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Q&A: Foyt Talks Racing, Health, More Racing

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 26 2013

Ameircan icon A.J. Foyt is back on his feet and is back to racing. (File photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

He is An American Original, big as Texas and tougher than a well-worn pair of Nocona Chocolate Brown cowboy boots.

Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. has been banging around racetracks for 60 years, starting on the small dirt tracks around his Houston hometown in 1953 and graduating in rapid fashion to the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway and later to the Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans, France.

“Just a little old country road. We got plenty of them in Texas,” A.J. famously said through a pair of sunglasses and cheshire-cat grin after winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans with fellow-American Dan Gurney in a Ford Mark IV in 1967.

True enough, but as A.J. has noted on many occasions, it was dear friend Tony Hulman’s Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 that made his career. Including last May, Foyt has competed in 55 consecutive Indy 500s, topped by a record 35 straight as a driver (1958-1992). First four-time winner of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” Foyt holds INDYCAR records for most career victories (67), most national championships (seven) and most victories during a single-season (10).

A.J. is the only driver to have won these three crown jewels of motorsports – the Indy 500 (1961, 1964, 1967 and 1977), NASCAR’s Daytona 500 in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Mercury (1972) and the aforementioned 24 Hours of Le Mans. He is the only remaining driver to have won the Indy 500 in both a front-engine roadster and a rear-engine monocoque. Voted North American Driver of the Year in 1975, Foyt one-upped that honor with his selection as Driver of the Century by The Associated Press.

As former Foyt driver Eddie Cheever Jr. once dryly observed: “If A.J. Foyt didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him.”

Before retiring as a driver on Pole Day at IMS on May 15, 1993, Foyt survived a series of injuries that included a broken back, bruised aorta, burns to his face and hands and two broken shoulders. In

A.J. Foyt, driving for the Wood Brothers, accepts winning trophy at Daytona. (Photo courtesy of Wood Brothers Racing)

September 1990, Foyt broke his left knee, dislocated his left tibia, crushed his left heel, dislocated his right heel and suffered compartment syndrome in both feet after a brake failure sent his Indy car plowing through a dirt embankment at Road America at Elkhart Lake, Wis.

“It was just one of them misfortunate things,” Super Tex said.

The following May, a 56-year-old Foyt limped to his car on Pole Day at IMS and qualified second for the 1991 Indy 500.

“Well, everybody said when I started I was never going to live to be 22, so I don’t know if that’s good or bad,” Foyt, now 78, said during a national teleconference on Wednesday. “I wasn’t even supposed to be around this long.”

Fortunately, Foyt still is banging around racetracks. As such, A.J. will serve as grand marshal for the IZOD IndyCar Series’ Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston presented by the Greater Houston Honda Dealers doubleheader Oct. 5 -6 at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center Speedway at Reliant Park.

A.J. Foyt Racing will compete there with the No. 14 ABC Supply Co. Dallara/Honda driven by Takuma Sato, the Japanese driver who presented Foyt an emotional victory on the Streets of Long Beach in April. Here is an edited version of A.J.’s latest interview.

Question: You were back at a racetrack Tuesday for the test day at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. It was your first time back for a bit of time due to some health issues. What was it like to be back at the racetrack?

A.J.: “Well, it was a lot better than being in a hospital bed, I’ll assure you that. I really enjoyed getting back there with the group and the crew and all that and really enjoyed it. It was a long day because I flew out there that morning and flew back that night. I’m kind of tired a little bit, but we’ll bounce back pretty strong.”

Q: Takuma is one of the 10 drivers who have won a race this season, and he led the point standings going into Indianapolis this year. With the team at the shop and watching the races at home, how would you judge the job the team has done so far in 2013?

A.J: “We’ve really started off good and run into kind of a bad luck streak, and that’s racing. It’s not going to be rosy all the time, and you’ve got to accept that. I think he’s done a great job for us. It’s just a couple

A.J. Foyt will be the new marshal in town in Houston. (LAT Photo USA)

mistakes that were made that really hurt us, and then we had a couple of other problems that weren’t the crew’s fault or his fault. But you’re going to have that in today’s racing or any racing. As long as the good offsets the bad, that is the biggest thing.”

