Echo Of ‘The Slap’ Still Reverberates At TMS

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, June 15 2016
The slap that ream owner A.J. Foyt administered to the head of Arie Luyendyk in 1977 is still part of Texas Motor Speedway lore. (LAT Photo USA)

The slap that ream owner A.J. Foyt administered to the head of Arie Luyendyk in 1977 is still part of Texas Motor Speedway lore. (LAT Photo USA)

FORT WORTH, Texas – The slap that put Texas Motor Speedway smack-dab on the motorsports map continues to sting _ continues to stir hardened emotions _ two decades after the dizzying array of events surrounding the night of Saturday, June 7, 1997.

bugindycarThe True Value 500k, the inaugural open-wheel event at TMS, crowned Billy Boat and then Arie Luyendyk as winners in a pair of Victory Lane celebrations two years apart and with separate trophies. The press conference on the Sunday morning after featuring embattled U.S. Auto Club Chief Steward Keith Ward and cohort Art Graham, USAC’s Director of Timing and Scoring, was overshadowed by a rant delivered by TMS President Eddie Gossage punctuated by a well-planned door slam.

But the weekend’s defining moment remains “The Slap Heard ‘Round the World,” as delivered by native Texan and Indy car legend A.J. Foyt Jr. to an unsuspecting Luyendyk after the Dutchman dared to question Boat’s first win in Tony George’s fledgling Indy Racing League.

A stroke of luck in the form of apparent leader Tony Stewart’s blown engine two laps from the checkered flag put Boat into the lead on Lap 207 of the 208-lapper around TMS’ high-banked, 1.5-mile quadoval. Boat was credited with winning under caution as A.J. Foyt Racing teammate Davey Hamilton placed second and Luyendyk third. But Fred Treadway, Luyendyk’s team-owner, was already preparing to file an official protest over the scoring when Luyendyk exited his car and headed toward Victory Lane.

Foyt took exception to Luyendyk’s invasion of his team’s celebration. Foyt drove that point home

Down goes Arie. A.J. Foyt didn't take kindly to Arie Luyendyk's uninvited appearance in Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway in 1997.

Down goes Arie. A.J. Foyt didn’t take kindly to Arie Luyendyk’s uninvited appearance in Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway in 1997.

with a back-handed slap to Arie’s head, a blow that along with a flower planter, briefly sent Luyendyk to the pavement. In an instant, the event billed as “America’s Original Nighttime IndyCar Race” had morphed into a scene right out of a rough-and-tumble Texas dirt track.

Sunday’s story in the Sports section of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram was accompanied by the now iconic photo of an incensed Foyt with his left hand wrapped around Luyendyk’s neck, the latter’s white hat askew.

Similarly, the June 11th edition of Chris Economaki’s National Speed Sport News _ the industry’s tabloid Bible at the time _ screamed:  TURBULENCE IN TEXAS across its front page. And inside, “Two Black Eyes in IRL; Luyendyk Gets One in Scuffle, USAC Gets the Other for Snafu.”

In a world where there’s no such thing as bad publicity, “The Slap” has cemented its place among the top two moments of TMS’ 20th anniversary season.

“I would say it has to rank as the strangest moment at Texas Motor Speedway…but that may not be true,” said Gossage, never shy about swatting a promotional softball. “Certainly it was a coming-of-age thing for the speedway as it put us on the front page of newspapers all around the globe.

“The on-the-track product was awesome _ everybody stood there with jaws open _ and then you had the A.J. vs. Arie incident. That was good for the news media. It was the start of a beautiful relationship _ awesome racing and some scratch-your-head stuff. That’s been our 20-year relationship with INDYCAR.”

The announced crowd of 128,000 that filled the frontstretch grandstands went home thinking Boat had won. But early Sunday morning Ward confirmed that a major timing and scoring error had occurred. After USAC officials spent the night auditing three separate scoring systems, Luyendyk _ who had qualified 11th and led twice for 20 laps _ was declared the winner.

Graham explained that Luyendyk’s No. 5 Treadway Racing/Wavephore G Force/Aurora did not get scored when he went onto pit road twice, meaning he lost two laps. “Every time I came into the pits my transponder didn’t record the lap,” Luyendyk said. Graham further explained that Luyendyk had taken the lead from Stewart on a pass with 19 laps remaining. So when Stewart’s engine blew after leading a race-high 100 laps, sending the IRL’s “Poster Boy” crashing into the Turn 1 wall, he actually was running second to Luyendyk.

