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By the time Foyt appeared as an Indy rookie in 1958, his reputation was established. He was known to be tough and touchy. Back around that time racing sponsor J.C. Agajanian once pleaded with Foyt to grant SPORTS ILLUSTRATED an interview. "All that circulation," Agajanian said, "all those readers. I'm telling you, A.J., this story would make you famous."
"Aw, bullbleep," growled Foyt. "You want to know what will make me famous?" He pointed down to his right foot, the one he stomps on the throttle of a race car. "That there foot is what'll make me famous."
And he was right. Foyt went on to drive anything that rolled, achieving remarkable successes in sports cars, stockers, midgets, on pavement, on dirt, with engines mounted in front of him or behind, but it's his record on the championship-car circuit and at the Brickyard that remains the most telling. Foyt has now won the USAC driving championship seven times and the Indy 500 a record four times, in 1961, 1964, 1967 and 1977. He's the alltime money-winner at Indy, with $1,347,694.97 so far. He has raced the most miles there, 8,567.5 to date, and he has been on the pole four times; only the late Rex Mays held that position as often. But there's one more statistic that perhaps tells a lot more about motor sports and Foyt: Of the 33 drivers who started with him in his first Indy 500 in 1958, he's the only one still active. Sixteen are now dead—13 of them killed while racing.
"Well," Foyt says, "that's why I'm more careful now. It'd be pretty damn dumb if I got into a race car and got killed at Indy or Daytona at my age."
One of the more bizarre scenes in racing came at the 1964 Indy 500, after an early-lap smashup sent a ball of fire exploding into the sky in Turn Four. The race was red-flagged, stopped while the charred wreckage was cleared away. The surviving cars were pushed and tugged to the main straightaway in front of the grandstand. And then, just before a restart, an announcement was made that veteran driver Eddie Sachs had died in the crash and rookie Dave MacDonald was in serious condition in the hospital (he, too, would die). During the announcement, Foyt stood with his head bowed, but with his eyes open and his jaw firmly set. He was pulling on his soft, red kidskin driving gloves and carefully punching them between the fingers with the edge of his hand to make sure they were tight. Then he climbed into his car and rolled out and won the race.
When it was all over at sundown, Foyt stood alone in Gasoline Alley. He was still in his driving coveralls. At the start of the 500 miles there had been a tiny hole in the right elbow of the suit, and the force of the wind during the race had ripped it wide open. Foyt had been fond of the fun-loving Sachs, a good driver who was often described as the Clown Prince of racing, and had been impressed with young MacDonald. "Looky here," Foyt said. "You can't let this get you down, about those guys getting killed. You got to carry on in racing. You can't let anyone get too close to you in this game; if they get killed, it breaks your heart. Maybe you haven't noticed it about me, but I haven't got any close friends in racing. If you are going to race, you've got to race alone."
Seeing life and death as clearly as Foyt does, it would be dumb if he got himself into an accident at his age. Most assuredly, an accident won't occur because of any wild moves by Foyt—and here's the part where it gets tricky: If A.J. is indeed driving a bit more careful, as he puts it, then it sure isn't noticeable from the stands or at trackside.
Here's Cale Yarborough, one of the toughest of stock-car racers and an old Foyt competitor: "Well, ol' A.J. is still quick, all right. The thing about him is that with his driving talent, he could even lose a step, like they say in other sports, and then do a shuffle and make it up on you. You're out there, racing door handle to door handle, and some guys, they'll put a sudden move on you. But not A.J. He won't even put any foolish moves on you. He's a real racer."
And Gurney, now a car builder, says, "What A.J. may have lost in daring, he makes up for in cunning. He's the consummate driver. One important thing about survival: If his machine isn't exactly right, well, he won't soldier on through with it. He'll demand that the car is perfect—or he'll park it and not race at all."
Foyt punctuates his speech with sound effects—it's the only way he can easily explain something that otherwise defies quick description—and it comes out in a form of verbal italics and exclamation points, all accompanied by fierce gestures and twists of the body. On this morning last May at Indy's Gasoline Alley, he's considerably less than satisfied with the way his car is running, and he has assembled his crew in the garage. They stand in a ragged semicircle around the car which has been stripped of its fiberglass skin and is down to its bare steel skeleton. This is some tableau: This is the Indy version of Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp.