Video: A.J. Foyt: In His Own Words >>
Video: Artist Hector Bergandi on Indy Winner A.J. Foyt >>
As the morning grew warmer and the 11 a .m. starting time approached, the field for the 1955 Indianapolis 500 was gridded on the front straightaway. Mechanics made last-minute adjustments, while drivers grappled with powerful emotions as hundreds of thousands of people crowded onto the sprawling grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS).
Video window may take a few moments to load...
Sitting in the stands that morning was a young racer from Houston, making his first trip to Indiana with several racing friends. Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. was 20 years old, but his shy grin and peaches-and-cream complexion made him look much younger.
As the race got underway he was mesmerized, the powerful Offenhauser engines shaking the earth and filling the air with excitement. Young Foyt's eyes were drawn to the cars as they sped past, particularly the Hopkins-Offy of two-time and defending race winner Bill Vukovich.
People all around him stood and cheered, caught up in the drama of the race. Foyt wondered: Could I do this? Could a kid beating a midget racer around Playland Park back in Houston possibly come here and qualify for the Indianapolis 500? That would be more than a dream...it would be the greatest thing in the world.
More than a half-century has passed since that fateful morning, and today Foyt is 76 years old. As the 500 celebrates a milestone 100th anniversary in 2011, he can lay claim to the fact that no man has influenced and impacted the event like he has. Hundreds of competitors have traveled to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to prove their ability, but only a few have truly taken the measure of the 500.
His impact can be measured in several ways. Although two other men are also four-time winners—Al Unser and Rick Mears—Foyt was the first. His amazing streak of 35 consecutive starts in the 500 is arguably the most daunting record in all motorsports. In addition to his four wins, his résumé includes four pole positions, two runner-up finishes, three thirds and a total of 17 top-10 finishes. He has led more races (13) and has raced more laps (4904) than anyone else.
But statistics alone cannot adequately measure his influence. Almost from the beginning, Foyt rose to become the embodiment of what Indianapolis was all about. He came from humble beginnings, yet rose to the pinnacle. Not content to merely reach the greatest stage, he became the most dominant player.
Skill, enormous determination and ambition, a powerful personality and a charisma that entranced three generations of racing fans; those were the elements that defined A.J. Foyt.
When Foyt got his first opportunity to race at Indianapolis in 1958, the scene was dominated by veterans such as Rodger Ward, Jim Rathmann, Jimmy Bryan and Tony Bettenhausen. These were tough, intimidating characters, but Foyt quickly showed the ability to hang with them in the most difficult of conditions.
In the beginning, he was a shy, shaky kid trying to find his way. Indianapolis has a way of putting even the strongest in their place; Foyt was no exception, and he recalls being completely overwhelmed.
The process was vastly different than today. Instead of a welcoming environment, rookies faced stern-faced officials from the moment of their arrival. They nearly had to beg for a garage pass, then were made to endure an emotionally wrenching driver's test through which they were continually reminded that the slightest mistake might mean never being allowed to compete at Indianapolis again.
Stomach churning, Foyt survived the first few days and proved himself capable of handling the physically challenging front-engine roadsters. But nothing could have braced him for the harrowing experience of his first Indianapolis 500 start.
Video window may take a few moments to load...
In the opening laps, a hectic pileup involving nearly half of the starting field caused Foyt to spin into the infield. He managed to keep the car fired, and upon getting back on track he caught the tail of the field and slowly circled the great oval as the caution flag was displayed.
As he neared the scene of the accident, wrecked cars were scattered across the landscape. One, the Sumar machine, was burning. Foyt's eyes zeroed in on the car as he swept past. He saw the driver, Pat O'Connor, lying lifeless in the cockpit.
O'Connor, a popular veteran, had befriended Foyt from his sprint car days, and had offered encouragement and advice throughout the month. But now he was forever silenced, and for the next few minutes Foyt watched in agony each time he drove past as O'Connor's body was removed from the car.
Foyt soldiered on—ultimately finishing 16th after blowing a radiator hose—but it was a moment that shaped his life. He knew he was now in a man's sport, dangerous and fickle, and terribly violent. The lessons of that moment are still felt today, as Foyt continues to wear a tough outer shell to protect against such powerful emotional blows.
Still, he admits, a man cannot endure such moments without pain.
"I'll be truthful with you, at that moment I thought this game was a little too tough," he says softly. "I didn't think I wanted any part of it."
His concerns were well-founded. It was an intensely dangerous era; of the 33 drivers in the starting field that day, 11 would eventually lose their lives in racing accidents.
Death or serious injury? The fear of either was not enough to dissuade A.J. Foyt from his desire to succeed at Indianapolis.
Throughout his long driving career, he experienced no less than three "career-ending" accidents. He suffered a broken back and serious internal injuries in a 1965 stock car crash, his arm was crushed in a 1981 accident at Michigan International Speedway and he survived catastrophic lower-leg injuries in a 1990 crash at Elkhart Lake.
As he faced a daunting and painful recovery from each episode, it was a powerful desire to race at Indy that fueled him. Each time, doctors and advisors said it was highly unlikely that he could recover in time for Indy; each time, he summoned the strength and courage to get himself back to racing form in time for the 500.
It perfectly illustrates the powerful will that drives this man. Any form of adversity, any advantage gained by a competitor, any outside force that impedes his progress, he lowers his head and pushes directly back at the opposing force.
Not delicately, nor gently. He comes at you with elbows up, just as he did as a kid growing up on the hardscrabble streets of Houston.
Yet, there is another dimension to his personality, a side that can be just as readily displayed. The easy laugh, the engaging smile that seemed to draw people in, they combined to quickly give Foyt an aura that remains unmatched at Indianapolis.
Yes, there were the four wins and his great successes on the track, which included multiple USAC titles, several stock car wins and an outright victory at Le Mans in 1967. But it was the combination of on-track prowess and larger-than-life persona that endeared Foyt to the masses.
"One of the things that always amazed me was A.J.'s effect on people," says IMS historian Donald Davidson, who has known Foyt for nearly 50 years. "I've seen CEOs of major companies become absolutely passive in his presence. These are powerful men who are accustomed to being the dominant person in any setting, yet they're in complete awe around A.J.
"When you see that happen, you realize the strength of A.J.'s personality."