Foyt remains unconvinced and unmoved. “Fast as we was running… there was four or five laps to go and we came by him (Luyendyk) and waved him by because we were a lap or two ahead,” Foyt said. ”I know we won it. Why would we have waved him by? We’d be an idiot.

“Then after the race he came over like a crazy fool. I thought he was going to congratulate Billy Boat. He came up cussing everybody. He knocked my chief mechanic’s wife to the ground and that’s when I got into it. I said, ‘You goofy foreigner, I’ll show you who can whip who.’ I kind of bitch-slapped him. Wish I would have hit him harder ‘cause they (USAC) fined me $25,000. I paid the fine. But if I had known that I’d have…it wouldn’t have been just a slap.”

Luyendyk recalled the incident as “awkward” and uncharacteristic on his part. “As I walked into Victory Circle I saw they were doing the proceedings,” said Luyendyk, who had won his second Indianapolis 500 in his previous start. “I walked over to Eddie Gossage and I said, ‘What are you doing, because they don’t even know who’s the winner yet.’ Some of the Foyt guys were saying, ‘We won the race, you were a couple laps behind.’ I said, “Can anybody f – – – – – g count here?”

Gossage had walked into Victory Lane on a public relations high, ready to capitalize on Texas icon Foyt and his team winning the first open-wheel race in Fort Worth. It was the proverbial PR layup.

“I’m standing in Victory Lane and can’t see anything _because of the TV lights, the stadium lights _ you’re blasted,” Gossage said. “If you drive into Victory Lane I’m going to give you a trophy. So here’s Billy and A.J. and I had no questions (about the outcome). All of a sudden there’s a silhouette and I can’t see who it is but he’s screaming and cussing at me…with expletives deleted… ‘Why are you giving them the trophy? I won the race.’ Can’t see who it is but I know the voice. It’s Arie Luyendyk, my old Milwaukee neighbor.

“And then it hit me that earlier in the evening I had seen his number on the scoreboard in two different positions. That made no sense to me and I instantly know, ‘Arie’s probably right.’ Billy didn’t say a word, he didn’t defend it at all. And the drivers know…so I knew Arie was most likely right and ‘Uh-oh, here we go.’ I also instantly thought…’You (Luyendyk) shouldn’t be here. This isn’t how you protest a race.’ The first friendly face he saw he went off on. But you don’t go to Victory Lane to protest a race.”

Luyendyk admitted he was beyond furious. “Believe me _ I can be as mad as A.J. when it comes to it,” Luyendyk said. “I was looking for Keith (Ward). I wasn’t there to make a scene because I was on my way out. I remember saying to myself, ‘I better walk away…’ and then I got hit from behind by A.J. I thought it was a camera that hit me in the head…and A.J.’s got me by the throat and I trip over the damned flowers and this was embarrassing.”

Gossage was a few steps from Luyendyk when all hell broke loose. “I see A.J. coming around the back of the car and Billy’s to my left,” Gossage said. “I’ve got this fragile, glass trophy I’m holding and about to present and I see A.J.…and oh, Lord, for a big man he’s pretty quick. He stood there for an instant but once he understood what was happening, he was really ticked-off. Arie turns to leave and A.J. does this little backhanded slap near his left ear…a real loud slapping sound…and he shoves Arie’s left shoulder. We had these little (flower) planters in Victory Lane and Arie trips over one of the planters.

“And the next thing you know people are jumping and grabbing A.J., including Tony George. I saw the bottom of Tony’s shoes as he jumped on A.J.’s back. And another guy in the photo, Mark Mourer, he didn’t hesitate, he’s got ‘Super Tex’ and he’s going to wrestle him down. I also saw our chief of security and a bunch of (Fort Worth) police officers come into Victory Lane. Last thing I need is for A.J. to leave in handcuffs; bottom line they were not going to arrest A.J. Foyt.”

