I’ve had editors calling me saying, ‘Don’t you think we should explain what a lap is? Don’t you think we should explain what a chassis is?’”
“Heads up! Comin’ in.”
The black Lola pulls in and the visor goes up on the orange helmet, and inside, A.J. Foyt is laughing. Why is he laughing? Because on this, his very first hot lap since last September, the goddamn BRAKES felt like they were going to fail, just like they felt that moment before that other Lola went airborne at Elkhart Lake, just like they felt that moment before the stock car slammed into the embankment at Riverside in ’65.
“Had a little flashback out there just now,” Foyt says, grinning. “I touched the brake pedal and it went to the floor. Probably just air in the lines, first time out for this car and all. But, tell you what: Let’s bleed those brakes again, just to be sure.”
And that is as close to afraid as A.J. Foyt will get in this, the test session during which he climbs back on the horse. Not that he hasn’t been scared in his time. “I’ve heard some of the top names in racing say they’ve never been scared. Bulls—! Any sonofabitch who’s ever been any good has been scared. I’ve thrilled the s— out of myself on many a lap, and I’m not just talking about the times I’ve been hurt.”29
To race like Foyt raced was, at its core, to take one’s life into one’s own hands. “The great, great race drivers, almost to a man … they all absolutely positively had a grasp on mortality,” Hinton says. “I heard somebody say one time that the closer you are to death, the more you love life. So people like Foyt … it’s just a live-for-the-moment kind of mentality.”
Brakes bled, reworked, checked out, he goes out again. One more shakedown lap, at a mere 197 mph, and then you can hear things start to get serious.
The way you know an Indy car means business is when you can hear it pushing wind before it, a whoosh just ahead of the engine’s scream, and now down the front stretch you can hear it, this hurricane with a siren inside it, heralding the comeback of A.J. Foyt, and now there is a whooshwheeeeeeeYOW as he passes, the black Lola moving so fast that your eyes can’t follow it smoothly; it sort of jumps and skips across your field of vision. When an Indy car starts to play that jump-skip trick on your eyes, the rule of thumb is that it’s doing about 230 mph on the straight.30 And all that can harness all that fury safely is the centrifugal force of that sharp left turn into Indy’s first corner.
Indy cars in the early 1990s were actually faster than they are now — too fast, according to both Trammell and Hinton. In 1991, the pole speed at the Indy 500 was 224.1 mph, and the next year, it went up to 232.5. However, the race hasn’t posted a pole speed above 230 mph since 2003.
Bobby Rahal, a driver Foyt can’t abide — he’s one of that fancy-pants new breed31 — once articulated oh so well what is happening now: “No amount of money in the world can make you go into that first turn at Indy and turn left unless you WANT to.”32
“I don’t think they’re near as tough as they used to be,” Foyt says. “You’ve got some great race drivers … but I’d like to see them drive some of them older cars. It’s just like when I came along, I hated having to drive them other cars them older drivers drove. It’s like jet airplanes against the old piston airplanes. Things change, and things get better, and things get easier.”
“People wonder why race car driving isn’t as popular as it was then, and I just think it’s because you don’t have characters like [Foyt and his contemporaries] anymore,” Hinton says. “Race drivers today, the cars are so safe that, by and large, I think most of those kids driving today think they’re playing video games. Deep down inside, I don’t think they’re any more afraid than if they were playing a video game or playing in some sort of simulator … I think there was a mystique and an aura about those guys who were willing to take those chances. It’s like the bullfighters. It’s the Hemingway mentality. I won’t say they were fearless. They were very afraid, a lot of times.”
You can tell by the sound whether a driver backs off the throttle in the first turn, but the whine remains steady. A.J. Foyt’s right foot is still on the floor. Stopwatches blink and whooshwheeeYOW and a pit board is held up so he can see it: 212.5 mph average around the track, and A.J. Foyt is BACK, by God and by Foyt.
Next lap’s average is 213.3, and before this test session is done there’ll be a lap at 216.6 — not bad for a busted-up, overweight, 56-year-old man who hates vegetables and milk — and Steve Watterson is standing there in the pits dumbfounded.
