"A.J. FOYT IS THE GREATEST DRIVER THAT I EVER KNEW," SAYS NASCAR'S own enduring legend, Junior Johnson. "The best all-around. He could drive anything, anywhere, anytime. Won in about everything he ever sat down in."
Bobby Unser is retired from driving, doing television commentary on racing, and he knows all the fine younger drivers—his nephew, Al Unser Jr., and Michael Andretti and Arie Luyendyk—and he wonders just how to tell them about A.J. Foyt, about how he used to drive a race car, this paunchy old crock who walks around with the limp and the scars and the bald spot on the back of his pate. Bobby Unser can close his eyes and see Ascot and Langhorne and Milwaukee and Springfield, Ill., and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and he can see the high bank of Turn 3 in Michigan, where Foyt came down on him, instantly but oh-so-gently at 165 mph, and nudged him straight. "And that, my friend, is talent," says Unser. "That a person can do that, from instinct, so fast! You don't find that now."
Midafternoon, and the old A.J., the real A.J., is holding the wheel of his black Honda Accord and tooling along a country road northwest of Houston, beyond the White Oak Bayou toward a setting sun. It is June 25, and the real A.J. Foyt hasn't won an Indy car race in 10 years, since the Pocono 500 on June 21, 1981. His mother, Evelyn, had died of heart failure that spring of 1981—on the night, in fact, that A.J. qualified for the Indy 500—and two years later, in 1983, he would lose his father to cancer, also on the night he qualified at Indy.
"Weird, isn't it?" Foyt says as his hands make almost imperceptible corrections on the steering wheel. "The way they both passed away. They lived to see me make the race, and that was it. I came home, talked to them, they closed their eyes. They died about the same time, 10 minutes till 10."
Foyt is driving out to his ranch, the 1,500-acre spread where he raises cattle for market and thoroughbred horses for racing and breeding. Where, above the workshop door, untouched, Foyt keeps the symbol of his father's hold on him. If the loss of his mother devastated the man—"A.J. was a momma's boy," says his wife, Lucy—the death of his father left him adrift, benumbed by a grief that perhaps he will never shake. "It took a long time to sink in," says Lucy. "He'll never get over the loss."
Even today Foyt often speaks of his father in the present tense, as if Tony were waiting for him out at the ranch. "My daddy's a pretty good-sized guy," he is saying as the Honda rolls along. "Not that big, but stout. His damn fingers are"—A.J. holds up a thumb and index finger touching in a circle at their tips—"that big around. Daddy'd give you the shirt off his back. If he didn't like you, don't mess with him. He believes in talking straight, not that phony stuff. He's just that type of guy."
So, of course, A.J. likes to spin those tales about the old man. About how tough and honest and ornery he was ... about how loyal he was to those he counted as family and friends ... about how hard he had worked up through the Depression and how no one had ever pushed him around ... about the afternoon in the pits at Indianapolis when, angered by a persistent TV reporter, Tony dropped his wrenches and went after him, leaping over tires and fuel hoses, with A.J. leaping right behind him, chasing him chasing the reporter and yelling, "No, Daddy! No. Don't hit him, Daddy! No, Daddy. No. No" ... about how the old man rarely spared the rod with the boy when he was growing up: "I never got that many whippings, but, whew, when I did, my daddy tore my ass up" ... about the race where Tony, an automobile mechanic by trade, was doing tech inspection and caught his son cheating. "He saw what I did, and I won the race, but he disqualified the car. I was mad as hell.... He didn't care if I was his son or not."
About how the old man never, but never, praised the son for anything he ever did in a race car, not even after A.J. won that record fourth Indy 500, in 1977 ... and about how he and the old man could barely speak, after all they had been through together, when Tony was on his deathbed in the hospital and the doctor left them alone and A.J. bit his lip and said, "Well, Daddy, you know everything about me...."
Foyt swings the Honda off the road and through the gates to the ranch, slowing as he reaches the asphalt drive, pointing here left and there right as he cruises past the wooden fences, clean and painted white, and the neatly tended pastures. "You're looking at the guy who dug all those postholes," he says. "I dug every hole. You're looking at the guy who painted all this white fence, by himself. You're looking at the guy who built that training track. I built this all up. You're looking at the guy who planted this pasture ... who cleared all this land, with a bulldozer. And burned it. You're looking at the man who laid this road ... put up all these running sheds for the mares and these cattle pens over here. You're looking at him right now."