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Le Mans is, of course, the pride of all Europe and the granddaddy of all tough road-racing courses, and Foyt is still full of the kick of what he and Gurney have pulled off, taking a fine, savage joy in it. He leans over and confides to friends, "Why, hell-fire. Lee-Mans? Listen here," and he flashes that marvelous grin, "it ain't nothin' but a little old country road. We got a lot just like it back in Texas."
Foyt is sitting in his office in Houston, still strangely mellow, as he looks back at his life and fast times. "Once," he says, "all I lived for was racing. And I know I used to take real bad chances now and then, but I don't anymore. Uh, uh. I've been in that old crash house too many times. Listen, now I've got a right kneecap that pops out all the damn time—I can just be standing here or walking along real easy and floop! there it goes—and it hurts me all the time." He scowls at the offending knee. "I'm going to try and make it through this season and, I guess, have it repaired next winter. But...."
He pauses, thinking about the surgery on the knee. He hates the thought. "Listen," he says. "I been in crashes, in bad crashes. I've been busted up and burned and twisted all around, and somehow I can take it. I can handle the pain. But," he holds up his right index finger, "but you know what really scares me? It's that part where you're in the hospital and they come in and prick your finger for the blood test."
A crash story. A.J. was running full bore, barreling along, belly to the ground, when the brakes went blooey. Directly in front of him were Marvin Panch and Junior Johnson, and to avoid wiping them out, Foyt made the heroic move that sooner or later all drivers face. He took his stock car off the track and into the embankment. Unhappily, it went up and over. And over. And over.
That happened on Jan. 17, 1965 at the Riverside (Calif.) 500. In the hospital he remained typically stoic. "My insides is bent out of shape," he said, "with pieces all here and there. But I'll make it."
Several weeks later Foyt was asked how badly he'd been hurt. "I was hurt so bad," he quipped to the AP, "that I couldn't enjoy the nurses."
Blam! There's the grin.
There were a lot of crashes, of course. Crashes are the percussion section of racing. But through almost 30 years of competition, A.J. Foyt has come to be America's, and perhaps the world's, greatest race driver ever. Other names always arise: five-time world driving champion Juan Manuel Fangio, Jimmy Clark, Stirling Moss, Richard Petty, but the inescapable fact remains that, while they were stunning in their talents, they were specialists. Nobody else has won as much in such a variety of equipment as Foyt has. If that critter's got wheels, as they say in racing, ol' A.J. can drive it.
As most folks know by now, Foyt began striding across the American landscape in the mid-1950s, a midget and sprint-car racer who just sort of materialized out of the half-mile ovals and dirt tracks of Texas and the Midwest. He was born to it, down in Houston to be exact, where his dad operated a garage and campaigned a couple of midget racers on the side. Young A.J. had his first racer at four—at four?—a tiny car powered by a Briggs & Stratton lawnmower engine. "I swear," says A.J. Sr., "he put his foot in it right from the start." A.J. Jr. was a good mechanic and a race driver by the time he was 17—"I was making $75 a week being a mechanic and driving, and I just couldn't wait," he says—so he dropped out of school and went racing full-time. Well, the 11th grade isn't bad.
Dirt-track racing is full of grit and smoke and upside-down race cars, and it's the absolute greatest training ground in the world for motor sports. It's dirty purism: The racers build, repair, race and trailer their own cars from country track to country track, and most of them drink a lot of beer and do a little bare-knuckle fighting on the side. It's their form of ballet. In that sense, Foyt was a standout right from the start. There was a time when he chose to race in freshly laundered and starched white pants and honest-to-God silk shirts. It seemed to be a modest enough affectation, Lord knows, until someone made the mistake of calling him Fancy Pants.