Watterson is the Houston Oilers’ special rehabilitation trainer who last November took on the biggest rehab project of his career. You take all the worst lower-body injuries in NFL history, combine them, come up with a 10 Worst list, put them all into one man’s body, and that, essentially, was A.J. Foyt when Watterson first laid eyes on him.33
Foyt says that by the time he finished with Watterson and the Oilers, he was in better shape than he’d been before the accident. The rehab was intense, the worst part being his twice-daily sessions in a hyperbaric chamber. Eventually, as Foyt is wont to do, he took his therapy into his own hands, returning to his farm and driving his bulldozer around the property to get his feet accustomed to pedals.
In his time around the NFL, “I’ve worked on some destroyed joints, some compound fractures,” Watterson says. “But nothing of this magnitude.”
Watterson found a man who’d undergone three lengthy, complex rounds of surgery for compound fractures of both legs and bad mangling of both feet. There were skin grafts, steel pins, open wounds everywhere below both knees, and numerous masses of scar tissue.34
Foyt’s surgeries were based off of hand reconstruction techniques. Once foot and ankle injuries became so commonplace in racing, Trammell began looking into the best treatments, and he called a friend who was an accomplished hand surgeon. Trammel thought he might be able to work on a foot similarly to a crushed hand, and the friend agreed.
“Both ankles were frozen. … There was no sensory perception in the feet. I could put his feet in hot water or ice water and he couldn’t tell me which was which. … When he wanted to walk on the beach I told his wife to get him some of those scuba diving socks, because if he stepped on glass he’d never know it.
“All through the therapy he would tell me — yell at me — ‘Fix my right foot so it will go DOWN! Don’t worry about whether I can lift it. In my game, if you lift your right foot, you lose.’
“I’ve worked with the Olympics,” says Watterson. “Worked with the NFL. Known some tough men …
“But never have I met anyone tougher than A.J. Foyt.”
Four a.m. in a Milwaukee hospital last September, deep in a relentless, waking, living nightmare. DAMN that useless morphine that makes you vomit till your stomach is dry and then keeps you heaving until even your diaphragm and ribs are killing you.
A.J. Foyt closes his eyes but there is no sleep. There has been no sleep for days, except under anesthesia during surgery. A decade ago, the ripped-open arm “hurt! Godamighty!” when he woke up in the helicopter over Michigan, but this … THIS!
Then his daddy comes.
Old Tony Foyt comes in quietly and stands by the bed and surveys the situation. “You’re hurt pretty bad,” he says. “But everything’s going to be all right.”
A.J. breathes just a little easier and the dry-heaving stops.
“It’ll be all right,” his daddy says.
Tony Foyt has been dead since 1983. But through the decades he never failed to be with A.J. when A.J. was hurt bad, and Tony was — is — too solid a chunk of old Czech-German-Texan granite to abandon the boy now.
For two sleepless weeks, every time A.J. closes his eyes, his daddy will be there. Months later, A.J. will still “feel like I talked to him … like he was right there and he came and talked to me. … I don’t know — I can’t tell you why.”35
This section hints at the supernatural, which — in Foyt’s case — should not be confused with religion. Foyt didn’t think religion had a place in racing, a position he took after noticing a growing number of NASCAR drivers thanking God after their wins. Foyt told Hinton he found the whole thing annoying, calling one such offender a “jackoff.”
Hinton thinks Foyt’s publicist, Anne Fornoro, reprimanded him for spouting his opinions on religion to Hinton in Texas, because a few months later at that test run in Indianapolis, Foyt started in on the subject again. At a press conference, he mentioned that he’d better thank the good Lord for helping him with his comeback, which was out of character. He apparently couldn’t quite stomach it, though, and added: “Then again, He couldn’t have done this without me, either.”
Hinton loved the scene, and he wanted to include it in the story. It didn’t make the piece, however. “I just think we were too tenuous at The National,” he says. “We were afraid of things like that.”
Psychologists have noted that men dying, men in excruciating pain, often dream of their long-dead fathers. Gen. George S. Patton’s last utterance was, “Papa?”
