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Foyt Back At Le Mans 50 Years After Legendary Win

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, June 17 2017

Dan Gurney joined A.J. Foyt in winning at Le Mans in 1967 in the Ford GT MKIV.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Fifty years after he bid adieu to Le Mans behind a pair of sunglasses and a cocksure grin, A.J. Foyt Jr. has returned to the Circuit de la Sarthe to celebrate arguably the single greatest moment in Ford Motor Company’s storied racing history.

The pairing of “Super Tex” and Californian Dan Gurney proved magical when they conquered the 35th edition of the world’s most prestigious endurance race in the No. 1 Ford GT40 MKIV on June 11, 1967. It remains the all-American motorsports moment _ two American drivers in a genuinely American-built chassis powered by a snarling American V8 winning on the world stage.

“I went over there as a rookie and we won, I had no reason to go back,” Foyt said during a recent sit-down interview with RacinToday.com at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. “They finally talked me into it after 50 years.”

Having broken Enzo Ferrari’s stranglehold on the event in 1966 with co-drivers Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon in the Ford GT40, Ford entered a seven-car armada in ’67. Included were four 427 cubic-inch V8 Mk IVs shared by a world-class roster of drivers _ Foyt, Gurney, McLaren, Mario Andretti, Mark Donohue, Lloyd Ruby, Denny Hulme and Lucien Bianchi.

“We were sort of voted the ‘least likely to succeed,’ because either he (Foyt) was going to burn it up or we would try to fight each other,” Gurney said in various remembrances. “But it dawned on me that his approach was better than mine. So when we finally did do it, we not only won the race but we also busted the average speed record by over 10 miles an hour. It was a fantastic win for both us

The Le Mans-winning Ford GT 40 MKIV heads to victory lane with A.J. Foyt and team riding along.

and Ford.”

Foyt never tested and had logged few practice laps in the little red car. Despite all that, he and Gurney and the car entered by Shelby American led an incredible 22.5 of the 24 hours, or just under 94 percent of the distance. They completed 388 laps/3,251.57 miles around the 8.365-mile circuit at a record average speed of 134.865 mph.

Before the modern GT cars took to the track at Le Mans earlier this week, the 1967 race-winning Ford returned to relive a moment of glory from 50 years ago. The car _ untouched since winning the race in 1967 _ looked right at home on the famous Le Mans start/finish straight. Foyt, now 82, will watch the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing team take on the world’s toughest GT competition this weekend as the Blue Oval tries to defend its 2016 GTE-Pro class victory.

Recall that Foyt and Gurney were at the top of their games in 1967. Foyt had become the fourth three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 two weeks earlier in his signature No. 14 Coyote, powered by a Ford V8, the chassis strongly based upon the Lotus Type-38 in which Formula One star Jim Clark of Scotland won in 1965 for Colin Chapman. Gurney would become the first American to win a modern Formula One Grand Prix in his All-American Racers Eagle/Weslake, at Spa in Belgium, the week
after Le Mans.

Foyt’s landmark fourth Indy 500 victory 40 years ago is the centerpiece to “A.J. Foyt:  A Legendary Exhibition” on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum. Foyt’s 2017 Indy 500 entries of Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly in the 101st edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” marked the 60th consecutive year in which he has been a participant at IMS as either a driver, team-owner or both.  Foyt won a record 67 Indy car races and seven championships between 1960 and 1981. He remains the only driver to have won the Indy 500, NASCAR’s Daytona 500 and the 24 Heures du Mans. And to the chagrin of Andretti, Foyt was voted “Driver of the Century” by The Associated Press.