Gossage said once the frenzied ceremonies were concluded, he went over to the Indy Racing League trailer in search of Leo Mehl, the organization’s executive director. Instead, he found Luyendyk. “I let him have it. I’m dressing him down…waving my finger at him,” Gossage said. “But Leo Mehl nods and says, ‘He won.’ It’s now 10:30 p.m., and what are we going to do? Leo said, ‘We’re going to start a manual account of the scoring.’ You typically have a backup system, old-fashioned hand-scoring as they cross the line. It’s going to be 2-3-4 (o’clock) in the morning before it’s done.

“Arie leaves and I say again, what are we going to do? Leo, the wise veteran that he is, says, ‘We’re going to have a press conference in the morning _ but I can’t be there. We were going to get rid of USAC in two races, but they don’t know that. So I want you to burn them.’ At the time I didn’t realize he had just set me up.”

Gossage said he drove home and got two hours of sleep before returning to the track for the USAC press conference in the infield media center theater. Rather than conduct the session from the stage and podium, Gossage sat down in the theater’s high back row, behind most of the media.

“Art Graham (USAC’s Director of Timing and Scoring) is up there and explains that Arie didn’t get scored when he went onto pit road twice, which means he lost two laps…the computer didn’t score him,” Gossage said. “Art Graham said, ‘The speedway’s timing and scoring equipment failed.’ Well, we don’t have any timing and scoring equipment. He said it a second time…and I said ‘Whoa, I did here that! ‘A few minutes later for the third time he said the speedway’s timing and scoring equipment didn’t work.

“So I went up to the podium and said, ‘The speedway (TMS) does not own a stop watch. We paid Indy car, which hired USAC, to manage the competition last night, including scoring. It’s USAC’s timing and scoring equipment, not the speedway’s.’ This brand new speedway that a couple of months before was trashed by all the (NASCAR) Cup drivers and now he’s blaming the speedway’s timing and scoring equipment. I realize my car is 20 feet away and there’s a door (to his right) and I head off the stage.”

Without breaking stride, Gossage shoved the door open and let it slam shut. “That’s my exclamation point,” Gossage said. “I get in my Tahoe and I’m on Interstate-35W and my phone rings and it’s my father (H.L. Gossage) in Tennessee…and I say, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m sitting here with my TV on and you’re looking like a damned fool. We don’t slam doors. You were raised better than that. But there you are on ESPN holding a live press conference and acting like a damned idiot.’

“All of a sudden I’m a 12-year-old kid apologizing to my dad. It was embarrassing. And to defend Art Graham _ he meant Indianapolis Motor Speedway as ‘the Speedway.’ He meant the timing and scoring equipment that IMS provided to USAC.”

Boat, who was substituting for the injured Scott Sharp in Foyt’s No. 1 Conseco A.J. Foyt Racing G Force/Aurora, remains in lock-step with “Super Tex” on the outcome.

“There’s no question, as I stand here today, that we won that race,” said Boat, who had started 21st in a 26-car field. “To this day it’s unfortunate that we lost that victory and the fans left thinking we won the race and then the next day we didn’t. I think it was only maybe my fourth or fifth (IRL) start. At the time you’re disappointed, but I’m not bitter today. We came back the next year and won the race and that was vindication.

“But I still get questions and comments on it to this day. It was a night I’ll never forget. I mean, the look on A.J.’s face when Arie walked up there…”

Incredibly, neither Foyt nor Boat recalls speaking with Luyendyk since the incident. Luyendyk said he still feels badly for Boat. “He really knew how to stand on the gas,” Luyendyk said. “The guy was good and one of the bravest I’ve ever seen and I thought the whole deal sucked because it destroyed everything. The fact that A.J. did what he did was because he couldn’t control himself. It added quite a spectacle and looking back it’s kind of funny. Eddie Gossage should be thankful.”

Gossage said Luyendyk called him around Christmas of 1997 asking about the TMS record book, as he never got to experience a Victory Lane celebration. “It took us two years to do it,” Gossage said. “In June of 1999 we re-enacted Victory Lane and gave him the trophy, a duplicate, because A.J. won’t give it back.”

Luyendyk said his True Value 500k hardware is on display in the trophy room in his garage. “My wife, Mieke, says it’s my ‘I Love Me Room’ _ and it’s a cool room,” Luyendyk said.

“But I still got the (original) damned trophy,” Foyt said. “It’s right in my office and if he thinks he’s big enough to come get it, come get it. Even though I’m going to be 82-years-old (in January), I guess I still got some life in me.”


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, June 15 2016
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