Q: The next stop for the series is the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston, which will mark the first time that your team has actually raced in your backyard of Houston. Talk a little about INDYCAR coming to Houston and your hometown?

A.J.: “You always like to run in your hometown. I wish I was still young and still driving, because before we came back here I was fortunate enough to win right here in my hometown. But I’m not driving anymore. I think he’ll (Sato) run good, and they’ll have to beat him because he’s very fast on street courses. You know, if we don’t get penalized on something, we’ll be in good shape.”

Q: You mentioned it will be the first time your team has raced here in your hometown. As it works out, you won’t have a chance to even look at the course until probably Friday morning when drivers get out there for the first time. Tell me about that preparation and going into the race, and not being familiar with the track at all.

A.J.: “Some of the drivers will be familiar with the track. We’ll just have to learn it and go there and learn it all real quick because on tracks like that there isn’t practice time hardly at all. So there is no way we can study the track, because the track is not even laid out until after the (Sept. 29) football game. It’s going to be hard on some of the new guys. Like Dale Coyne and some of them that have been here before, they know what to come with. But we’ve got a pretty good idea of where to start. I don’t think we’ll be too far behind.”

Q: Given the battles that took place between the Indy Racing League and Champ Car when it raced in Houston, did you ever think you would get the chance to finally race in your hometown given all the sanctioning body squabbles over the years?

A.J.: “I don’t care if it’s baseball, football and you’ve got leagues fighting each other – nobody wins. Everybody loses. I’m just glad it’s one league right now so everybody is together and everybody’s working together. It makes it just better for the fans. You’ve got certain fans like certain drivers that ran CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) and certain people that like them in IRL. So I’m just glad it’s all over with.

“I always said when I was one of the founders of CART with Roger Penske, and Bobby Rahal was in on it and Pat Patrick was in on it, so I’m just glad that I was in on it, too. Then when they said I’d have to run the Michigan 500 instead of the Indianapolis 500 (in 1996), that’s when I had my parting ways with CART. I said I’m going to run Indianapolis and not the Michigan 500. They were telling the drivers which race they had to run. Some of the Penske cars and Pat Patrick, they were able to run Indy, but A.J. Foyt had to run Michigan. I said, ‘I’ll see you later, because I’m going to Indy.’^”

Q: Given that the race will be back in Houston, A.J., are you going to be busy playing a host role on race weekend? How is that shaking out for you?

A.J.: “So far it’s been pretty good. I’m just now getting back on my feet. I went to California (Tuesday) morning and then I came back that night. We wanted to test out there, which is really my first day back at the racetrack. I was just hoping I was going to be well enough to be here being the grand marshal. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be a busy day. I won’t be a hundred percent, but I won’t be that far off. I’ll work at it pretty hard.”

Q: Since you mentioned the health issues and we’ve all covered you in this town for a very long time, what’s been going on? Were you in the hospital recently?

A.J.: “The biggest thing is at the beginning of the year I had to have some back surgery. I had to have my back operated on. Last year I wound up having actually surgery for a rotator cuff, and my knee got a staph infection, and they had to operate on me three times to take my knee in and out and wash it. Then I got over that and my back was messed-up from racing through the years. So I went earlier this year for that.

“I went to Indy and I went down healthy, and then I came back and kept having pain, pain, pain. That’s when they said you have a hip that’s all arthritic and I had arthritis in it and it healed-up. I said, ‘What are you saying there is nothing you can do about it?’ I was having a lot of pain. I couldn’t put my own socks on or nothing or bend my leg. They said you’re just going to have to have hip surgery. So I said, ‘Well, get with it.’ I didn’t know it was going to hurt like it did. It’s been pretty hard coming back. So that’s been the big problem. But everything’s looking good now. I’m on the downhill run. Every day is like a new day with me. I’m not a hundred percent, don’t get me wrong, but I’m up to about 85 percent.”