Bullish and hardened as A.J. Foyt has always seemed, he has always been at his epicenter just a big old tough kid who loved his mama and daddy more than anything — far more, far deeper, than the average son loves.
“I never really left my parents. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I have no regrets. “My own kids [two sons and a daughter, all grown], I’m close to ’em and yet I’m not close to ’em. You know how it is nowadays. But my mama and daddy — it was more like a partnership than a mama and daddy. Daddy worked with me. We built our own cars. We built the car we won Indy with in ’67. In ’77 we won with both a car and an engine we’d built ourselves. I’m the only man who’s ever won Indy by building his own car and his own motor and then driving the thing himself. I doubt anybody will ever do that again.36
He’s still the only one to have done so, and part of his accomplishment was a direct result of his controlling nature. “Certain things I like to do, and I like it done certain ways,” Foyt says. “It’s hard to get people to do what you want to do, so I said, ‘To hell with it, I’ll do it myself.’”
“It’s still hard to realize that Mama’s been gone since ’81 and Daddy since ’83.” Both died in the month of May, Indy month. “They both waited till I qualified at Indy, waited till I got home, and closed their eyes.”
If ever there was a tougher man than Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr., “A.J.,” he was Anthony Joseph Foyt Sr., “Tony.” Here’s how tough Tony Foyt was: In 1975, he happened to visit his doctor’s office for some routine tests, and evidence was discovered that months earlier he’d suffered a massive heart attack. Most men would have dropped dead from the attack. Tony Foyt, if he’d felt a sledgehammer in his chest, hadn’t told anyone. He had ignored it, hadn’t even broken stride.
But in 1983 there was an ailment not even Tony could ignore — cancer. By February, he was in the hospital dying. He clearly wouldn’t live to see another Indy 500. The British Aston-Martin team, and Daytona International Speedway president Bill France Jr., had been asking A.J. to race in the 24 Hours of Daytona. A.J. hadn’t driven a 24-hour race since he and Dan Gurney won Le Mans in ’67.
“No use in you hangin’ around here,” Tony said. “Go on down there and run.”
The Aston-Martin prototype failed early in the race, but another team owner hurried to A.J. and offered him a chance to switch teams in mid-race, to co-drive a turbo Porsche 935 with Frenchmen Bob Wollek and Claude Ballot-Lena. A.J. had never driven a Porsche, didn’t even know the shift pattern — had to be shown the pattern on another Porsche that had been wrecked in the middle of the night.
At dawn, it was foggy, pouring rain. A.J. hadn’t raced in the rain in 20 years.
Wollek roared into the pits, climbed out, and A.J. Foyt got in. He tested the shifter, revved the engine and roared away, and at 200 mph the car was hydroplaning, sending huge rooster tails of water skyward. A.J. Foyt was faster than anyone else on the track, faster than all the Englishmen and Italians and Germans with all their years of experience racing in the rain.
Foyt, Wollek and Ballot-Lena won. Afterward the team owner asked how much of the purse A.J. would like.
“None of it,” said A.J. “All I want is the trophy.”
With it in hand, he boarded his private jet back to Houston. He rushed to the hospital and gave it to his daddy.
When Tony died, A.J. sank into “a limbo” that would last for years, and sap his pride in racing. He lost interest in everything — his two ranches, his thoroughbred horses, his businesses. “Thank God I wasn’t much of a drinker, or I probably would have gone on the bottle — become a total alcoholic.”37
Despite his terrible eating habits, Foyt was neither a drinker nor a smoker.
Dazed, distraught, Foyt stood still while Indy car competition soared into high technology. Suddenly, after 25 years as emperor of Indy, his efforts there withered.
“He hasn’t kept up with all the testing, technology and development over the past eight years,” says retired three-time Indy winner Bobby Unser.38
Foyt sees the subject of technology in racing much differently. Technology, to him, has made the sport boring, because cars are all essentially the same now. “I don’t think it’s near as fun as it used to be, when you could build your own car and your own motor and all that,” he says. “Now, it’s just that ‘You’ve got to run this, this way.’ It’s still racing, and it’s decent racing, but it’s not near what it used to be. You and your crew could outsmart everybody by building it a little differently.”