The Foyt exhibit, which occupies two rooms of the Museum, showcases 33 cars driven by A.J. Most are Indy cars, but fans can get up-close to meticulously restored Foyt-driven Sprint Cars, stock cars and sports cars _ some on public display for the first time. In addition, photos of Foyt and his parents (Tony Sr. and Evelyn), trophies and assorted memorabilia provide a wonderful journey down A.J.’s personal memory lane. The exhibit runs through Oct. 31…and like Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr., is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Foyt spoke to RacinToday.com from the office of his ABC Supply Inc., Verizon IndyCar Series transporter at TMS, accompanied by son Larry, the president of A.J. Foyt Racing, and longtime

A.J. Foyt was honored by a special display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway museum this year. (RacinToday.com photo by Martha Fairris)

public relations representative Anne Fornoro. The former oversees day-to-day operation of the team; the latter fills in the historical blanks for A.J. as necessary. In addition to Le Mans, an upbeat and animated “Super Tex” spoke on a variety of topics, including his health, the state of his Indy car team and an observation about that Fernando Alonso guy racing in the Indy 500. An edited transcript follows:

RACINTODAY: So, how his your health, A.J., halfway through your 82nd year?

A.J. FOYT: “Well, the last five years have been pretty rough but I think it’s on a downhill run now. I’m feeling a lot better every day and I’m kind of anxious to see how this stem cell (treatment program) is going to work out. They said I could feel the difference in two or three months. My wife’s (Lucy) been pretty sick and she wanted to do it and I said, ‘Hell if you’re going to do it I’m going to do it with you.’ I hope it works. I think I’ve had some help with it because they injected my ankles while I was over there and my ankles have not been giving me trouble. Before if I was at the racetrack all day walking I could hardly walk the next morning. So I would have to say it’s helped my ankles a lot.”

RACINTODAY: You said you learned about the stem cell program through a family connection. When did you begin treatment?

A.J. FOYT:  “About a month and a-half ago. They take your blood and your fat tissue and they grow it for eight to 10 weeks and then they decide what your body needs. And each time they give it to you, I think it’s like eight or nine cc’s IV in your arm, it takes about an hour and 40 minutes. I had to go to Cancun for it. You can’t do it in the United States, the type I had. They can take your bone marrow and blood and mix it but it’s not the same as I had. Plus it’s pretty expensive. But I didn’t feel I had nothing to lose. They wanted to fuse my ankles for years (the result of a crash at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., in September 1990). If I walk a lot, I can hardly move the next day, but I never wanted them fused because they’re both stiff then. They injected it in the front…and it hurt like hell!

“But I think I am in pretty good shape. I’m going to pretty much all the races, the ones I like. The ones I don’t like I don’t go to ‘em. The bad thing I had was that heart operation (triple bypass surgery in November 2014) and I was unconscious right at 10 days and then I got bed sores and then I had a staph infection twice and that was nasty. It’s been rough but so far I think I’m on a pretty good downhill run right now.

“You know, you talk about the years flying by. Jim McElreath (of Arlington, Texas) passed (on May 18). I knew he was sick the last couple of years. He won the (Ontario) 500 out in California (in 1970 in one of Foyt’s team cars).

“You know, Jim McElreath was a lot better race driver than a lot of people gave him credit for because he was always quiet. He was just a good race driver. His wife (Shirley) got sick and it was such a tragedy about his son (James, killed in a Sprint Car crash) and daughter (Shirley and son-in-law Tony Bettenhausen) getting killed in a plane crash. It seems some families…you look back at yours and our family’s been wonderful compared to some people I know. I really felt bad. I’m glad Jim went the way he did, in his sleep…that’s better than the way my mother and daddy did, suffering so. If you gotta go, I guess that’s a good way to go. And I’d just as soon do that myself, you know?

“And I remember Betty Rutherford (Johnny’s wife, who is dealing with severe memory loss) when I won the Yankee 300 in a stock car. She was a nurse, presented me the trophy way before Johnny and her got married. What a beautiful girl she was. And last time Anne and I saw her, we gave her a ride in the garage area, arthritis and all had set in and Johnny had to put her in a (nursing) home. It’s hard to believe when you see somebody who’s so attractive and nice and what she did for other families _ Betty was always raising money or doing this or that and then see them and they don’t even know their own name, that’s pitiful. I saw Johnny at Indy. Two or three times he came over to the motorhome and we talked. I feel sorry for Johnny.”