Q: Could you have imagined that it would be 50 years later before you got back, even though you’re not driving, at least got back to run a race in Houston?

A.J.: “Well, everybody said when I started I was never going to live to be 22, so I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I wasn’t even supposed to be around this long. They showed me pictures of my earlier days up on two wheels and one wheel. That’s when you didn’t have all of the roll cages. I guess I’m lucky to still be here. It’s been a good life. It’s been a fun life. Life is very short. People don’t realize if you cannot do what you want to do in life, you have a miserable life. So far I’ve been able to do what I want to do and had a lot of fun. I’ve been able to feed my wife (Lucy) and the children (A.J. III, Terry, Jerry and Larry). I’m no big, big, multi-, multi-millionaire, but at least I know where my next meal’s coming from now. It’s been a good life and I’ve had a lot of fun. So what else can you ask about life?”

Q: How special will it be to race in your hometown again?

A.J.: “I’m thrilled to run here. I wish I wasn’t so damn old that I could run myself. But time passes on. There comes a time when you have to quit. I felt like it was there the day I quit at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That was it. I crawled out and I haven’t crawled back in one since. Even though we go testing, a lot of people say why don’t you get in one, and that would be like an alcoholic. You take to hearing all that and have a beer or something like that, and then you’re right back on it. I know I’m too old to even try, but I fight. But there is no way you could hog-tie me in one anymore.”

Q: Where do you stand with team growth? You’ve toyed around with fielding one or two cars, and where to go with two cars. I know Larry (team director) takes care of a lot of that. But is there any hope for a second car?

A.J.: “The way I look at that, I would like to run two cars again, but getting a proper sponsor and doing it 100 percent, I’m not doing it until we can do it right. It only takes one car to win the race, and I know it makes it easier when you’ve got a team with two or three cars because if something happens to one, you’ve got a good backup on the next one. I’d like to go back to a two-car team, but at the same time, it takes a lot of money now. If you can’t do it right, there is no sense in trying to do it.”

Q: We should expect a decision real soon from INDYCAR about a road-course race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. How do you feel about the Month of May possibly being strengthened or having a second race?

A.J.: “In my own opinion, I would hate to see that because the Indianapolis 500 has been like the Kentucky Derby. It’s a legend race, and I think it would take a little bit from the 500. Now after the 500, mid-year, something like that, that would probably be fine. But I’d hate to see it interfere with the Indy 500 maybe a week or two before it opens. I don’t think it’s a good deal, and that’s my personal opinion. I know a lot of people probably think it would be good, but I don’t think you’d have that many people there. I just think it would take away something from the Indy 500. That’s the way I feel.”

Q: Where are you in terms of looking at Sato’s status for next year and Honda’s status for next year as well?

A.J.: “We’ll be with Honda, and we’ll probably be with Sato. We’ve got a pretty good combination going. I think we’re going to work out everything. I definitely know we’ll probably be with Honda. They’re coming out with some new stuff. They’ve got a little bit to catch-up with the Chevrolet products and the superspeedways. Now on the road-course and all that, Honda holds their own. But on some of the big tracks, I think maybe the Chevrolet has a little bit more power than we do. At least it’s proven that way, but they’re working hard. Honda’s a very good company and they’ve been good to us. So it looks like we’ll be with Honda.“

Q: Back in the day you loved to build your own Coyote chassis and develop all of that. We’re two years into the current Dallara chassis and yet I keep hearing fans call the car ugly. They don’t like it. I wonder where you are with that? Are you a fan of this chassis? Is there any way to go back to the days when teams could build their own?

A.J.: “It’s gotten so expensive with engineers and all that, unless you had multi-million-dollar contracts to do that. I think it’s (the Dallara) a good chassis. It’s a safe chassis. I don’t think it’s the best-looking chassis in the world, but it’s not all that bad. As things develop, things change. It’s kind of modern and people are just not used to it. But at the same time, it’s been a good chassis for everybody, and that is the biggest thing for the drivers is safety.”