“These drivers out here today think, ‘Oh, I’ve raced against Foyt — he’s easy.’ But they’ve never raced against FOYT. If they’d ever raced against FOYT, they’d be saying, ‘Yes, sir,’ and ‘No, sir’ to him today.”39
By the time of his 1990 crash, Foyt was already past his prime. He hadn’t won the Indy 500 since 1977, and though he’d finished fifth and sixth in 1989 and 1990, respectively, he would never again be the force he once was. That, in some cases, contributed to the general belief that he would simply retire after the Wisconsin accident.
Eleven a.m. on a muggy East Texas day and a big red Chevy pickup, the kind with double wheels on the back, is rolling toward Houston with the radar detector on and A.J. Foyt at the wheel, relaxed, remembering …40
Much of the reporting for this story was done in the truck, with Foyt, Hinton, and Fornoro all smashed into its front seat. “Anne is there, trying to keep order in the conversation, which she had very little luck doing,” Hinton says. “He just got completely out of control a lot of the time.”
“One time out at Riverside, NASCAR had this real badass technical inspector who kept messing with Parnelli. Parnelli finally said, ‘Show me where my car’s illegal.’ The inspector stuck his head under the hood, and Parnelli slammed the hood down on his head. Wham!
“Of course they threw Parnelli out. We did some crazy stuff. But we didn’t care if they threw us out. See, we were there to race, and if they liked us, fine, and if not, piss on ’em.”
NASCAR, USAC, CART, didn’t matter. Foyt and his running mates, Parnelli Jones and Jim Hurtubise,41 had come off the meanest dirt tracks in America. Hurtubise was horribly disfigured in a fiery crash at Milwaukee, and when surgeons told him his hands would be immobile for the rest of his life, but that they could shape them however he wanted, he said, “Shape ’em to fit a steering wheel” and went on racing until he died of a heart attack.42
Hurtubise, who died in 1989, raced Champ cars, sprint cars, and stock cars. He was a fan favorite, but he never achieved great success.
That’s typical of the racers of Foyt’s generation. It was impossible for them to quit easily, and Hinton believes that the adrenaline rush of the sport was addictive. In 1992, while Hinton was reporting a story about Richard Petty’s impending retirement, Petty’s son summed up the phenomenon perfectly: “Guys like A.J. Foyt and Richard Petty,” Kyle Petty told him, “look at this like the last day of their lives.”
“We traveled a lot together, me and Parnelli and Hurtubise. Raised some hell. Had a beer or two.”
And now A.J. Foyt is smiling, gazing off somewhere into the 1960s.
“One time Parnelli won a race at Cleveland, Ohio. I pulled the truck up to victory lane and said, ‘Let’s go.’ Well, this fan walked by and said to Parnelli, ‘I wish you hadn’t won today. I wish you’d got killed.’
“Parnelli took that trophy and slapped the sonofabitch with it. Right there in victory lane. Wham! Right in his face.”
Parnelli Jones swears today that “I was the sane one of the bunch. Them other two were crazy.”
Jones shrugs matter-of-factly: “I’ve seen A.J. jerk guys out of cars and beat the hell out of ’em, stuff like that. And I don’t mean around race tracks. I mean driving down the street, when people would hassle him … I’ve seen him take care of a couple of ’em at a time.
“One day we were sittin’ around the pits at Indy, talkin’,” says Jones, “and A.J. says, ‘Tell you what: let’s take on Muhammad Ali. You fight him one round and I’ll fight him the next. I think we’d kick his ass.’
“That was A.J.’s idea, not mine.”
The racing world waited for years for what would have been the damnedest non-title fight of all time, Foyt vs. Jones, a struggle that likely would have gouged half the bricks out of Indy’s front straightaway.
“I knew if we ever got to dukin’ it out, there would be some blood shed,” says Jones.
But it never happened. The closest they ever came was at Ascot Park, a little dirt track outside Los Angeles, over a matter as miniscule — to everyone but Foyt and Jones — as a trophy dash in midget cars.
