A.J.'s still blowin' up and kickin' butt after all these years.
BY BOB ZELLER
Last June, during a yellow-flag caution near the end of a 250-lap Indy Racing League event at Richmond International Raceway in Virginia, the relative humidity of the burly legend sitting center stage in the pit of A.J. Foyt Racing had become more severe with each slow circuit the cars made around the track.
Himself had been sitting atop the pit cart with his arms crossed like an unsmiling Texas Buddha, but not anymore. Out on that track, A.J. Foyt IV, the 20-year-old grandson of A.J. Foyt Jr., was stuck behind a car driven by Dario Franchitti, who was three laps down. It seemed a good bet that Franchitti was trying to prevent cars behind him—cars that were on the lead lap—from closing the gap on Franchitti's teammate, Dan Wheldon, who was leading. Franchitti was also preventing Foyt the Fourth from closing on Felipe Giaffone, who was in 10th place.
Anthony, as he's known, was in 11th, and if he finished there, it would equal his best-ever IRL result. He had done a fine job that night behind the wheel of his grandfather's No. 14 Conseco Dallara-Toyota Indy car. He had passed a number of drivers under the green flag, including the eventual race winner, Wheldon.
The most recognizable Foyt, who turns 70 this month, was doing what he's been famous for throughout his tempestuous life. He was fussin' and fumin'. He got on the radio and ordered his grandson to pass Franchitti. This presented a problem, because passing is not allowed during a yellow flag and will incur a penalty. So Anthony, proving his bravery, didn't obey his grandfather. And of course Foyt was equally furious with IRL officials for not forcing Franchitti to close the gap.
The race restarted and ended soon after, with Anthony still in 11th, still two laps down, as good as his best day yet, in 2003 at Nazareth Speedway. But A.J.'s twin piques were still at molten-lava stage when Anthony rolled into the pit and got out of the car. He barely had his helmet off before A.J. bolted over the pit wall and was in his face, bellowing at him.
Foyt's rage could be heard far and wide for the next 30 seconds. The kid stood there and took it. His venting exhausted, A.J. stormed back over the pit wall and headed toward the garage. Johnny Rutherford, a fellow Texan and three-time Indy 500 winner who is now special-projects director for the Indy Racing League, spotted A.J. about the same moment A.J. spotted him. They met at the fence that separated the garage from the pits.
In a fatherly tone, Rutherford said to A.J., "He did a good job tonight, A.J."
"Yeah, but the goddamn kid didn't do what I told him," A.J. hollered, "and the fuckin' IRL officials shouldn't allow that!"
"Yeah, but he did a good job," Rutherford repeated.
"Yeah, but goddamn it, I told that kid, 'You do what I goddamn tell you to do!'"
Then A.J. launched into his complaint about Franchitti's blocking and the subsequent failure of IRL officials to intercede. Standing next to Foyt was a longtime motorsports writer, Robin Miller, once of the Indianapolis Star and ESPN and now with the Speed Channel. Years ago, Miller himself was the recipient of a well-placed smack from Foyt's fist, and he might have suffered far worse except the incident occurred on pit road during qualifying at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in front of about 30,000 fans.
But that was a long time ago, and now A.J. turned to Miller for support, as if to an ally: "You've been around this sport for a long time. You know he [Franchitti] can't do that."
"Yeah," replied Miller. "But, A.J., the kid drove a great race tonight."
A.J. started to move along just as IRL chairman Tony George rolled up on his Segway Human Transporter. George is 24 years younger than Foyt, but several inches taller, and since he was already almost a foot off the ground standing on his Segway, George literally towered over the four-time Indy 500 winner.
"What are you yelling about now, A.J.?" George asked in the singsong manner of an overextended third-grade teacher.
"It's your goddamn officials!" Foyt hollered.
George patiently rocked forward and back on his Segway, as A.J. looked up at him and began, all over again, to air his complaint, although not as angrily.
No cameras caught this outburst, no rule changes were considered, no penalties were incurred, no one had to be restrained. They'd all been through it before with A.J. They knew to listen and wait out the storm, and A.J. would eventually settle down.
In NASCAR, if Tony Stewart pitches a fit, folks start talking about anger-management classes. A.J. has been an erupting volcano for years. It is accepted as A.J.'s being A.J. If anything, it enhances his legend as a no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is, rawhide-rough Texan. Some people think A.J. was at the Alamo.
