Tony Foyt was old school, a quiet, strong, stubborn Texan who brooked no nonsense and catered no small talk. Says Tim Delrose, a longtime family friend, "If Tony said something and A.J. asked him, 'What did you say?' Tony would say, 'You heard me.'" The old man worked obsessively. One evening he was laying a septic field at the ranch. A.J.'s crew had the cars all set to drive to a race up in Bryan, Texas. They were getting anxious. Tony wouldn't be rushed.
"It's getting too dark, Daddy," said A.J. "We're not leaving till it's done," the old man said. "Get the cars, A.J., and bring' em around and shine the lights on me." They all worked into the night, in the glinting headlights. "We finished it," says Delrose.
A.J. Foyt viewed himself and his parents as a kind of team, bonded by the hardscrabble life they had endured together in the Heights, in the days they had to scratch to make things go. Early in Foyt's career, when he was out there racing from one bullring to another, sleeping in his car and washing at gasoline stations, he found himself stranded and penniless with a midget car in Florida. He called his parents in the Heights, and they broke the piggy bank and went down to Western Union. "My parents rolled 50 dollars' worth of pennies and sent me the money to get home," A.J. says.
Foyt always had this vision of how he would claw his way to the top, earning fame and fortune on the way, and then set his parents up in easy retirement—his mother fishing forever in Nanny's Lake and his father running the lights and hammering the nails. And the fame came fast enough to A.J. Foyt—first in the dirt cars, the midgets and the sprint cars, and then the Indy cars and the stockers and, finally, the sports cars. Foyt was 26 years old when he won his first Indy, in 1961, but by then he was known throughout the sport as this hard-charging, bandanna-flying, damn-the-torpedoes kid who could drive the paint off the midgets and the sprint cars.
"He was the best midget-car racer ever," says George Bignotti, Foyt's chief mechanic when he won at Indy in 1961 and '64. "Start him in the back of 12 cars and drop the flag, and in five or 10 laps he'd be leading the race."
Those were the days when dirt-track racing was a major element in motor sports, when even the big Indy-type cars raced over the dirt and shot out rooster tails of dirt and stone behind them. Says Foyt, "Some of the hardest races I ever had—been so tired and beat up with blood running out of my eye and all—have been sprint races on the dirt. Got out of there many a time and there'd be just solid blood on my shoulder and around my face. They'd run those big old knobby tires, and they just dug and throwed stones and dirt, just like a guy shot you with a shotgun. Hands as raw as hamburger. Now, that hurt. I have had my face shield and my goggles knocked clean off my face, sheared right off my helmet—tat-tat-tat-tat—just like a machine gun."
"Watching Foyt on the dirt was like watching a concert," says Cecil Taylor, a car owner and mechanic who first saw him race in 1956. "He'd be running fast and be sitting back in the car like in a rocking chair, all relaxed and everything under control, with those clods flying up. A.J., he was the Man."
HE WAS THE MAN THROUGH TWO DECADES, THE 1960S AND INTO THE '70s, the years he developed a constituency of racing fans who saw him then, as they see him today, as a folk hero and pioneer. The perception is central to his enduring appeal as the tough, rugged individualist building his cars and driving them himself; the mean, self-reliant loner doing battle against the Organization Men, the Roger Penskes and the Carl Haases; the aging, outspoken guy taking on the aerodynamicists and engineers and pale little men with computers.
Those fans saw him when he was the Man. They saw him in Langhorne that day when he was racing on the lead with three or four laps to run and a bolt fell out of the radius rod and the rod flew right up next to him. "And Foyt sticks his hand out," Bignotti recalls, "and gets the radius rod in one hand. He has his knee on the steering wheel to keep it straight. The son of a gun drove that car and won the race, holding the radius rod with one hand and driving the car with the other. The people all saw that."