Passionate. Of all the adjectives used to describe A.J. Foyt over the years—and there have been many--passionate is the one word that appears most often.
Over 21 years have passed since A.J. Foyt sat in an Indy car, yet he has lost none of the passion that characterized his exceptional career. It fuels his intensity, underlies his sometimes aggressive behavior but always drives him to excel in anything he does.
His record of achievement won’t be equaled 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 IndyCar races, Foyt is often viewed as an intimidating personality by drivers, all of whom are now two generations removed from the 79-year-old icon. 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 was 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.
“The reason I kept Sato on is because I know he can win races, he has already proven that to us,” Foyt continued. “We just have to settle him down a little bit and get the car a little better for him and just keep him with a cool head. We know he can win.”
Asked about his goals for 2014, Foyt replied without hesitation, “Win more than one race!”
Foyt is looking to continue the improvement that characterized his team’s performance in 2013. The ultimate goal for 2014 is to be in the fight for the championship throughout the season, not just at the beginning like they were in 2013.
Sato kicked off the season last year by qualifying second in the season opener in St. Petersburg. Two races later, he won the prestigious Long Beach Grand Prix. Finishing a hard fought second in the following race in Brazil, Sato and team entered the Indy 500 as the series point leader.
“I was so happy because they did a great job and Takuma drove a helluva race,” Foyt said of the Long Beach race which he watched from his home in Houston due to scheduled back surgery. “Larry did a great job, and Don [Halliday, chief engineer] and the whole team just did a fantastic job. We’ve had the support of ABC for quite a while now and it’s terrific to finally get that ABC car in the winner’s circle. I’ve been in victory lane a lot myself and I know what that’s like and I’m so glad to see them there. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there with everybody but I’m glad it shows they can win without me.”
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, bringing his career total to three.
“A.J. has achieved so many wins in every type of car, at every type of circuit, and in every type of situation,” Sato said when he joined the team in 2013. “That experience can only help in trying to win races this year. I think with A.J. and the team helping me this year, we can be very successful.”
It was an assessment that proved prophetic as the team’s visit to victory lane in Long Beach was its first since Kansas in 2002. Their last pole dated even further back: the 1998 Indianapolis 500.
The Houston pole was a poignant moment because it was Foyt’s first race back since the race at Texas Motor Speedway in mid-June.
Foyt had missed 11 of 19 races, undergoing back surgery in April and then left hip replacement surgery in July.
“It was hard, naturally you always want to be there but there comes a time that you can’t be there,” Foyt said. “Believe me, I would rather have been at the races instead of hurting in bed at home.
“I got my right knee replaced at the end of 2013 [December] because I was having so much trouble with my leg. Even though it was in the middle of the holidays, I got it done so I could be healed up and be strong at the start of this racing season.
“It’s hell getting old!” he concluded.
Foyt had known for a while that he couldn’t keep up the pace he had maintained since he began owning his own team at the end of the ’65 season. In October 2006, he appointed his youngest son Larry to be the Team Director. Young Foyt watched and learned before he started making constructive changes to the race team. He gained his father’s trust in the process.
In 2012, Larry made the most significant changes to the team since becoming its team director. He hired chief engineer Don Halliday, whose experience as a race car designer proved invaluable. Foyt also hired Raul Prados, a ‘rookie’ IndyCar engineer whose technical skills were honed on the European GP2 circuit, the feeder series to Formula 1.
The timing couldn’t have been better as A.J. dealt with several health issues in the 2011-2012 off season—repairing a torn rotator cuff and removing bone spurs in the area around his artificial left knee. A staph infection developed after the knee surgery which required two more surgeries to correct.
“I’m so glad that I had Larry handling the day-to-day operations,” said Foyt, who spent nearly two weeks in the hospital in January, 2012. “Each year he has taken on more responsibility and when I couldn’t be in the shop, he handled everything. I’m really proud of him.”
The team enjoyed some success with driver Mike Conway at the wheel—notably a podium finish in Toronto—but the results didn’t reflect just how competitive the team was in 2012. More changes were made over the winter which led them to their most successful season in terms of winning since 2002.
Foyt 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.
Foyt has competed in 56 straight Indy 500s--including driving in a record 35 consecutive races! He holds the Indy Car 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 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve been racing Indy cars for over 55 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 used at that time 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 has broken his back (1965), sustained burns on his face and hands (1966) and even been run over by his own race car breaking his leg (1972). It didn’t stop there. He nearly lost his right arm in 1981 and, in 1990, he nearly lost a leg--he still limps from the effects of his crash at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.
“I knew people wanted me to retire, heck my own family wanted me to,” he said. “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.
After competing in his 35th straight 500 in 1992 (finished 9th), he 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.”
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, Mich.), 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 2014 season, he and his ABC Supply Racing team will be working hard to add yet another milestone to a career defined by them.