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The ranch may be one of the tonier spots in Texas: Three houses, eight barns, paddocks, a bunkhouse and a lovely five-eighths-of-a-mile training track with ponds in the infield. All of it is surrounded by the obligatory white fences.
To Foyt his new sport is simple as well as scary: You keep buying and breeding and training and dealing, and pretty soon you get a horse that will make you rich. You come up with, "well, something like a Secretariat, see? A horse that'll make a million for you."
Then he leans back and flashes the explosive grin. Then there is a lightning bolt of insight: "Right now, what we got is a gang of horses and one poor little ol' human who is racing out there and making the million," Foyt says. "You know what? Hell, I'm the Secretariat of this whole operation."
Foyt comes streaking down the straight in his brand-new, bright Coyote-orange No. 51 Gilmore-Valvoline Oldsmobile, hitting maybe 190 mph, and despite the speed, what happens next seems to freeze on the retina like a camera shot: Foyt glances left at his pit crew, raises his right hand from the steering wheel and daintily waggles his fingertips at them in a cheery hello. Shooooom, and he's gone again, into Turn One.
This is early in the 1981 Daytona 500; Foyt is destined to run only 120 laps before a dropped valve spring will force him out. He'll be credited with 35th spot out of 42 entrants. But right now: "Honestly, I've never seen him in a better mood," says Jim Gilmore, Foyt's pal and sponsor for the past 10 years. Gilmore, who's from Kalamazoo, is principally a radio and television station owner; he doesn't have a product to sell like other racing sponsors; he's in the sport for love and kicks. "After all," he says, "it's a new season and we've got a new car—and where else can you have such fun at our age?" Gilmore is a shaggily gray-haired, cheerfully rumpled man who may be Foyt's biggest fan. Certainly he's the only one who has one of Foyt's Indy Coyote race cars, parked in his den, doing duty as a piece of pop-art sculpture. And after Foyt won his fourth Indy, he gave Gilmore the diamond-encrusted ring that went with the victory.
And then comes the sudden change. Two cars whomp together, one of them spinning out of control on Turn Two, and suddenly the yellow caution light flicks on. The pitch of roaring V-8 stock-car engines subtly changes—from raaaawwwwr to whaaannnng, as Foyt would put it—as the drivers back off the gas. And now in clusters, running dangerously close, Foyt and the others head for the pits. The orange Olds comes yowling in and slams to a stop. Foyt's mood is still mellow; he talks calmly, if forcefully, to the crew.
The men work efficiently and ultra-fast. The Olds bobs up and plunks down under their ministrations. Gilmore hands Foyt a drink of water in a paper cup attached to the end of a long pole and then phrooooom! the car roars away.
But suddenly Foyt is back in the pits. A rotund NASCAR official, wearing a radio rig on his head, is there to greet him. The NASCAR guy listens to some instruction on his earpiece and tells Foyt the bad news: It seems that after his last pit stop, Foyt had bypassed the traffic controller's stop sign. He had entered the track ahead of the pace car and had begun gaining on the field under the yellow light. Not allowed. So he had been flagged back into the pits, and he would now have to remain there until he'd lost the ground he'd made up on the leaders.
Foyt's face darkens as if a tornado were taking shape inside the cockpit. His helmet is bobbing up and down as he yells choice yells; he slams his palms on the steering wheel, and then he draws down his chin and bends his head forward. Slamming in the clutch, he pops the car into gear and starts revving the engine. The roar rises to a painful scream of metal. Foyt keeps zapping the engine; with each zap the car shudders, gathering itself up to explode forward. But the NASCAR official, holding his hand up, palm pointed toward Foyt, remains in front of the car, just at the left front fender.
Gilmore winces and says with a half-smile, "I'm not sure that I'd stand in front of A.J.'s car at a time like this."