"The reason A.J. is able to get away with it is because he is the Babe Ruth of auto racing," said Bruce Martin, who covers the IRL as auto-racing editor of ESPN's SportsTicker on the Web and senior writer for National Speed Sport News. "Foyt set the standard. He has a Mt. Rushmore presence, and he was able to back it up by winning the biggest races he ever competed in."
That includes those four Indy 500 victories in a record 35 consecutive starts there, as well as the 1972
Daytona 500 driving the Wood Brothers Ford and a very famous 24-hour endurance race in faraway farmland in
France, where he and Dan Gurney co-drove the famous Ford GT40 Mk 4 to victory in 1967 at Le Mans. He also won
seven national championships in Indy-car racing. But that's not the half of it.
"Foyt was the guy who made Indy what it was," said Miller. "He made it fun. He made it important. He made it interesting. That's why it became such a big deal. You had Foyt and Bobby and Al Unser and Mario and that constant grinding of who's the best and always that tension. Can you get excited about anybody today like that? Hell, no!"
That would explain why, hours before the Richmond race, the line of fans in front of A.J.'s garage, hoping to get his John Henry, was 25 deep, while others—drivers, not owners, and nearly all of them doing better than the Fabulous Foyts—were coming and going unhindered. And Foyt's loyalty to the IRL is such that he signed those autographs, every last one, if not eagerly, then certainly with commendable courtesy.
Times have been tough for A.J. Foyt Racing since the team's most recent victory, which was in 2002 with Airton Daré behind the wheel. For the past two seasons, Anthony Foyt has been the team's sole driver, and more often than not he's run and finished near the back of the pack. Miller, for one, opined that young Anthony was in over his head. But A.J.'s soft-spoken grandson has demonstrated admirable persistence, and in the 2004 season's final race at Texas Motor Speedway, Anthony scored his first top-10 finish when he took the checkered flag in 10th, the last car on the lead lap.
The car still carried the Conseco logo as its primary sponsor, but the Indianapolis-based insurance company has gone through bankruptcy reorganization, and the team admittedly is underfinanced, with Foyt funneling some of his own cash into the operation. Foyt plans to return with Anthony for 2005, but Conseco will not. "We are currently looking for primary sponsorship, but A.J.'s team will race even if we don't have a primary sponsor," said Anne Fornoro, Foyt's longtime public-relations aide, in December.
A key difference between Foyt's operation and the leading IRL teams is that Foyt doesn't have a team engineer, ostensibly because Foyt doesn't believe in them. The way Foyt sees it, why the hell should somebody who doesn't drive a race car tell him how to set one up, when he knows perhaps better than anyone else how a good race car feels.
"We are definitely underfunded with the engineers," Anthony observed before the Richmond race. "Everybody has kind of taken it to the next level the past few years, and we are kind of on the same level that we were three or four years ago. I'm not saying we don't have good people—we have great mechanics. We just need more engineering-type people. My granddad is trying to carry the teams and do as much as he can out of his pocket to keep us going, but it really hasn't been enough so far."
Foyt Racing also fields a NASCAR entry, but the foothold there is far more tenuous. In fact, A.J. has no sponsorship and only two Chevrolets that he can race. His son Larry, 27, has driven in three races in 2004, including the Daytona 500, but has had to suspend racing operations until the team can come up with adequate sponsorship. The plans seem uncertain for 2005, except to continue looking for sponsorship. "I don't think my dad would still be trying to make this work if it weren't for me," said Larry. "I think he's trying to keep it going until I can find something."
We had hoped to discuss all of this with Foyt, but after a couple of months dancing around our request for an interview, he decided he didn't want to talk to Car and Driver.
Fornoro explained his position this way, "He doesn't like Car and Driver."
Is there a specific reason he doesn't like Car and Driver?
"There doesn't have to be one," Fornoro replied.
Foyt is probably like most folks and remembers the culprit long after the memory of the offense has vanished. And with the team doing as poorly as it is, what good would any publicity do? More to the point, he could not care less whether another magazine writes one more story about him. And he'd probably get asked why he doesn't hire a team engineer, which would not be a good question to ask him, Fornoro said.
Still, by all accounts, Foyt has mellowed.