Q: Have you kept a lot of your old chassis?

A.J.: “The ones I won Indy with, my personal deal, they’re at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Hall of Fame and Museum). I’ve still got Kenny Brack’s, and mainly I got rid of them. I’ve got some on the showroom floor here, some of my old cars. I’ve got some of the Lolas and all that I drove here in the back of the shop. I’ve still got them.”

Q: I was wondering which race car driver today most reminds you of yourself?

A.J.: “That would be a hard question to answer, and I tell you what, it’s like a lot of people used to say, who did you copy or who did you want to be like? I always just wanted to be myself. I would say probably more my style and running Midgets and Sprint Cars and some of the smart things I didn’t do before the big races, the same as Tony Stewart. I’d say Tony Stewart is probably closer to my style than anything, because he still loves to run Sprints and Midgets, same as I did, even though he’s running Indy cars and winning championships. He’s still, he likes to play. Life is very short. If you can’t do what you want to do in life, what is the use in living? I know that’s about Tony. He got hurt on a little Sprint Car race that probably he shouldn’t have been doing it, but that’s just life. He loves doing that stuff.

“It’s just like myself three days or four days before the Indy 500, I turned around and went out to Raceway Park and had my own Sprint Car and won the race. Like ‘74, turned around, was sitting on the pole at Indy, went out to the (Indiana State) Fairgrounds. I looked back at some of the things that probably wasn’t too smart doing, but at the same time, I love racing. If you can’t do what you want to do in life, what is the use in living? That is kind of like what Tony is. Lot of people bad-mouthed him for what he did, but he’s a hell of a race driver and he enjoys racing. So why penalize somebody on something they love to do?”

Q: Being an observer of the sport, which team do you think has the best shot to win the INDYCAR championship this season?

A.J.: “You know, (Roger) Penske’s awfully hard to beat. I have to go along with Penske (and Helio Castroneves). I know Target and Chip Ganassi and them run good. But day-in and day-out, as far as I’m concerned, Penske is hard to beat.”

Q: You’ve been around this sport quite a while and seen a lot of changes from INDYCAR, CART, etc. What are some of the changes you feel might need to be made or could have an impact on open-wheel?

A.J.: “Well, really, you’re always looking, to me, to try to make it safer for the race drivers. And that’s where the design of the open-wheel cars, and I’m talking about Sprints and Midgets they have so much safety today. Because when I was running, you didn’t have any roll cages you just had a little roll bar, and when I first started running, you didn’t even have that. And that’s one thing I’ve liked about the IRL and the design part. Actually, the cars like we’re running today, the Dallara, they’ve worked hard on that. And that’s about all you can do. Every year they came up with something safer and have to modify the cars from the existing cars. So that is a good thing, is trying to make it safer for the race drivers.”

Q: As it pertains to Tony Stewart, you and him have been pretty close friends?

A.J.: “Yeah, we’ve been friends for years. We tease each other and cut-up with each other. I would say he is more like I am than anybody I know of. I heard how a lot of people [on a radio show] were calling in about Juan Pablo Montoya coming back to Indy cars, and people were calling-in about he couldn’t make it as a stock car driver, so he has to come back to open-wheel. Then I heard somebody called-in and said do you know Jeff Gordon, and then do you know Tony Stewart? Do you know Kasey Kahne? Do you know Jimmie Johnson? And they all said yeah, yeah, yeah. They said you better realize where them boys come from; they all come from open-wheel racing.”

Q: NASCAR’s Kurt Busch has expressed some interest to run the Indy 500 next year. If the funding was there, would you at all listen or provide a second car for him to run Indy?

A.J.: “I think Kurt Busch is a great race driver and one of the few from NASCAR that could probably come over and do a good job. But this one race on-and-off, it’s really hard. I don’t care who you are. It would be like Tony Stewart was really good in these cars, but when you’re out of them four or five years it makes it hard to come back because so many things have changed.