“I was on the pole,” says Jones, “and A.J. started on the outside of me. When the race started, he pinched me off — chopped me real bad — and I spun my car. Afterward, we were standing there jawing at each other, cussin’ a mile a minute. We came close to blows. I went back to my crew and said, ‘I’ve had it with Foyt! I’ll never talk to the sonofabitch again.’
“Then, just before the main event, I was down there working on my car, adjusting the chassis, and if I’da seen him coming I’da never let him get his hands on me.
“But I had my back turned, and all of a sudden I felt this big ol’ huggy bear with his arms around me. It was Foyt, grinning.
“That’s the kind of guy Foyt is. He has this great talent for pissin’ you off and then coming back and giving you a big hug.”
At Indy, Foyt’s reputation was so ferocious that all it took was a growl to scatter a crowd.43
That held even for the media; Hinton described Foyt as being “a bear … to deal with.” It wasn’t really until his 1990 accident and subsequent comeback that the driver became even the least bit approachable, and even then, it was fleeting. Once he had qualified second for the 1991 Indy 500, all bets were off, and Foyt was back up to his old tricks. Chicago Tribune writer Bob Markus wrote a blistering column condemning Foyt for his attitude that May.
“One time at Indy,” Jones recalls, “Foyt had just come back into his garage after qualifying, and here came all these USAC officials, old guys, to inspect his car. Foyt was sitting on a stool in the garage when they came in, and he screamed, ‘Get the f–- outta here!’
“And here went all these old guys staggering backwards, getting out of there,” and Parnelli Jones is clutching his chest, mimicking guys having heart attacks. “A while later the door cracked open and this old guy peeked in and said, ‘Oh, Mr. Foyt? Is it all right if we come check your car?’
“And these were the OFFICIALS.”
Since his first two Indy 500 wins, in 1961 and ’64, the world has been on the lookout for A.J. Foyt. The pinnacle of scrutiny came in 1967, when Ford Motor Co. gathered an armada of American cars and drivers for an all-out assault on Le Mans.44 Parnelli Jones turned down a spot on the team, figuring “I was too tough on equipment — I had enough trouble making a car last 500 miles, let alone 24 hours.”
There were vast differences between what Hinton termed the Saxon (American, British) racing culture and the Latin (French, Italian). At Le Mans, Foyt and his friends were viewed as the blustering Americans, and at times, they did little to counteract that. After a win in France, Hinton says, Foyt was taken to a celebration, where he was served a whole fish, head and all. His response was unabashedly American: He said he wasn’t going to eat anything that was looking at him.
Foyt accepted, seeing Europe’s deadliest track as nothing more than “a lil’ ol’ country road.”
Just two weeks earlier, Foyt had won his third Indy, plowing headlong through a smoke-shrouded melee of wrecking cars on the home stretch on the very last lap. Then he flew off to France to co-drive with Dan Gurney45 in a Ford Mark IV prototype sports car. Before the race, the French media predicted that “The wild young Americans will drive too hard. They will break the car. They will not finish.”
Gurney is credited with inventing the tradition of spraying champagne after a win, which he first did spontaneously at Le Mans in 1967.
They led for a total of more than 23 hours and won, becoming the only all-American driving team in a thoroughly American car to win Le Mans.
Gurney started the race, and by late afternoon had set the Mark IV’s headlights blazing, flashing, the international signal to “Move over! Leader coming by!”
When Foyt’s first stint came, “I’d only had about four or five laps of practice on the course.” It was tantamount to sending an all-pro cornerback out to play one-on-one soccer against Pele. But Foyt would learn fast, on the job. He had come to trust the rowdy New Zealander Denis Hulme. Foyt roared out of the pits and spotted Hulme’s car on the track. “He was already a couple of laps down, but I knew he knew the course. I followed Denny for eight or 10 laps, to familiarize myself with the course, then passed him and went on.”
Between midnight and dawn came one of the legendary driving stints in the lore of Le Mans. By the newcomer A.J. Foyt.
“About 3:30 in the morning, I was supposed to be finishing a four-hour shift. But they couldn’t find Gurney in the pits. He’d been to Le Mans before, and he knew what it was like when all that fog started coming in. Man, I was tired. I said, ‘Let me out!’ They said, ‘You gotta do another shift. We can’t find Gurney.’ I was hurting.46
Part of racing’s growing emphasis on fitness is tied to the endurance required of drivers. Modern-day drivers spend time on cardiovascular training, not necessarily to keep themselves trim, but rather to maintain their in-race endurance.