"It's not even close," said Miller. "He's so mellow now compared with how he once was. He was at his most volatile when he was driving and working on engines."
Foyt told Martin in a 1999 interview: "I'm not what I used to be in the fighting department, but I'm not going to take a bunch of shit, either. I might get my ass whipped, but they won't get no cherries, the way I look at it. I'm always in a little bit of trouble."
More often than not, a Foyt outburst has been seen as colorful and dramatic rather than ugly and offensive, whether it was hauling himself out of his car and tearing off the engine cover to go to work on a balky powerplant or angrily tossing a laptop computer or calling his car a "tub of shit," as he informed 150,000 fans in 1987 over the public-address system at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
In 1982, Foyt was on the outside front row as the cars roared off at the start of the Indy 500. Kevin Cogan suddenly veered into Foyt, bounced off him, and was T-boned by Mario Andretti.
"A.J., how'd that start?" ABC pit reporter Chris Economaki asked during the ensuing red flag.
"Oh, I don't know, he run right square in my goddamn left front!" Foyt snarled on national television.
"Who are you talking about?"
In 1997, as Foyt and his driver, Billy Boat, celebrated Boat's victory at the inaugural IRL race at Texas Motor Speedway, two-time Indy 500 champ Arie Luyendyk crashed the party to complain that he'd been robbed of the victory. (An electronics problem apparently caused the speedway's system to miss scoring two of his laps, and Luyendyk had, in fact, won and felt A.J. must have known it.) A.J. backhanded Luyendyk and gave him a shove, and the Dutchman went tumbling over the potted tulips decorating victory lane. Foyt was fined for that one, but it was largely considered a hoot. Luyendyk was none to happy, but afterward, even he managed a quip: "If people didn't know me before then, they know me now."
Miller himself had felt the sting of a Foyt assault 16 years earlier at Indy. It was 1981, and he was covering motorsports for the Indianapolis Star. "It was the very first year anyone was using radar guns, and Roger Penske put a guy at the end of the backstretch with one," he said. "So after a couple of days, the word was out about how much faster Foyt was on the straightaways than everyone else." The inference was that Foyt must have been doing something illegal to have that edge.
In a routine "notebook" item, Miller included a single sentence about how Foyt's straightaway speeds had raised eyebrows up and down pit lane. Foyt saw it, or heard about. On the Friday afternoon before pole day, Miller recalled, "he walked up behind me, smacked me in the back of the head, jerked me around behind the scoring tower, and said he was going to kick my ass. The muscles in his neck were sticking out."
Miller protested, saying the item amounted to nothing. "Well, I'm tired of these guys sayin' I'm cheatin'!" roared A.J. before finally calming down. After Foyt walked away, a friend of Miller's on pit road, one of the thousands who'd witnessed the incident, asked if he were going to press charges. Hell, no, said Miller. But he was going to retaliate. He'd write about it—not the assault, but the allegations of cheating.
A few things about Foyt had been left in the closet too long, and it was time to let them out, Miller wrote in his Sunday column. "I wrote how his legacy had always been cloaked in rumor and innuendo about how many times he'd cheated," Miller recalled. "And, of course, he's always been the first one to tell you, 'If they don't catch you, you ain't cheatin'.'"
Foyt responded by suing Miller and the newspaper for libel and defamation of character. Said Miller: "The paper panicked, and we settled out of court. We had to pay his legal fees, and we ran a kind of retraction that basically my story was based on rumor and innuendo and that we had no facts to prove the allegations, which is basically what the story said to start with. It basically exonerated A.J. and made me feel like an idiot." A year or so later, when A.J. decided they ought to bury the hatchet, he told Miller, "Don't feel bad. I kicked Sports Illustrated's ass in court, too." As Miller recalled it, after Foyt won an Indy-car race in Southern California, SI published a second-hand quote that had Foyt saying something roughly along the lines of, "Now that I've kicked these long-hairs' asses, I'll go back down south and kick them hillbillies' asses in NASCAR." It sounded like him, but Foyt denied saying it, and more important, since the SI writer hadn't heard it first-hand, the magazine had to print a retraction.
