Commentary

Famed blue-collar racer from Texas pushed his cars to the very limit

A.J. Foyt is the only man to win the Indy 500 (four times), the Daytona 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 24 Hours of Daytona. The best race car driver in history? Do you have to ask?

Updated: May 23, 2008, 1:19 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

AJ FoytAP Photo/AJ MastThe best driver of all time? A.J. Foyt, who was listed first on 10 of 19 ballots among ESPN.com voters.

INDIANAPOLIS -- The racing legend was busily giving instructions in his Gasoline Alley garage stall the day before Indy 500 pole qualifying.

You don't interrupt the master when class is in session, but A.J. Foyt had a big smile on that unmistakable round face as he lumbered over to talk.

Being voted the best race car driver in history made the old guy perk up and strut a little, although it's tough for him these days.

A crash two decades ago almost destroyed his legs, leaving him with a bowlegged gait that makes him look like an oversized penguin with a limp.

He lives every day in pain, but he doesn't complain. Well, he does complain, but not about his health.

At age 73, Foyt is happy to still roam the grounds at the place that made him famous. And he loved the fact that ESPN.com's prestigious panel of voters selected him as the overall No. 1 driver of all time.

"It's a big honor," Foyt said. "Anytime you win something like this, especially with the people who voted in this deal, it's great because it shows people appreciated what you did."

Foyt did it all. A list of his accomplishments accompanies this story, but here are several that stand out:

• The first man to win four Indianapolis 500s.
• The only man to win at Indy in front- and rear-engine cars.
• The most Indy-car victories in history with 67.
• The 1972 Daytona 500 winner and a man selected as one of NASCAR's top 50 drivers all time.
• A two-time IROC champion
• The only man to win the Indy 500, the Daytona 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 24 Hours of Daytona.
[+] EnlargeA.J. Foyt
AP PhotoA.J. Foyt became the first driver to win the Indy 500 four times May 31, 1977 at age 46.

It's easy to see why Foyt was listed first on 10 of the 19 ballots among the ESPN.com voters. Mario Andretti received three first-place votes and deceased Formula One driver Ayrton Senna received two.

Four other drivers -- Dale Earnhardt Sr., Michael Schumacher, Richard Petty and Italian racing pioneer Tazio Nuvolari -- received one first-place vote apiece.

Andretti was not on the voting panel, politely saying he was uncomfortable ranking drivers on a list. But Andretti has said many times that Foyt is the greatest driver in history.

"I've always thought he was the best," Andretti said. "We've had our differences over the years, but it doesn't change what I think of him as a driver. I've never lost sight of that fact."

Foyt and Andretti were the two best racers of their era, and many believe they were the two best of all time, as our poll shows. But they also were bitter rivals. Four decades later, bad feelings remain and they rarely speak to each other.

"Quite honestly, Mario was damn tough and had some really great races," Foyt said. "But I also thought sometimes he beat himself by driving the car too hard to try to beat me."

No one drove harder than Foyt and no one was better at pushing a car to the limits. Foyt always raced as if he had something to prove.

Maybe he did. Foyt was a blue-collar kid from Houston who never expected to make it off the sprint-car short tracks.

"I never thought I would get the chance to race in the Indy 500, much less win it," Foyt said. "I can remember as a kid listening to the race on the radio in my daddy's [auto repair] shop and wishing I could do that someday."

Foyt has said many times that his biggest motivation was his father, Anthony Joseph Foyt Sr. (who went by "Tony"). A.J. Foyt Jr. started racing as a way to earn approval from his dad.

Foyt proved his skills as a teenager racing on the short tracks around Houston, but Tony knew A.J. needed to race in the Midwest if he was going to make the big time. Tony cashed in a $300 insurance policy to get A.J. to Indiana.

His first Indy 500 came in 1958, the start of a record 35 consecutive years as a driver in the historic event. He would win it four times over a 16-year span, using his father's auto shop as the base of the operation.

Two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte grew up in Corpus Christi idolizing his fellow Texan.

"What always amazed me is how A.J. and his dad did everything from their little shop in Houston," Labonte said. "I don't think people understand what an incredible achievement that was."

Foyt always was the overachiever, the underdog who did things people told him couldn't be done. It's one reason he likes drivers who worked hard and made the most of their situations.

Foyt lists Rodger Ward and Parnelli Jones among the best open-wheel drivers he raced against. Of today's Indy-car racers, he says Tony Kanaan gets his vote as the toughest guy on the track.

If he were starting a two-car NASCAR team today, he knows exactly which two drivers he would want: "Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards," he said. "Kyle has amazing car control, and both those boys go all-out every time they're in the car."

[+] EnlargeAJ Foyt
AP Photo/Mark DuncanMario Andretti, left, on longtime foe A.J. Foyt: "I've always thought he was the best."

Foyt considers Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough the best he faced in NASCAR. He loves Tony Stewart and respects Jeff Gordon, but adds, "I don't believe those boys could run with Richard and Cale back in the day. Those cars were so much harder to drive. No power steering and no downforce. You really had to fight it."