“Like when I was in stock car, I won a few races over there. And if I’d go get in one of the cars today, the whole combination of making the car handle is completely different than when I was over there. So it kind of makes it hard for a guy just to bounce back for one race and do good. Especially with Kurt. I’m quite sure he’d be very capable of doing a great job, but at the same time, it would take a little while to learn. I don’t care who you are. If you’re A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, whoever, it still would take a day or two to learn.”

Q: Where do you feel you are coming up _ I don’t want to say coming up short _ but where do you feel the shortcomings are with your team compared to Penske and whatnot?

A.J.: “I don’t think we’re any shorter than Penske. But at the same time, he’s got two top drivers (Helio Castroneves and Will Power). We’re just running a one-car operation; (Michael) Andretti runs three and four cars. Ganassi runs three and four cars. So if something happens to one or two of them in top cars, they’ve still got more cars they’re firing at you. So if you’re a one-car team and something happens, that’s what makes it look bad for your team because you’ve just got one shot where these guys have three and four shots. So your odds going in of beating those cars, where the three teams have 12 cars, your odds are like 12-1 you’re not going to beat every one of their cars. And fortunate enough we were lucky enough and had a good combination, and Sato did a great job at Long Beach and run off.

“Then at Brazil, we had Andretti’s cars all out-run until the last lap, and then the GoDaddy car (James Hinchcliffe) slipped under them. But like one-two in a row, all joking aside, that’s what makes it hard when the team has three and four cars and they’re all top drivers. Only one car is going to win that race regardless if you got 10 cars.

“Years back we used to run two cars. But if you can’t do it the right way and have the right backing, I think you’re just wasting money and you look worse. So you’re better off with the one-car team and work hard and keep a great crew. I don’t have to back-up on pit stops. We’re just as quick as most of them, and quicker than most of them. So all-in-all, it’s just hard to beat the odds. Like I said, only one car can win, and I like that challenge like that. If you’ve got four cars and still win the race, big deal. The other three got your butt blown off. So that’s the way I look at racing.”

Q: With your vast experience on-and off-the track, have you found la best way for you to try to share, try to give that experience to help your team and your drivers?

A.J.: “Definitely. I’ve talked to them a lot. Like I tell them in cutting-up with them, I said, ‘You’re not going to impress me. I don’t care what you do, win, lose or hit the wall, because I’ve done them all. I’ve hit the wall as hard as anybody, and I’ve hit as easy. I’ve won a lot of races and lost a lot of races. Just do what can do best because you’re not going to impress me with anything you do.’

“So I cut-up with them a lot. If I say I feel like I make a mistake, I’ll talk to them and ask them to try something different. I work pretty close with my drivers. I haven’t this year too much because hospital and doctors took up my time, which I don’t like them at all.”

Q: What can’t you teach a driver or even a team member? What can’t you teach them?

A.J.: “I think like Kenny Brack, he won the Indy 500 (in 1999) and won the championship (in 1998) and all for my team. I think they respect me because they know what I did in racing and that. But every driver has their own style and you’ve got to look at it that way. Because if a person has a certain style and you try to get the car to handle the way they want it and things like that, it’s really hard to change a driver up. You might throw out suggestions and tell him to try it and things like that. If he can adapt to it, fine. If he can’t, just do the best job you can.”

Q: You mentioned that you just wanted to be yourself, but I was wondering, did you have a boyhood idol? If so, who was it?

A.J.: “I hate to answer you, but I really didn’t. Well, I guess I told you wrong. Back in the years when my daddy ran Midgets here in Buff Stadium one of my idols name was Doc Cossey. He never went on the circuit or nothing. But he ran local. I’d have to say he was my idol.”

Q: First time you met him, what was it like?

A.J.: “Oh, I met him, I can’t remember how old I was. But that was something like they took a picture. My daddy built me a car and painted it the same color as his No. 8. At the Buff Stadium, I guess, I was probably 5 or 6-years-old, and I went around that track with him and they took some pictures. So I’d have to say that was my idol.”