RACINTODAY: You switched from Honda to Chevrolet and revamped your driver lineup during the offseason, hiring two 25-year-olds in Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly. You’ve said that you don’t expect them to do everything you did, but you do expect them to give 100 percent. Are they at a stage where you’re basically throwing them out there and hope they figure it out?

A.J. FOYT: “Well, to a point you try to help ‘em. But drivers nowadays are different. They got their own idears. Like Mario Andretti said just this morning, ‘They’re all a different breed compared to when we come up’ and you’ve just got to work with ‘em. It’s just different. It’s like politics. Like the No. 14 car (driven by Munoz) was late (for tech inspection last Friday at TMS and forfeited its chance to qualify). It was our people’s fault. I believe in the rules and they (INDYCAR) did the right thing. They had to enforce them. But we’ll get back there.

“Right now I don’t care who you are, Roger Penske, Andretti’s team…the last three years they’ve been really good at Indy…what I’m getting at is it’s like a rollercoaster. I’ve been on top and been on the bottom so it’s nothing that’s not unusual. Who would have ever thought that Roger Penske would have two Indianapolis drivers miss the Indy 500 (in 1995)? You would bet money he never would have done that. But that’s the reason why they call it automobile racing. And who would have ever thought today that you’d have trouble filling the field at Indy when there used to be 100 to 125 cars when I qualified to get 33. I mean, in my lifetime I never thought I’d see that but I’ve seen it the last three or four years.”

LARRY FOYT: “We’re definitely in a rebuilding year with all the changes. When you come into a spec series a lot of these guys (teams) have had the same drivers, same cars for a few years and we’re just playing catch-up right now. We still think the direction and the people we’re getting on-board the team are definitely a long-term strength for us.”

RACINTODAY:  That said, what kind of job is Larry doing with your team, A.J.?

A.J. FOYT: “I told Larry he meant more to me operating our racing (team) than being a race driver. I mean, he was a good race driver _ I don’t think he had the killer instinct I had _ and I said, ‘You can get hurt just as bad running in the middle of the pack as you can leading.’ I said, ‘If you want to own the team you can have the team,’ and he’s done a helluva job for me. He won one race (Streets of Long Beach in 2013) when I was in the hospital. He’s new to the game, got new people and all and this year everybody was new on a different motor program with General Motors, different bodies, so he’s had a lot to try to manage. But I think we’re on a downhill run.

“We’re not happy where we are. I’ve sat on the pole and we’ve set records and won (at TMS) and had fights and everything else. But I think he’s doing a good job. We’re going to make some more changes. We’re not just sitting on what we think we know. We’re sitting on what we gotta know and that’s how you compete. I don’t care who you are, when you change everything it’s going to take you time. Take Penske _ (Helio) Castroneves and them been together what 10-12 years? Andretti’s team with Michael has been together six-eight years with basically the same people. So this year here, we’re all fresh. It takes you time to get oriented.”

RACINTODAY: Your primary sponsor, ABC Supply, has been with you for 13 years and stepped-up with your exhibit at the IMS Museum. The Hendricks family-owned company, which reportedly did over $8 billion in sales last year, certainly has remained loyal despite that rollercoaster of results you mentioned. Why have you guys clicked?   

A.J. FOYT: “Super, super people. In my whole career, I haven’t had many sponsors. I think I’ve been honest with them, not just tell them something they want to hear. I tell ‘em if we’re good, I tell ‘em if we’re bad. That’s what I respect about them and I think they know that we want to win as bad as they want to win. They know some of the problems we’ve got and they know we’re doing something about it. We’re not just sitting there because they’re a great sponsor. We want to produce for them as bad as they want us to produce. We will get there.

“Like I said, it’s just a different world out there. The only thing I can say is we (Carlos Munoz) inherited eighth spot at Indy and with two laps to go we lost two spots. And he called in and said, ‘The car’s sliding a little bit.’ Well, in my time, I would have been on the bottom and made ‘em go to the outside. It’s the difference between winners and losers. Guy that wants to win, he ain’t going to give up nothing, regardless if he’s running 10th.”