“About 4:30 in the morning was when some of the other Fords wrecked. Going down the Mulsanne Straight [nearly four miles of country highway where speed’s only limits are those of horsepower and nerve], a guy blew an engine and turned over and caught fire.
“The car was upside down and burning right there at the end of the straight, and here was all this smoke and fog and all these cars flying in. I guess you’re running about 240 or 250 down the Mulsanne. I downshifted real hard and missed the wreck. But I over-revved the engine and figured we’d warped everything. Turned out the car was fine.
“When Gurney finally relieved me, I’d driven nearly eight hours straight.”
After the race, European media asked the young Americans for “the secret” that had won for them.
Foyt lifted his right foot toward their faces. “THIS won the race,” he said.
They asked if he thought winning the world’s two greatest races, Indy and Le Mans, back to back, within a fortnight, would make him famous. Foyt was incredulous. Hell, he was already famous in America, the only place that mattered to him. He pointed at his right foot again:
“That FOOT is what made me famous.”
Noon at Foyt’s racing shop in northwest Houston, and he is sitting on a little midget race car, not very different from the one he was driving on Texas dirt in 1955 when the sprint car moguls discovered him and took him off to Minnesota, where his stardom budded. By 1957, sprint car owners figured the 22-year-old was ready for a crucial test: the high-banked, half-mile oval at Salem, Ind.47
The Salem Speedway, which opened in 1947, is about 100 miles south of Indianapolis.
“A lot of people wouldn’t run the high-banked tracks in sprint cars because it was so dangerous, so if you ran good on the high banks they figured you were fearless and crazy — figured you’d probably be a good Indy driver.”
And so in 1958, a crotchety official at a gate to storied Gasoline Alley watched a bullish Texas youth amble up.
“What do you want, boy?” the old man asked.
“I’m a driver.”
“What’s your name?”
“A.J. Foyt Jr.”
“Who do you drive for?”
Dean is a Hall of Fame owner whose cars won 38 Indy car races over his career. No driver ever won the Indy 500 while racing for him, however.
“You got a letter or anything to prove it?”
“Well, Dean’s car isn’t here yet. You’ll have to come back in a couple of days.”
“But, sir, I’m a USAC member.”
“I don’t care. You can’t come in here.”
Foyt still laughs about it. “I had to stay outside for two days.”
Nobody asks A.J. Foyt for identification at the gates of Gasoline Alley now. Nobody has for 30 years. He is the living, breathing, singular symbol of the place. After this Indy 500, after A.J. Foyt’s last one, “they’ll survive, I’m sure,” he says. “But I do believe a lot of people hate to see me go.”49
Foyt was right; his retirement marked the ending of an era. “There’s not going to be any more Babe Ruths,” Hinton says. “There’s not going to be any more A.J. Foyts … The badass is gone from American sports, and Foyt was the last of the badasses.”
All A.J. Foyt has ever known is driving. Tony built him a custom little car to play in when he was 2. One weekend when he was 11, A.J. was home alone with one of the midget cars his daddy owned. When his daddy and mama got home, they “found the whole yard tore up,” Tony once recalled, in a story published in Playboy. “The grass was all chewed to bits and there were tire gouges all over the place. The swing set we had in the yard had been knocked over. … I knew right away that A.J. had got some of his buddies to push him and they’d got that midget fired up.” Tony went to the garage and found the car. “He’d caught the thing on fire and had burned up the engine.”
Tony went into A.J.’s bedroom and found him pretending to be asleep. Tony stood there seething, but calmed down, knowing, “right then, standing there in the kid’s bedroom, that he would have to race, that there wasn’t going to be any other way.”
That was in 1946. And now, there is no telling how A.J. Foyt is going to react when those 400,000 people thunder this coming Indy 500 morning. But there’s a very good hint at how he’ll feel when he goes back to Indy next year, not as a driver.50
Foyt dislikes going back to Indy now that he isn’t racing, though he still owns cars and his drivers continue to compete. “Once you’ve drove a car and raced and won races, it’s not the same … You see all the mistakes they’re making. They stand out more to me than they did to the crew, because I’ve been there and done that.”