Q: You were, of course, an idol to many. You, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones. Thanks for all the memories. But did you think about that at all when you were out there racing?

A.J.: “Not really. I was just kind of a loner to a point. I was just doing what I could do. I was just doing the best job I could. If I got beat today, I couldn’t wait to return tomorrow and try to win. That was the biggest thing I had. All I did was eat and sleep racing. Lot of these guys today though if they get beat, they go on about their business. But you take Parnelli and me. If we didn’t win a race, we didn’t eat too good. So it’s a lot different today.”

Q: You’ve had a long relationship with ABC Supply, your sponsor. As you look for a second team possibly, are you set with them to be your primary sponsor for Takuma or whomever in the No. 14 car?

A.J.: “Oh, yeah, definitely. ABC has the No. 14 car and my primary sponsor. They’re super people to work with. My whole career I’ve never had probably a total of 10 sponsors in my whole career of racing. I’ve been very fortunate enough when I do get a nice sponsor. I never went and stole other people’s sponsors. These people I brought in new to racing. I’m happy I got ABC. We get along real good, and our relationship has been great through the years.”

Q: When you started out, you were driving on little ovals and dirt tracks out in the country. Long Beach later came along with a city street course. How do you look at the evolution of city street racing?

A.J.: “I used to like a regular road-course like Riverside, California, and things like that, but things changed. You really don’t have that much land available anymore because the population of all these big cities – homes, subdivisions and things like that. About the only place you can run now in big cities is downtown in city streets. That is one thing you miss. But things change. Same as you and I when we get older, things change and there is nothing we can do about that.”

Q: Back when you were driving, it was not uncommon for the Indy car to race doubleheaders, the twin 150s and so forth. Now they’re doing that again. Talk about the races coming up in Houston where they’re running twin races on separate days?

A.J.: “I think it’s good and it’s bad. It’s hard on the driver, and it’s hard on the owner, and it’s hard on the crew. Before when they ran them doubleheaders, you had to run both to be credited for one (win and points) that same day. Now they are giving you credit on each one you run. So, like I said, I’d have had more than 67 races (won) if they had given me credit on all of them like I’d win one day and get beat the next time. But things change.”

Q: Do you think it’s better to have back-to-back races on one day or split them up on separate days?

A.J.: “I would say split them up on separate days. If you crash you have a chance to fix it the next day. I think things need to be changed like that in racing. The fans get a better show, and it helps a promoter where he can pay you more money and things like that when you have a two-day event like that. So I think it helps all the way around.”

Q: Looking back, which of the Indy 500s of the 35 you ran was most gratifying to you?

A.J.: “Looking back at the Indy 500, my biggest thrill was to be able to qualify for my first 500 in 1958. I would say that was the highlight of my career. Then be fortunate enough to win it in ‘61. I couldn’t ask for nothing better than that. I mean, the other three were great. Don’t get me wrong. I love being the first four-time winner. But at the same time, the first one will stick with me until I die.”

Q: What was the most disappointing race you had at Indy?

A.J.: “I’d have to say in 1969 we were very fast. We broke a manifold couple two or three times. I’d have to say when I ran second and third or ‘75, ‘76, and it rained that one time and my good friend, Johnny Rutherford won it, and they never restarted the race and we were fast. Then in ‘77, so you take ‘75, ‘76, and ‘77, I think I had a car nobody could outrun. I ran a second and third and finally won it. But I remember thinking was I ever going to be able to win again? And those three years, all I had to do was stay out of trouble, but it seemed like trouble would find me.”

Q: How does it feel that you’re going to be sitting up there in front as the grand marshal in Houston?

A.J.: “That’s hard to answer. I’m just one of the regular guys. Being a grand marshal is a big honor and great to be a grand marshal. But at the same time, I’d rather be out in the field with the boys.”

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 26 2013
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