Legendary driver now helping younger generation
INDIANAPOLIS (CNNSI.com) -- What better place for A.J. Foyt to hold class then his garage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Robby Gordon, who will drive one of Foyt's cars in the Indy 500, is an attentive student, almost in awe.
"It's amazing," Gordon said. "I bet he's forgotten more than most people know about this place."
When drivers start their engines Sunday, Foyt will be at his 43rd race at the famous track. But longevity is only part of the legacy.
Three years before his first Indy victory, a less-affluent Foyt spent the first few nights in town sleeping in his car. More than four decades later, Foyt remembers the humble days quite well.
"I'm probably the only guy that ever came here with their own motor and their own chassis. I qualified 35 years straight, and it's been 40 years since I first won, which is hard for me to believe," Foyt said. "I've been rolling up the miles, rolling up the age, and I've had fun."
Foyt was the first driver to win four Indy 500 titles. In 1999, he won another as an owner. His 35 consecutive starts, from 1958 to 1992, are unparalleled, and he's led more Indy races (13) than anybody.
In that time, Foyt has learned much about the sport, enough to make him one of the most celebrated teachers of racing.
"I told Robby the first year he came here as a rookie, 'I don't care how fast you run, that doesn't impress me. I don't care how hard or soft you hit the wall, that doesn't impress me. I don't care how many records you set, that doesn't impress me,'" Foyt said. "I know all of that. What I told him was, 'I want you to do what you can do.'"
Not surprisingly, Foyt's current class has done well.
Gordon, in his second tour with Foyt, sits on the outside of the front row for Sunday's Indy 500.
Eliseo Salazar, Foyt's full-time driver in the Indy Racing League, will start 28th as he pursues the season title. Donnie Beechler, added to the team five days before qualifying ended, is Foyt's third starter after posting a qualifying speed faster than all but four drivers in the 33-car field.
Foyt can only hope the 2 1/2-mile oval is as good to them as it's been to him.
"I've always said that if you have a good day here, the rest of the season will be good," Foyt said. "Because this place makes you or breaks you."
Foyt's graduates also have fared well.
Scott Sharp, who shared the first IRL championship for Foyt in 1996, starts on the pole, and Greg Ray is in the middle of the front row. Jeff Ward, with three top-five finishes in four Indy starts, is in the middle of the third row, and Eddie Cheever Jr., the 1998 race winner, will start on the inside of the ninth.
There's John Andretti, now a NASCAR driver, and Kenny Brack, who won the IRL title for Foyt in 1998 and the Indy 500 the next year. Now, the Swede leads the points in the CART series.
Foyt tries to play down his contribution.
"I want everybody to work as a team because I've always felt that what wins races is teams," he said.
He cites car owners Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi as men who know how to put together topflight teams. Penske's drivers have won the race 10 times, and Ganassi brought four straight CART titles with him last year and won the race with Juan Montoya.
Foyt's success as an owner keeps drivers lining up to become his students.
"If you have an opportunity to run with A.J. Foyt, you're going to take it," Beechler said. "He's a living legend."
Gordon said: "He doesn't even need notes. We did like six or seven changes on our car at once, and you'd think we were going to go crash. But it was exactly right."
His amazement over Foyt isn't limited to the car owner's knowledge of Indy.
"He has an unbelievable memory," Gordon said. "He can tell you what springs he had on his sprint car in Springfield back in 1970."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.