Later that day, after his car had come limping in, Foyt went to his equipment truck in the infield and quickly changed into a fresh shirt, fresh jeans, fresh mood and expensive handmade cowboy boots of what appeared to be anteater hide. He emerged with a grin, popped open a can of Pepsi, slid behind the wheel of Gilmore's grape-colored Cadillac sedan and allowed that, well, possibly the penalty had caused the valve stem to go bad. But what the hell, that was racin', right? And then he flashed the smile at everybody and drove off, paying absolutely no attention to the race still going on around him.
And now, back in Houston on this bright, historic morning—the Day A.J. Revealed His Mellow Side—he volunteers, for the first time anywhere, how he came to be a millionaire. "All I ever wanted to do was race," he says. "Jump in the car and run that sumbitch, and do it better'n anybody else. Well, along came 1960 and I won my first national title in championship cars, and I said to myself, 'Well, hell, this here is it; I'll never ever again make this much money in one year in my life.' " But then came the really good years, adorned with more national titles and the four Indy victories, and as Bill Ansted, one of Foyt's early sponsors, noted dryly, "A.J. may not have had much education, but he certainly knows how to read a contract." And suddenly Foyt, who had been poor all his life—"just walking along there with a race helmet under one arm"—was a millionaire. In fact, until three years ago, he confesses, he lived solely on his income from stock-car and midget racing and invested all the rest. That's like Reggie Jackson living on the royalties from his candy bar and socking away everything else.
In 1971 Foyt bought a Chevrolet agency in Houston and has since built it into one of the largest in the region—5,000 new car sales a year. And typically, though he's the owner, he has never cashed a salary check from the place. On the side, as time permits, Foyt serves on the board of directors of Houston's Greenway Bank and SCI (Service Corp. International), the country's largest funeral service outfit, and he owns a piece of the Houston Astros. Not bad for a kid who dropped out in the 11th grade. And now the money—in cash, not credit—goes into horse racing. He grins at that thought. "Well," he says, "I mean, you ain't never seen a Brinks truck following a funeral procession to dump the money into the grave, have you? Well then."
It remains for Foyt to wind down one activity while cranking up the other. Because they can afford it, Foyt and Gilmore will hit selected 1981 major races pretty much on their own, without being tugged and pulled at—and definitely not dominated—by major sponsors. "Listen," he says. "I'm not drawn back every year by a lot of money from this major company or that one. I'm drawn back to racing by the competition and because I enjoy it."
Precisely. The statement crackles in the air, and thus goes the Foyt philosophy of life. To the race—ah, the race—and the hell with the rest of it. The driving is what counts. When the race is over, the rest of it is empty smiles and false marquees and the pretend-modest posturing that's expected of all drivers. It's Gary Coopering a sport that should be pure. But no false pose from Foyt. For A.J., it's enough to race so boldly that your nerves sizzle and your very life is on the line; it is too much to be expected to park that car and immediately be nice to old ladies and God knows who all.
"I guess it's an honor," Foyt says, trying to figure it out, "but I swear people won't let me alone. Sometimes they must think I'm a sorry s.o.b., but there are times when I got to concentrate on my racing, to have some peace and quiet. And that's what bugs me about this sport; it's the pressure of the people. It didn't used to be this way, or is it that I'm getting older? I don't know.
"Maybe it's television. They've had shows on TV that are supposed to take place inside a man's head. Call it immediate news or whatever, up close and personal, something. But people see the shows and then they expect that me and other sports figures will be like that in real life—inside out just for them, up close and personally theirs. My car can be running real bad on the track and I'm worried as hell about it, and I can be talking confidentially to one of my mechanics, and some fan will come right up and throw an arm around my shoulder and start talking to me. Will I take just a minute to step over here and pose with his wife and kids? Or they do worse. It's tugging and pulling. Over here, A.J., and c'mere, A.J. Well, here's what has gradually happened: I've always been outspoken, but I've got a commitment to racing, by God, and I'm going to keep that commitment. So I've been known to say 'kiss my ass' and go out racing. Well, then the fans get on me—it seems like they've been more vicious in the past few years—and then the newspapers and magazines have wrote bad on me, and I just can't help it. I'm just ol' A.J., and you got to take me the way I come."
Fair enough. And in the countdown to the 65th Indy 500 two weeks ago, Foyt continued unwaveringly to add to his own legend. He had left the bedside of his critically ill mother, promising to win this one for her, he told newsmen. And right from the start he had hammered out impressive speeds in his sleek new Coyote, once howling to an unofficial 214 mph in a practice run down the main straightaway. Later in the week A.J. fiercely brow-beat a local newspaper reporter whose account of that high-speed run had riled Foyt.
The next day, Foyt hit an official 196.078 mph to lead the first weekend of qualifying. That put him on the pole for that moment but because rain had shortened the opening weekend's program, it also left him with a full week of waiting to see if he would hold the pole. He didn't. In last Saturday's qualifying session, the pole went to Bobby Unser, and when Mike Mosley also bettered his time, Foyt was relegated to third on the grid. The day after his 196.078-mph run, Foyt's mother died back in Houston.
It took a gritty, forceful personality to stand up to all of that, but when Indy is run this weekend, there will be Foyt, unswerving as ever. The world, as he says, will have to take him as he is.