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, opinionated 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 Swargert (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.
Is there anything in particular that makes you get a little overheated in the sport?
One thing I really hate is when they try to pull the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400 (a NASCAR Sprint Cup race for stock cars] together. They're two completely different races. I won four Indianapolis 500s. Jimmy Johnson won four Brickyard 400s. Now they say Johnson has joined A.J. Foyt as a four-time winner at Indianapolis. How can they do that? I'm not saying Jimmy Johnson couldn't drive an Indy car, or that he couldn't have won the race if he'd had to drive 500 miles, but he didn't do those things and it confuses people. . . . No. A.J. won in Indy cars. It's bull crap – though I did run in stock cars a long time ago and won the Daytona 500 (1969). None of their drivers have won Indy. If I'd only had to drive 400 miles at the Indianapolis 500, I might have won eight or nine times.
A few weeks ago, you announced your team is going to field an Indianapolis 500 car next May for Chase Austin, a 22-year-old, minority driver. Do you think it's important to support minorities in the sport?
You look back at the drivers I've had and you'll see I've given a lot of young drivers their start – [Bryan] Herta, Robbie Gordon, Davey Jones. I like to work with young drivers and some of them have been execellent. This kid is 22 and he's been aroud – sprints, modifieds, Indy cars. He wants to come to Indy. Honda is with us on this. I'm glad to do it. I'm looking at it as youth gets a chance, not minority. He's a clean, neat kid. It makes no differernce to me. He's worked his way up . . . I'll give him a shot. I don't see anything wrong with it and I think if we took him to Terre Haute [Ind.], he'd outrun 95 percent of the drivers here [in sprints and midgets]. And he might adapt to Indy cars. We'll see.
You were in Baltimore last year for the first Grand Prix, what kind of an experience did you have?
It was very interesting. We had a nice place where we stayed. I think it was the Sheraton and It had a beautiful view. And flying in, we saw that it's a beautiful city. But I did have one [unexpected] experience, a guy tried to steal a tire and wheel off my trailer. I caught him and he tried to tell me someone had given it to him, and I said, "Bull." He'd just grabbed it off the back and run off with it. But he did give it back.
The race, itself, I thought it was pretty decent, you know. There was a lot of action. That first corner was pretty tight. I'm sure the drivers will like that that turn has been widened. It always makes things more competitive when there is more room to race in.
But you know, when you run a race the first time, mistakes are going to be made, I don't care who you are. Hind-sight is always 20-20. But you have to hand it to them. They had a big set back with that storm that came through there making them rebuild parts of that track twice. They were still paving at midnight the night before the Race. You can't take nothing away from that first bunch. I think they did a hell of a job getting the thing off. And I thought it had a hell of a crowd and they all got into it and enjoyed it.
Is there anything you get tired of?
I get tired of people. I love my fans. Fans kept me in the game all these years. I know they have. There's no doubt about it. In 1990, when I was hurt so bad [broke his left knee and left heel and dislocated his right foot in Elkhart Lake, Wis., crash], the people were all there for me. I do love them, but sometimes you want to be by yourself.
What are you proudest of?
That I've lived to be 77 years old when a lot of people said I wouldn't live past 22. A lot of those who said that are gone now.