Twelve-thirty p.m. on a balmy winter Sunday at Daytona last February. On crutches, A.J. Foyt hobbles off an elevator into a VIP suite and settles 235 pounds into a chair. Far below sit 42 monstrous stock cars, waiting to awaken for the Daytona 500.
As iron a man in stock cars as at Indy, Foyt is sitting out the Daytona 500 for the first time since 1965, when he was laid up with the Riverside injuries.
He is wearing sunglasses. So no other human will ever know what is going on in A.J. Foyt’s eyes as the command is given to start engines and the iron thunder rises against the tinted windows of the VIP suite and the cars lumber off the starting grid.
“I damn near got tears in my eyes,” is as much as he’ll admit later, “watching them drive away … I felt like they were leaving me … up in those grandstands, where I didn’t belong.”51
“I thought it was very poignant that he thought they were leaving him up in those grandstands,” Hinton says. “I honestly think from that moment to today, Foyt has not known what to do with himself. He didn’t belong in the grandstands, just like he doesn’t belong in the pits running his racing team. He belongs in that car. That’s pretty much all he’s known.”
Foyt’s 1991 Indy 500 didn’t end as he’d hoped; after two cars crashed during lap 25, debris scattered on the track, and he hit a large chunk. The suspension on his car busted, and his day was finished.
But Foyt does things on his own terms.52 He went on to compete one last time, in 1992, finishing a respectable ninth.
“He really worked to get back in the car,” Trammell says. “He wasn’t going to go out on a stretcher. He was going to go out on his own terms. He did it his way, but that’s how he does most things.”
Unlike Foyt, Hinton didn’t have the luxury of choosing his end date. As he suspected, Foyt’s story was his final punch at The National, and he came away from it feeling like he’d “bloodied (SI’s) nose something fierce.” SI, it would appear, felt similarly.53 A few months after The National folded, Hinton found himself in the magazine’s midtown New York offices, interviewing for a job. The first words out of executive editor Peter Carry’s mouth, Hinton remembers, were praise for the Foyt piece. “I don’t mind telling you, that Foyt piece was our kind of piece,” Hinton remembers Carry telling him, and he believes to the exploits of racing’s last great character landed him his next job.54
It wasn’t that Nack’s story was weak; Hinton’s just boasted an unprecedented candidness. Part of that might have been a result of Foyt’s desire for a cover. Early in the negotiations with The National, it became apparent that he’d give them more access than SI if they could guarantee a cover, which the magazine would not. The National quickly did, and it may have helped.
It’s not lost on Hinton how lucky he was in this. “A lot of people had a terrible time for years, and I just sashayed right into Sports Illustrated,” he says. “I had the horse shot out from under me and jumped right onto a better horse. That story, I think, I have to believe it was somewhat life-changing for me.”
Foyt and Hinton have run into each other at races since the story was published; though he’s retired as a driver, Foyt continues to own cars through his company, A.J. Foyt Enterprises. In 2011, the 20th anniversary of the comeback, Hinton wrote about Foyt in Indianapolis yet again. He was the same bear of a man, Hinton says, maybe a bit more reflective, but largely unchanged.55 What What Hinton remembers from that meeting, however, was how unsure Foyt seemed about a future away from the track. “It was almost like he’d expected to die a long time before now,” he says.
In that story, Foyt does make one uncharacteristic admission, telling Hinton that he thinks he may have raced for three or four years too long.
More and more, Foyt simply chooses not to return to the races. He lets his drivers compete without his critical eye looming, and that’s fine with him. He’s given up that little bit of control, but only because it’s an illusion. He can’t get in a driver’s car and change him, no matter how much he might want to.
“I just tell the drivers, ‘You’re not going to do nothing to impress me,” Foyt says. “Do the best you can, because everything you’ve done, I’ve done. I’ve hit the wall as hard as anyone has hit it.'”
Joan Niesen (@JoanNiesen) covers the Broncos for The Denver Post.