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There's so much image-polishing going on these days, such a steady buffing of personality to a high gloss for television and media display that it's a definite comfort to note here, for the record, that the World's Greatest Race Driver hasn't changed. Only a few numbers have been altered. He's 46 years old now and several pounds heavier than he was in the glory days of the '60s. But he's not changed, not really. While many athletes have become modishly laid-back, blow-drying their psyches to match the times, Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. remains a constant, if being unstintingly mercurial can be said to be a constant. He was sweet and sour, fiercely competitive and sometimes ornery then, and he's sweet and sour, fiercely competitive and sometimes ornery now.
Foyt remains true unto himself. He's roughly as unquotable now as he was then. It isn't that his voice has a threatening quality; in fact, it has a pleasant sound, a gentle, almost soft drawl. It's just that Foyt speaks a special racing language that can be described as creatively salty and that he tones down only in the presence of women or preachers or Rotarians. He recognizes that he's part of the national subconscious—years ago, all other drivers were compared to Barney Oldfield; now A.J. is the bench mark—and he understands one more important thing. It's strictly intuitive and hard for him to explain. It's this: A.J. has earned all of this.
Here's how he has done it: No man has ever driven race cars better or more consistently; no one now driving has ever risked more in as impressive a variety of cars and perilous situations, taking himself to the far edge time after time. For years Foyt has driven at a scary, talented point somewhere beyond luck; mere luck would have run out years ago.
So you do it all, year after year, frighten them and entertain them, and there comes a moment in this deadly game when you and the audience are even; you're square at last. You've provided the thrills at great risk, and they've given you adulation. It's at this juncture that you get to snap and growl and bite off a head now and then.
And you also get to lean back and muse, as Foyt did on a bright Texas morning a few weeks ago when he sat in his office and said, "You know, I'm a lot closer to quitting than people say. I don't know when—but the day I quit I'll flat quit. I'll get up out of that car and say, 'You just seen ol' A.J. run his last race,' and I'll walk away. That'll be it. Oh, I don't know. Racing just ain't the same anymore. I don't mean the equipment so much; I mean, remember when we used to go racin'? Just jump in the car and run? Well, you can't do that anymore; they got too many rules now. Lord, in those old days, if you was better than the other guy, that is, if you was a good driver and also worked hard on your car, well, then you'd win, see? But now? Now they modify the rules. You could be running 200-and-something miles an hour and they [the officials] will make us back off to where the slow guys can keep up. That brings the pack closer together, all right, and them cars run in a bunch, all right, and it looks exciting to the fans. But the thing is, some of them younger guys don't know how to do it, which makes it dangerous. So that's about the way racing's going these days, and I'm kind of losing interest." Foyt pauses and scowls. "No, that's not it entirely. Maybe it's also that my interests are changing."
Wait a minute. What's this? Can it be an attack of mellowness, for heaven's sake, some new facet of Foyt emerging in his 47th year? He remains reflective for the moment. "I don't know," he says, "but if I was to fall over dead here talking to you, it's been a good life-style and I wouldn't change it."
Now that's more like it. Foyt carries his racing senior citizenship well. For one thing, all the physical promises of his youth have finally been delivered. His body has thickened, as it seemed it would—not to fat, but to a broadening through the rib cage, shoulders and neck. Foyt has grown bulky and bull-like. In his days as a young charger, say in the late '50s and early '60s, he actually had to work at projecting a hard look by thrusting his jaw out pugnaciously. Well, that's no longer necessary. The jawline has now firmed into place in that determined outcrop, and straight-on or in profile, there's no mistaking its meaning or intent. Foyt's face was once dotted with shiny, dime-size burn scars from a 1966 smashup, but now they've dulled to the point where they show only in strong sunlight. Most publicity handouts list Foyt at 5'11" and 200 pounds, but he's obviously carrying more weight than that, and if you want to know exactly how much, you go ask him.
Foyt is one of the few folks who can truly be said to flash a smile—a description too often used inaccurately. Foyt's smile doesn't spread across his face; he grins in a quick burst, all at once, flashing strong and white teeth. It's one of the gestures he has learned to use to great effect—like ol' Frank Merriwell in Tip Top Weekly: "Frank continued to laugh, and it had been said at Yale that he was most dangerous in an encounter when he laughed." But Foyt's smile is more disarming than dangerous:
It is June 1967, and on the sun-dappled terrace of the Hotel Ricordeau, a Michelin two-star restaurant just outside Le Mans, Foyt is staring in shock at trout meunière, served in the traditional French manner. He grins ferociously at the waiter and says, "Uh, what the hell is this, fella? I mean, this here fish has still got its head on, and I ain't going to eat no fish laying there looking so damn sorrowful at me every time I take a bite of him."
Same country, a few days later. Foyt and Dan Gurney have just won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the first Americans ever to do so. They shared the driving, wrestling a burly Ford sports car around the tricky 8.36-mile course for a record 3,249.6 miles at an average speed of 135.48 mph.