Drivers fought the cars and fought to stay alive. Death was all too common in racing 40 years ago.

"We didn't have [fire retardant] fuel cells in those days," Foyt said. "You had 75 gallons of fuel right behind you ready to explode in a crash. Everybody feared getting burned. That's was the scariest thing for any driver. And I've been burned a few times. It's horrible."

Foyt is fortunate to have survived several serious accidents that caused numerous injuries.

The day before his 30th birthday in 1965, Foyt had a horrifying crash in a NASCAR race on the road course at Riverside, Calif. The brakes failed on Foyt's car and sent him down an embankment as the car turned end over end five times.

Foyt wasn't breathing when safety workers reached him. They had to remove mud from his mouth to resuscitate him. He suffered a broken back, a punctured lung and a fractured heel.

Twenty-five years later, at age 55, Foyt was still racing, but another terrifying crash left both his legs shattered below the knees. Foyt's car flew through the trees at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis.

Many people thought he never would walk again, but he worked daily at the Houston Oilers' training facility to rehab his leg and get back on his feet. He qualified in the middle of the front row at Indy a few months later.

Lucy Foyt has lived through all the ups and downs. A.J.'s wife of 53 years knows him better than anyone.

"Even after [those] leg injuries, A.J. had to prove to everyone that he could still do it," she said. "But it didn't surprise me. Racing is always what made him happy."

Sometimes it made him surly. Lucy says he's mellow now, but his temper is legendary.

Some younger racing fans today remember Foyt more for an infamous moment of rage in 1997 than they do his racing prowess.

Foyt backhanded Arie Luyendyk and knocked him to the ground in Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway. Foyt's driver, Bill Boat, was declared the winner of the first Indy-car race at TMS.

But Luyendyk thought he had won the race, and he was right. A scoring error was corrected the next day.

I never thought I would get the chance to race in the Indy 500, much less win it. I can remember as a kid listening to the race on the radio in my daddy's shop and wishing I could do that someday.

-- A.J. Foyt

When Luyendyk stormed into Victory Lane to protest, Foyt knocked him back.

"I saw the raging bull coming toward me," Luyendyk said.

This incident made national news and brought TMS an enormous amount of attention. Luyendyk and Foyt made up long ago, but to this day, the trophy for that race sits in Foyt's office.

Foyt's team was competitive in the early years of the IRL after the split with CART, but those days are gone. His underfunded operation can't keep up with the big-money teams of Penske, Ganassi and Andretti.

But Foyt wants to keep things going for his youngest son, Larry, a TCU grad who had raced Indy cars and NASCAR.

"I just want to hand it over to him," Foyt said. "In Japan [last month], when it rained, I went home. I told Larry and the team, 'I'm leaving, boys.' You guys take care of it. They did a great job [a season-best eighth]."

Foyt is throttling back but has no plans to sit on the front porch of his 1,100-acre ranch in Hockley, Texas.

"Oh, no," he said. "I'll still be here. As long as I'm healthy enough, I'll be at this race."

Foyt has been a driver or team owner at every Indy 500 for 51 years. The biggest dream of his life came true in 1961, when he won the race for the first time at age 26.

He won again in 1964 and had a chance to make the move to Formula One when Ferrari came calling. Foyt wasn't interested.

"It just never appealed to me," he said. "Too much politics. The No. 2 guy on the team had to give way to the No. 1 guy. It's still that way."

Foyt went on the win his third Indy 500 in 1967, but the one that stands out for him is the fourth victory in 1977 at age 42.

"The last one was very special to me because it was all my own deal," Foyt said. "It was my car, my motor, my team, everything. You can't do it that way anymore."

It also was the victory when Foyt felt his father finally appreciated his son's greatness.

"That night, the team guys were bragging how they did everything right," Foyt said. "Daddy looked at me and said, 'And you had a little bit to do with it.' He finally gave me some credit."

Foyt said he struggled for years to get over his father's death in 1983 after a long battle with stomach cancer. Foyt raced Indy cars for 10 years more years but didn't win again.

Foyt's most dramatic moment at Indy had nothing to do with winning or losing. In 1993, at age 60, he surprised the racing world by deciding to call it quits during qualifying.

When he got out of the car, Foyt said he was thinking of Ray Harroun, the man who won the first Indy 500 in 1911.

"He told me how to do it," Foyt said. "Back in 1964, I asked Ray, 'How do you know when to retire?' He told me, 'You just know in your heart. One day you'll say, It's time.' That's how I felt that day, so I quit."

Foyt asked officials if he could make one more lap around the 2.5-mile rectangle. They cleared the track for A.J.'s emotional lap.

"I wanted to do it at Indy," Foyt said. "No matter what else I've ever done in racing, people know me for Indy."

And because of his storied racing career at the fabled speedway, many believe he's the best that ever was.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter