At 81, A.J. Foyt is still known as the toughest man to ever sit in a racecar. He survived crashes that would have ended most drivers’ careers. But he kept coming back… and winning.
Foyt won in every type of car from IndyCar to NASCAR, which he won the Daytona 500 in 1972, and stock cars, midgets, sprints, sports cars and Le Mans. He’s won 14 national titles and 172 major races in a career that spanned four decades and three continents.
But the Foyt name is most synonymous with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he was the first driver to ever win the Indianapolis 500 four times (1961, ’64, ’67 and ’77). As the owner of Foyt Racing, he won it again in 1999.
We caught up with Foyt to discuss the 100th running of the Indy 500: The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
What is it that makes the Indianapolis 500 so special?
FOYT: It’s like the Kentucky Derby, it’s been there for many years and some of the races are great and some of them are bad, but it’s still the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That’s what makes it so great. I guess, tradition you just can’t beat.
Where does it rank among all of the other races you've been in during your career?
I would have to say it rates number one. I keep referring to the Kentucky Derby, but your horse can lose every race and if he wins the Kentucky Derby, he’s the Kentucky Derby winner. It’s the same way in Indianapolis. I won a lot of races all over the country, but there’s still only one Indianapolis. People all over the world know the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s a tradition and tradition you can’t buy.
What do remember from the first time you drove in the Indy 500?
That was probably the biggest thrill of my life. I always dreamed of it and when I was a little kid I used to listen to it on the radio. For me to be good enough, from Houston, Texas, where I still live and was born and raised, to qualify for the 500 was the biggest thrill of my life.
In 1977, you became the first to win the Indianapolis 500 four times. Is that a greater accomplishment than the longevity and the sustained success you had throughout your racing career?
To do something nobody’s ever done before, yeah, naturally you’re proud of that. Going back, it’s like the Triple Crown in horse racing. The whole world knows it. It ain’t just the local people.
I have a question that only an Indy 500 winner would know, after winning the Indy 500, is the milk you drink cold or warm?
Well, it ain’t ice cold.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is an equally special track, is there anything about the track or race day that only a driver would know?
You can test all over the world and until you get there it seems like that track changes so much from the first day of practice to qualifying day to race day. It’s got a characteristic of its own. It seems like it’s never the same. One day to the other your can be handling great and the next day you can’t even hardly stay on the track. It’s just got a history like that.
Who's your pick to win this year's race?
I hope my team wins. That’s who I’m picking. I think we’re due for one.
How many Indy 500’s have you been to throughout your life and will you be there this year for the 100th running?
I hope I’m still around at the 100th running. I’ve been there since 1958 and I came there and sat up in Turn 2 in 1956 and 1957, but the first time on the ground trying to race was 1958. Yeah, I’ve gone every year. Even last year after I had open heart surgery. I didn’t go to a lot of the (other) races, but I did go to the Indy 500.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give a spectator going to their first Indy 500? Besides the drivers’ seat, where’s the best seat at the track to watch a race?
Grandstand B is real good and Grandstand A. It’s according to what you want to see and (Grandstand) E is very good. I’ve got seats in all (three) of them, but if a person can get a ticket in either – I’d say – B or E, to me, you can see a lot.
Who's the greatest driver you ever raced against?
There were a lot of great drivers, so it’s hard to pick one that you had trouble racing with. Parnelli Jones is good. Mario Andretti. There were just a lot of great guys. I was just glad to be racing against them because they were good racers.
What makes a great race car driver?
Dedication and really putting your mind to it.
Of all the different types and styles of cars you’ve raced, which was most fun?
The most fun I used to have was on a half-mile dirt sprint car. You had a lot of power and you had to control it with your foot. It was a lot of fun. Today these guys wouldn’t even know what to do if you put them in a sprint car. They wouldn’t know the front wheel from the steering wheel.
What do you think of today’s Indy Cars?
They’re about 1,000 percent safer than the old cars and the racetracks, they have safety walls. And the fuel is down to 18 gallons, where we used to carry 75 gallons, so when we hit the wall it was a pretty big explosion.
You've had a lot of serious wrecks and injuries – burns, broken bones, busted back, bruised aorta, etc. How does a driver mentally prepare to get back into the car and drive the way it takes to win?
The press would always write, ‘Can he come back or not?’ That’s what drove me. I just wanted to prove them wrong.
How’s your health these days?
Right now everything’s looking good. I’m learning to walk again at 81 years old, but the last two-and-a-half years have been pretty rough on me. I had to have open heart surgery and then I got staph infection and they had to take the other new knee. I got new hips and I got knees and then that staph infection was probably one of the most terrible things you could ever have. I was unconscious for almost 10 days in the hospital and then I got bedsores. That’s been over a year ago and they’re about 99.9 percent healed up. It’s been a mess, but I’m gaining and I’m not going to give up.
That’s when it pays to be a hard ass.
(Laughing) I guess you have to be a fighter to live.
There are a lot of professional and college football players, who have expressed regrets after the fact, having gone through so many medical procedures and the mounting health issues; have you even questioned yourself or had any regrets?
No. I knew when I went into the game the chances, and if I had my life to live over I wouldn’t change one damn thing.
Do you miss driving a race car?
Yes, I do. I really do, but I know in my own mind there’s no sense thinking I’m 20-years-old. Time passes on and, like I say, since the day I retired and got out I’ve not sat back in one to drive.
Because you know you gave it everything you had to win as much as you could, does that make it easier to retire? You didn’t take races off. You didn’t half-ass it. Having no regrets makes it OK.
I told (my publicist) Anne (Fornoro) and them something yesterday and never told a writer or anybody, but I’m going to tell you. When I was running some of the Daytona 500 races in stock cars, I would be running along with them and would talk to myself. I would say, "Come on A.J. Let’s get with it." I was running up front with them, but I felt like I could give it more and I was sitting there stroking a little bit.
Yeah, and you’re the only writer I’ve told that to. I used to talk to myself there a lot. I didn’t do it in Indy Cars because I was always giving it 110 percent, but here sometimes you start following and drafting and you start stroking it. I’d start talking to myself. "Come on, you can do more than this."
Did it work?
Yeah, it worked. Sometimes I got in trouble, but I got out of trouble more than I got in.
Your name is synonymous with auto racing, I need to know, has being A.J. Foyt ever gotten you out of a speeding ticket?
Yeah. I think the funniest thing was, up in Pennsylvania, I was hustling one day going to Pocono and I passed an old brown Dodge that looked like crap. I wasn’t running that fast – maybe 75 or 80 – and all of a sudden I seen him put his hat on and I said, "Oh crap." He turned his lights on and I stopped. He come up and he said, "Who do you think you are A.J. Foyt?" I said, "Yeah," and he said, "Don’t you get smart with me." I’ll never forget that.
One last question about Indianapolis, your grandson is married to the daughter of the Colts owner. Are you still a Texans fan or does that mean you have to root for the Colts?
You’re going laugh, but who I really like in football through the years was Tom Brady. Day in and day out I’m a Patriots fan. Yeah. … When Bum Phillips was with the Oilers, I really liked the Oilers but since then Texans ain’t really had nothing.
Interview by Keith Ryan Cartwright