A.J. Foyt, Indy car racing's all-time winningest driver (67) and championship record holder (7), is now 77. He's had open heart surgery, and in January went through an illness that nearly killed him. But here he is, alive, opinonated and planning to get his race team back among the top teams in the IndyCar Series.
In a recent one-on-one interview Foyt talked about many things, among them why the 1977 Indy 500 win was special to him beyond making him the first driver to win the race four times, the recent announcement that he'll field a car for minority driver Chase Austin in the Indianapolis 500 next May and a recent staph infection following same-day surgeries to remove bone spurs from his artificial knee and repair a rotator cuff. The infection made him so sick he lost 41 pounds in two weeks and thought he was going to die.
"I've broken a lot of bones in my life, but this was the hardest and scariest ordeal I ever went through," he said. "Unlike broken bones or even heart surgery, the doctors can't really predict the outcome with staph infections. And I heard a lot of stories from friends about people who died from it or had to have amputations. I did exactly what my doctors said to do and through it all, my wife Lucy took great care of me — she had to give me the antibiotics which are normally done in the hospital. The good news is that I was so worried about my knee [where the infection began] that my arm's rotator cuff healed just fine."
Looking back, the famously tough Foyt said he never thought there would come a day when he had so many medical issues to discuss and surgery scars to compare before he eased into a racing conversation. But even so, Foyt, who is still getting his strength back, says he is feeling better every day.
And it shows in his feistiness. The best advice we can give readers as they read his answers is to picture A.J. Foyt as he's always been — fierce, jolly, driven and fun-loving.
So, A.J., why are you still fielding Indy cars?
I still love racing. I know I've got to be an idiot to say it, but I do.
When you look back on your career, what do you take out of it?
Back when I raced, I couldn't race enough races. It drives me crazy now about the new race drivers, they all want to be a pro in one certain kind of car. When I raced, I wanted to go from the littlest race to the biggest race. I'd drive at Indy today and be in a sprint car the next day.
It's one of the big things I miss. It's just so much different. Today, they're satisfied running second and third. Well, I was never satisfied. I'd race and couldn't wait till the next day to go try to win again – no matter what it was. If you took the 23 drivers who are driving in this series today to a dirt track, maybe two or three would know how to drive a sprint car on dirt. Really, you'd be lucky to have five. That's the difference in racing today. The money is a lot better, but I don't think they have the fun we had back then. And everyone helped each other, now it's all cut throat.
You've won four Indianapolis 500s as a driver. Is there one that is your favorite?
All of them were my favorites. Growing up in Texas, I dreamed of just being good enough to qualify for the Indy 500. I went there a couple years and sat in the grandstand and wondered would I ever get the chance to drive here? Then I did get a chance and thanks to the great Lord, I won one. That first one, in 1961, I proved a point. Back then a lot of drivers who won that race got hurt or killed soon after. Bob Sweikert (1955) got killed and Pat Flaherty (1956) got hurt. So they asked after I won, 'What are you going to do now?' I said, 'I'm going racing.' I broke a tradition there. I proved the point, just because you win Indy doesn't mean you're going to go get hurt or killed ... They were all great wins, but I guess, the last one in 1977 would have to stand out over all of them because we built our own car, we had our own Foyt motors ... and our Coyote chassis that we built and I drove it. So I'd have to say the one topped them all because eventhing was us."
What part of being a competitor do you miss the most?
The part I do miss is building the cars myself. Everything is kind of R&R now, remove and replace. It used to be when you wrecked you'd go back to your shop and rebuild the car yourself. Now, you just go out and buy a part and bolt it on. Everything is spec now. It's not near as much fun.
Do you like being a car owner?
I was pretty much a car owner when I drove. I guess it's all right. I drove for myself in midgets and sprints even before I owned teams in Indy car.
At 77, do you still have goals?
I'd like to get our team backup, like it used to be. We've been in a slump, but every team goes through it . . . You can look at the Penske team to see that. As many Indy 500s as they've won (15) who would have ever thought he'd have a team with Emerson [Fitipaldi] and Al Unser Jr. and they didn't qualified for the 500. That was hard for me to believe. You could have broke A.J. Foyt because I never thought I'd see that day.
Do you have plans for how to get back on top?
Larry, my youngest son, is running the team now. He's been here awhile [since 2006] and making more and more decisions. When I got sick in January, he stepped up and did a great job. He hired Mike Conway, a talented young guy, to be our driver. He hired Don Halliday [a former engineer in the Championship Auto Racing Teams Series], who has the same kind of competitive drive I do. And Larry's also improved our team communication – he got a degree from Texas Christian University because I made him. He wanted to drive race cars and I'd seen a lot of my friends and fellow drivers die in racing and I didn't want my son in this business. But even after college he wanted to do it. Now, I'm happier because he's out of the car and using his degree to make us better. We're improving. We could have won Indy, we were runnning fourth when an accident took us out of it.