RACINTODAY: That certainly is the mindset of Takuma Sato, your driver from 2013 through last season, and the reigning Indy 500 champion. You made it a point to congratulate Taku…”

A.J. FOYT: “We’re great, great friends still and I went to Victory Circle and he gave me a hug and said, ‘I love you.’ And like he said in Victory Circle, ‘A.J. told me to keep my (right) foot in it.’ I knew

Takuma Sato and Larry Foyt. (File photo courtesy of the Verizon IndyCar Series)

they (Helio Castroneves and Team Penske) was messing with the wrong boy, because he wasn’t going to give. I was so happy for him. I would have liked to have him in the No. 14 car, don’t get me wrong. But at the time he went over there (Andretti Autosport) Honda USA more or less fired him. In Japan, he was good friends with the chief (executive) and they hired him back. I’ve always been American so I wanted to go back to a USA (manufacturer).”

RACINTODAY: Your exhibit at the IMS Museum is a must-see for any motorsports fan. It’s like a racing time capsule of the last 60 years. Did you spend much time there during the Month of May?

A.J. FOYT: “I went there a couple times and looked at it. It’s hard for me to believe, and the wrecked car I got hurt so bad in (tub section from Mid-Ohio crash in 1990) has been at the shop up in the rafters, but that’s the first time I’ve seen it (since). I’m looking down, I’m glad my legs are still here after that. I know I was hurtin’. A lot of the trophies are mine that I had scattered all over. It’s great memories, looking at some of the Midgets I drove, stock cars, sports cars.

“And I think that’s why the crowds aren’t like they used to be. They followed me from Playland Park to California to Sprint Cars and winning Salem (Ind.) to Indianapolis. Nowadays you see a guy in today and gone tomorrow. So people don’t know him. I raced at the Devil’s Bowl (in Mesquite, Texas) in Midgets and I raced in Fort Worth in Midgets, so people followed me and you build a fan base. They want to see you graduate and a lot of ‘em follow you. But nowadays, I don’t even know most of the damned drivers _ and I got two race cars! Lot of times I’m like, ‘Who is that in that damned car?’^”

RACINTODAY: Fifty years later you’re heading back to Le Mans to celebrate your victory with Dan Gurney. Neither of you raced at Le Mans again after that win. Why haven’t you gone back as a spectator?

A.J. FOYT: “They finally talked me into it after 50 years. I told ‘em ‘No!’ every year but Anne wanted to go and she’s in good with all the Ford people. They go through her because they know my answer right away is ‘No!’ I went over there as a rookie and we won, I had no reason to go back.”

RACINTODAY: What did the 32-year-old A.J. Foyt think about Le Mans and its history and traditions and that course? That was the 35th edition of the race and it wasn’t much older than you. Were you overwhelmed or what?

A.J. FOYT: “It’s just another race _ but a great race. Actually it was like two teams _ two Ford teams _ fighting each other. I was glad to be driving for Carroll Shelby, he was from the Dallas area,

The Porsche 962 that Foyt and fellow 500 winners Danny Sullivan and Al Unser drove in the Daytona 24. It is now  in the Indy Motor Speedway museum.
(RacinToday photo by Martha Fairris)

and he was always about road-racing. He had a Ford team and Holman-Moody from (NASCAR) stock car racing, they had Andretti and all them. So our goal was to win Le Mans but also beat Holman-Moody, and that was the whole deal.”

RACINTODAY: The field in ’67 featured seven Ford Prototypes, seven Ferraris and two of fellow-Texan Jim Hall’s winged Chaparrals. This was one year after Ford GT40s had finished 1-2-3, capping the infamous corporate war between Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari. Among the 12 Ford drivers, you and Gurney started ninth. Were you guys considered the pre-race favorites?

A.J. FOYT: “No, I don’t think so. Ferrari (pronounced by A.J. as Ferreri) was the one winning everything (with the Ferrari 330 P4). And Henry Ford (aka The Deuce) had married an Italian girl (Cristina) and I guess she told him, ‘There’s no way y’all can beat Ferreri’…and he said, ‘We will!’ And that’s where the champagne spray bottle come from _ Dan Gurney was the first one to spray him and her and all of us with champagne.”

