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We shall proceed with the story of the World's Greatest Race Driver in a moment. But first, these anecdotes to set the proper mood:
The car comes smoking into the pits at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and slams to a stop. Its driver is yelling angrily even before he tugs off his crash helmet and yanks away the red bandanna covering his nose and mouth. He throws off his safety harness and climbs out, shouting at the men in his pit crew, chewing them out, with gestures. They listen, slack-jawed, and then, when he stalks off, their heads swing to watch him. Darkest gloom falls over the scene. Will somebody please say something appropriate?
"Well," sighs Anthony Joseph Foyt Sr., the driver's father and crew chief at the time, "getting too close to A.J. when things is going bad is about like trying to dance with a chain saw."
The race car flickers through the back straightaway at 170-plus mph when suddenly something snaps. The car veers sickeningly and slashes along the concrete wall. Half of the car is reduced to flying pieces of metal and fiber glass. A few minutes later A.J. Foyt lies fidgeting on a cot in the infield track hospital while doctors work on him. "Aw, hurry up, you guys," he growls. "I got to get back to my garage and get me another car." One of the doctors later points out that such shattering crack-ups quite often do more damage to a driver's psyche than to his body; yet, the doc says, "We checked Foyt's blood pressure, and so help me, it was lower than normal. He has absolutely no nerves at all."
"He's obsessed with winning," friends say. "He's driven by obsession."
This delights Foyt. "Ob-sessed! Who, me? Listen. I'm not driven by no obsession; any driving to be done around here, ol' A.J. is going to do it. Obsession is going to have to get a car of his own."
A.J. has been accused of fighting in the pits. It's said he vaulted out of his sprint car after a race at Williams Grove, Pa. and attacked another driver, who, A.J. said, cut him off. Foyt faces a possible USAC fine and suspension, and at the hearing held by USAC he conducts his own defense. "I didn't hit him," Foyt says. "Oh, I had him around the head pretty good, but I didn't hit him." Foyt's chief character witness is Roger McCluskey, a fellow-driver (who has since become the USAC official in charge of screening new drivers). McCluskey testifies earnestly that "A.J. didn't hit him. If he'd hit him, he would've torn his head off."
This is the veteran Foyt assessing a rookie sensation: "I warned him four times about chopping me off in the corners. It's dangerous as hell for both of us. But, well, if he's brave enough to sit there and do that, then I'm brave enough to sit there right alongside him. If we get into trouble we'll both skin the same way—and he damn well won't heal no faster."
Which brings us, as promised, to the story of the World's Greatest Race Driver. There was a special reason for starting with the anecdotes, all of which date back a few years, as we are about to see.