Foyt has never made a secret of his disdain for the proliferation of foreign drivers in Indy-car racing, which is ironic when one considers that he's probably closer with Swedish native Kenny Brack than any of the other 15 drivers who have been in the seat of one of his IRL cars. Nationality was never an issue, the blond-haired driver said, "although I think he thought I was a surfer from California." Brack brought Foyt his greatest success since his own glory days. (Foyt retired in 1992 but unretired for the inaugural Brickyard 400 NASCAR race at Indy in '94, finishing 30th.) Brack won the IRL championship for Foyt in '98, the IRL's third year, and took him back to victory lane in the Indianapolis 500 in '99.
It was seatless Brack who approached Foyt in late 1997, hoping to get an interview and eventually a spot on his team. Brack was coming off two strong seasons in Formula 3000, but he saw more opportunity in oval racing. Brack had heard plenty about Foyt's sometimes gnarly demeanor. They met for the first time over breakfast at a Las Vegas hotel.
"I wasn't at all sure what it was going to be like with him," Brack said. "I knew about his reputation." At breakfast, Foyt sat down to a plate of pork chops and eggs. Brack had a cup of yogurt.
As Brack recalls, the conversation went something like this:
"What's that yer eatin'?"
"Yogurt? I ain't never heard o' that. I don't eat that crap. You shouldn't, either."
Brack thought to himself, "Well, this is not getting off on a good note." But they made a deal, and he had immediate success in his first year, with three victories in 1998, eight top-10 finishes in 11 races, and the series championship. It earned him a place in A.J.'s calloused old heart.
Before the 2000 season, when Brack decided his future would be in a series with more road racing, meaning a jump to CART, he flew to North Carolina and tracked down A.J. at his NASCAR shop to inform him in person. "I got along good with him," said Brack, who now drives for Bobby Rahal but is recovering from serious leg injuries suffered in a crash during the final race of the 2003 season at Texas.
"We really only had one rough encounter. That was in Texas in 1998 when I felt I could have won the race. I took the lead on the last restart but finished third, and I didn't feel like my engine was strong enough and I told him and he disagreed. So I guess my wife went in there between us and moderated a little bit. We had a few harsh words, but he never really had any harsh words for me on the radio, either. He would sometimes say we really fucked up a pit stop or talk about this 'piece of shit' in regard to a car or an engine, but it was never directed at me."
It has been a different story for Anthony as well as A.J.'s adopted son, Larry (who is the son of A.J.'s daughter but was adopted and raised by A.J. and Lucy, his wife of 49 years). Larry, who turns 28 on February 22, is eight years older than Anthony, but they grew up more as brothers than cousins, both yearning to race from an early age. Larry has been on the receiving end of more than one eye-bulging dressing down from A.J. Getting an A.J. blistering at the end of the race is one thing, Larry said, "but the hard part is when he does it during the race. You just want to turn off the radio, you know, because you're two wide or three wide and going into a corner and he's screaming at you. But you don't take it personally because that's just the way he is."
Larry pauses for a moment, then adds, "I think it kills him so much that he's not out there doing it himself. I know in his heart he still believes, right now, that he can go out and whip everybody's butt out there."
Rutherford, who has spent most of the weekends of his life at the same tracks as A.J., said Anthony will fight back. "I've seen them get into real heated arguments," Rutherford said. "But it's sometimes a means to an end. What they're yelling at each other about is something about the car, and they're working the thing out by expressing their feelings, and sometimes you do get to that end."
Rutherford has an easy rapport with both men. "Sometimes I'll talk to Anthony and give him some ammo to go talk to A.J. with. And A.J. and I have sat and talked many, many times about Anthony. A.J. is totally devoted to doing as best he can for his grandson."
It's clearly a tough-love approach.
As a father, A.J. was "very strict," said Larry. "When he was home, you were good. You could get away with more when he was out of town, but when he was home, you would mind your Ps and Qs. We always had big family Christmases, and I always got something super-cool, like a go-kart or motorcycle. I never felt any different from any other kid, but I always had cool stuff for show and tell. I'd bring in a trophy or bring in autographed pictures for all the kids. I was very proud. I guess I bragged on him a lot as a kid. But I didn't realize how much he had accomplished until I started racing and discovered how difficult it is to win."
Larry had always dreamed of racing in the Indy 500, although A.J. insisted he focus on NASCAR. But this past May, A.J. prepared a second car for Larry, who made the race. Although Anthony finished last and Larry second to last, "I really did have a blast running at Indy," Larry said. "I really felt at home there."