RACINTODAY: What was it like flying down the Mulsanne Straight without the current Michelin Chicane designed to slow the cars before the sharp right-hander at the end?

A.J.FOYT: “The only thing I didn’t like about it _ we was running about 250 mph in that car _ and they had the damned trees (lining the course) whitewashed about 7-foot…and I thought, ‘Boy, if your brakes  go out there, you’re in a lot of trouble.’ I mean, that’s where most of ‘em got killed. And where I got in trouble was probably around 5-6 or 7 o’clock that morning at the White House bridge _ (the virages Maison Blanche, since bypassed by the Porsche Curves) _ you know, near where Mercedes went across (into the crowd in 1955) and killed about 80 (84) people? That was a wooden bridge and that thing was slick. Well I went through there…I saved it but I don’t know how. After that I made damned sure I was safe when I went across it.”

RACINTODAY: How many of the 24 hours did you drive, approximately?

A.J. FOYT: “I think it was about 14-and-a-half hours or so. They couldn’t find Gurney on one of the (pit) stops. They were looking for him and he wasn’t where he was supposed to be and he said he was…and that was a shift around from 2 (a.m.)…we was running four-hour shifts. And my arms were hurting so bad because Gurney (at 6-foot-3) was so much bigger than I was (at 5-foot-10) and we didn’t have adjustable seats in there. We had a bubble on the top because he was taller. So when I’m driving, I had to have both my arms straight out. The pedals we split the difference because Gurney was a lot bigger than I was. But nah, it was great. I always tease him, ‘You knew the shift you wanted to miss’ because that’s when it was always foggy and they (traditionally) had a big wreck. That’s when Andretti didn’t race.

“Dan and I, we’re the only American drivers and American car that’s ever won Le Mans. So Ford wanted me to come over for the 50th year celebration and I said I’d try to make ‘em happy. But I don’t think Dan (will attend). Dan’s pretty sick. They honored us, (Edsel B. Ford II at Long Beach

Jim Clark and A.J. Foyt. Foyt said that Clark was the one F1 driver that he respected. (RacinToday photo by Mratha Fairris)

with the Spirit of Ford Award in April) and Dan’s in a wheelchair. Like I told my boys, ‘If I get like that, don’t take me around no racetracks.’ We talked and took pictures but Dan (who is 86) was really straining to stand up next to me. I know he wanted to go (to Le Mans), I do know that. But there’s no way he can do it. Hell, I might not make it. I might kick before then.”

RACINTODAY:  Clear up this bit of apocryphal Le Mans lore. You have been widely quoted after winning that race as saying, ‘Le Mans is just a little ‘ol country road. We got plenty of them in Texas.’ Is that quote accurate?

A.J. FOYT: “I don’t recall saying that, but there are a lot of country roads here, I can tell you that.  I might have said it, I don’t know. It’s possible I did.”

RACINTODAY: Fernando Alonso, the two-time Formula One World Driving Champion, created a stir at Indy last month by skipping the Monaco Grand Prix to run the Indy 500 with Andretti Autosport. And by all accounts, Alonso was letter-perfect. Did Fernando’s performance impress you?

A.J. FOYT: “I don’t know nothing about the guy. I never met him. They gave him a private test there, he had a great car, he had other people (Marco Andretti) set the car up, he didn’t set it up. So only thing he had to do was get in it and drive. Far as I’m concerned, far as Formula One drivers, the best one in my whole lifetime and I’ll still say it, against him and (Lewis) Hamilton and all of ‘em, was Jimmy Clark. I watched him run stock cars, I watched him run Milwaukee (The Milwaukee Mile), I watched him run Trenton (N.J.) and I watched him run Rockingham (N.C.) in stock cars. When them guys can fulfill Jimmy Clark’s shoes I’ll give ‘em credit. But until then, that was the best Formula One driver that’s ever raced in the United States.”

RACINTODAY: Thanks for your time, A.J.!

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, June 17 2017
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