INDIANAPOLIS -- A bouquet of purple irises, yellow roses and Texas bluebells sits on a cabinet in A. J. Foyt's garage, and the legendary driver bends to smell them.
"I don't know why people have this idea that I'm such a mean, tough guy," he said, his cheeks pink, his blue eyes twinkling like Old St. Nick. "I don't know where I got this bad reputation."
He could be enlightened. The way he used to close and lock his garage doors in Gasoline Alley. The way he used to stroll through the garages with a hip roll not unlike John Wayne's famous swagger. The way he used to dominate the field of 33 cars in the Indianapolis 500, becoming the first driver to win four of the events in 1977.
Oh, yes, Foyt could be enlightened. How about the time he pulled into the pits, jumped from his car and began pounding his red racer with a hammer in pure frustration? Or just last year, when he cuffed Arie Luyendyk in victory lane at the Texas Motor Speedway?
"Well, sure, I'm hotheaded," he said, his gaze direct. "But that's what makes me a competitor. It's the extra fire you've got to have. If you don't have it, you don't win too much."
Today, Foyt's cars will be in their 40th straight Indianapolis 500. For the first 35 of those years, Foyt himself qualified and raced. But then age caught up, as it is wont to do, and now his drivers make the qualifying runs and race.
Today, for the first time since 1975, when Foyt qualified on the pole and finished third, a car of his will start from the pole and lead the field to the green flag at noon EDT.
In fact, Foyt's drivers have placed both his cars on the front row. Billy Boat has the inside pole. His speed of 223.503 mph set a record for a normally aspirated engine, the same kind found in most family cars. Foyt's other driver, Kenny Brack, is on the outside of the front row, having posted a speed of 220.982.
In between those two sits Greg Ray, whose speed of 221.125 mph was produced driving a Foyt-designed car from last year.
"It's like a storybook," said Foyt. "Both cars on the front row. Setting a qualifying record in midday, with the track temperature at about 140 degrees. Just a story you'd write, that even ends the way you dreamed it."
Foyt had been nervous on qualifying day. He had told his drivers: "Don't try too much, just get in the race. We can run from front or back, but we've got to get in the race first."
His drivers, Boat and Brack, both 32, are racing in only their second 500s. Both look at Foyt as a legend.
"You can't be in racing, any kind of racing, and not know A. J. Foyt," said Brack, a native of Sweden. "He can relate and understand everything, even before you tell him what you're feeling."
"When I was little, he was my idol," Boat said.
Foyt flashes an impish smile.
"Makes me feel old," he said. "Well, I guess I am, I'll be 54 next birthday."
He pauses. He looks around to see if he can get away with it. He can't.
"OK, but it's hard for me to believe I'll be 64 in January," he said. "What I really got a big kick out of this season is working them. I've had a happy life. It makes me feel good that I can do something for young guys like Billy and Kenny."
Foyt relates to both of them. Brack started racing at age 14 in go-carts and then moved on to Formula Fords. Boat came up the same way Foyt did, "the hard way," racing midgets on the U.S. Auto Club circuit.
"They're so young," Foyt said, thinking how they're half his age. "But when we tested, we knew we could run fast. Yet with the Menard cars, with all the money Menard spends, we knew we couldn't beat them."
And then Foyt laughs at the joke. His cars did beat Menard's. Hot shot Tony Stewart starts fourth, behind Boat, today, and Robby Buhl is fifth.
"It just shows, money can't buy everything," Foyt said. "Experience counts for something around here."
He thinks it is that very thing that keeps him coming back. No one can take anything for granted at Indianapolis. He remembers 1995, the year Roger Penske, with defending 500 winner Al Unser Jr. and past champion Emerson Fittipaldi, missed the race. Foyt admits if he had been in Las Vegas, he would have made a bet that that would never happen.
"I would have bet everything I own that that would never happen," he said. "But that's how it is at Indy. Just when you start to think you know everything, Indy teaches you that you don't."
Foyt has gone through drivers during his five years of pure team ownership, the way George Steinbrenner and Peter Angelos go through managers. And during the last few years, there has been little for the famous Texan to celebrate.
Still, he has not wavered in his dedication. In his garage, he can run down the list of drivers who have come and gone -- Robby Gordon, Davey Jones, Bryan Herta, Mike Groff, John Andretti, Davey Hamilton, Scott Sharp, Marco Greco, to name most of them.
But now, things have fallen into place. He seems happy with his drivers, with life. His cars are fast and, he believes, reliable. Did he just get smarter?
"To get back to the top," he said, "you have to build a team. You have to work at it."
He admits that at the end of his driving career five years ago, he was "disgusted with my racing." He says he lost interest, then, because the creativity had been taken out of the equation.
Now, it's back. And so, too, is Foyt.
"He'll teach you a lot of things if you listen," said Boat.
"And he always gives it to you straight," said Brack. "You can always trust and believe what he says, even if you don't always want to hear it."
Foyt, fingering his flowers, doesn't look like a legend. Still, he has won 67 Indy-style races and 12 major championships in various categories. You'd think he'd at least be calm and confident.
But, Foyt said, he has no doubt how he'll start his day before sending his two young drivers out to win the Indianapolis 500.
"I'll open my eyes," he said, "and start thinking about all the things that can go wrong."
A. J. Foyt file
Indy 500 victories: 4 (1961, 1964, 1967, 1977)
Major championships: 12 (Indy car, 7; USAC stock car, 3; dirt champ car, 1, USAC sprint car, eastern, 1)
Retired from Indy car driving: 1993 Career highlights:
Only driver to have started 35 consecutive Inadianapolis 500s (1958-1992).
Won a record 67 Indy car races.
Only driver to have won seven national Indy car championships.
Holds record for most 500-mile Indy car victories, nine (four at Indianapolis, four at Pocono, one at Ontario)
Only driver to win the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500 and 24 Hours of LeMans.
Only driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in both a front-engine and a rear-engine car.
Holds record for best percentage of wins in one season: 77 percent in 1964 (won 10 of 13 races).
Only driver to have won USAC's national Indy car title and stock car title, in 1979.
82nd Indy 500
When: Today, noon
Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway TV: Chs. 2, 7. Coverage begins at 11 a.m. Distance: 500 miles; 200 laps around the 2 1/2 -mile, asphalt-on-brick track. Forecast: Sixty percent chance of rain. Thunderstorms possible.
Number of starters: 33
Pole-sitter: Billy Boat, 32, Phoenix, who qualified a Dallara-Aurora at a four-lap average of 223.503 mph.
Defending champion: Arie Luyendyk, who averaged 145.827 mph for his second victory in 13 starts at Indy.
Former winners in race (2): Arie Luyendyk (1990, 1997); Buddy Lazier (1996)
Rookies in race (8): Jimmy Kite, J. J. Yeley, Stan Wattles, Andy Michner, Robby Unser, Jack Hewitt, Steve Knapp, Donnie Beechler
Oldest in race: Jack Hewitt, 46
Youngest in race: J. J. Yeley, 21
Field average in qualifications: 218.305 mph (record is 227.807 mph, set in 1996)
Purse: Depends on attendance and accessory awards. 1997 payoff was a record $8,612,450, of which Arie Luyendyk and the Treadway Racing team received a record winner's share of $1,568,150.
Sandra McKee's picks: Best bets: Tony Stewart, Scott Goodyear. Sentimental favorite: Roberto Guerrero. Long shot: Eddie Cheever. Best name: Billy Boat.
Pub Date: 5/24/98