Perhaps no driver is more closely associated with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway than Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. In an IMS career spanning more than half a century, Foyt was the ‘500’s’ first four-time winning driver, and he added a fifth Indy victory as a car owner. As he often likes to say, Indianapolis is what made A.J.
Foyt started a record 35 consecutive Indianapolis 500s from 1958-1992, adding to his four wins a pair of seconds, a trio of thirds, and eight other top ten finishes. Foyt also claimed pole position four times and is the Indianapolis career leader for races led and laps completed.
Foyt was a champion midget racer when he arrived at Indy as a rookie in 1958 for an inauspicious debut in the Dean Van Lines Special that saw him spin out after 148 laps to finish 16th. He improved to 10th place in 1959 but could only manage 90 laps before dropping out with a broken clutch in 1960, the year he won his first USAC National Championship.
The 1961 Indianapolis 500 boiled down to a battle between Foyt and fan favorite Eddie Sachs. Foyt gave up the lead to make what he thought would be his final pit stop on Lap 161. Unbeknownst to him the fueling rig had malfunctioned, and with the car carrying less fuel and therefore lighter than he realized, Foyt was surprised when he caught and passed Sachs for the lead on the 170th tour.
Sachs pushed hard to keep up with Foyt, and while he had enough fuel to make the finish, his tires began to wear. Meanwhile, Foyt was called into the pits for fuel on Lap 184. The stop only took eight seconds, but it gave Sachs a seemingly insurmountable 25-second lead.
Foyt closed to within a straightaway of his rival. But the torrid pace had worn Sachs right rear tire to the cord and he dived into the pits with just three laps to go, leaving Foyt to win by 8.28 seconds - the second closest finish in Indianapolis history at the time.
“I didn’t think I was going to catch him,” Foyt recalled. “He was a smart race car driver but he ran so hard he wore his tires out trying to keep up. When you make a bad mistake like we did with the fueling rig, they don’t normally return to you.”
Foyt finished third behind Parnelli Jones and Jim Clark in 1963, then scored his second Indianapolis victory a year later. Rear-engine racecar technology was coming into widespread use at the ‘500’ and Foyt’s 1964 win was the last for a front-engine ‘roadster.’ In the most dominant of his four Indy triumphs, A.J. led the final 146 tours to complete the 200 laps almost a minute and a half ahead of Rodger Ward. Foyt is the only man to have won the Indianapolis 500 in front- and rear-engine cars.
A.J. earned the first of his four Indy pole positions in 1965 but had to wait until 1967 for his next win. Jones dominated the ’67 race in the STP Turbine car, but when the radical machine broke with four laps to go, Foyt was there to capitalize. He had to weave his way through a multi-car accident on the last lap to clinch the victory. The 1967 win made Foyt only the third three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, and it was his first as a driver/team owner. Foyt’s tenure as an Indy car team owner continues to this day.
A drought of tough finishes at IMS was broken by a third place result in 1971, though Foyt was almost always competitive.
“In ‘69, I sat on the pole and ran away from everybody,” he said. “The manifold had a little crack but I still came back and finished eighth. That's how strong I was.”
By the mid-70s, Foyt was building his own Coyote cars and had taken over development of the four-cam Ford engine program. The Coyote/Foyt-Ford took pole position at Indy in 1974 and ’75; Foyt claimed he “had the field covered” but finished third in ’75 and second in ’76, both races rain-shortened.
The elusive and historic fourth win finally came in 1977. Gordon Johncock led a race-high 129 laps but Foyt overcame a 32 second deficit that stemmed from when he ran out of fuel earlier in the race. Johncock resumed the lead on Lap 183 and thought he “had it in the bag,” but just two laps later, his engine blew up in a cloud of smoke and Gordy coasted to a stop in Turn 1.
Foyt reeled off the final 15 circuits and in a one-off surprise, was joined by Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman for a victory lap after the race. Hulman died later that year.
“We built the car we won Indy with in '67 and in ‘77 we won with both a car and an engine we’d built ourselves,” Foyt recalled. “I’m the only man who’s ever won Indy by building his own car and his own motor and then driving the thing himself. I doubt anybody will ever do that again.”
Following a second place finish in 1979, Foyt’s best result at Indianapolis was fifth in 1989. He suffered severe foot and leg injuries in a racing crash at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin in September, 1990, but returned to qualify on the front row for the 1991 Indy 500.
Foyt made a sudden and unexpected decision to retire from driving to focus on team ownership on Indianapolis’ Pole Day 1993.
“I couldn’t drive and be the car owner that a young driver needs,” Foyt said. “So I came back to the garage and told my team that I was going to quit and I did.
“When I won Indy the first time back in ‘61, I had a chance to meet Ray Harroun,” A.J. added. “I asked him when he knew when to quit. He said, ‘It’ll come to you - you’ll just know.’ And he was right.”
Foyt’s most recent moment of Indianapolis glory came in 1999, when his car driven by Kenny Brack won the race. “Kenny is one of the best drivers I had,” Foyt noted. “I had a lot of respect for him. Winning Indy with him would have to be my greatest accomplishment as a team owner because he was such a cool cat and such a great guy on top of that.”
As a team owner, Foyt was never afraid to take a chance on unproven drivers. He ran a car for Donnie Allison at Indianapolis in 1970, and Allison’s fourth place finish remains the best for a NASCAR regular in the Indy 500.
In 1976, when female racer Janet Guthrie was struggling to find speed in her own car, Foyt let her take some practice laps in his spare Coyote to let her show that she was talented enough to make the field, even if her car was not. He gave a ride to future NASCAR star Tim Richmond in 1980.
As a driver, Foyt notched up numerous achievements outside of Indianapolis, though he remains best known for his four Indy wins and record seven USAC-sanctioned Indy car National Championships. A.J. teamed with Dan Gurney to win the 1967 Le Mans 24 Hours; his other notable sports car successes include a pair of wins in the Daytona 24 Hours and one triumph in the 12 Hours of Sebring. He also claimed seven NASCAR Cup Series wins, including the 1972 Daytona 500, plus 41 USAC stock car race wins and three series championships.
The man known as ‘Super Tex’ has a famously short fuse and could intimidate other competitors with the best of them. But whatever kind of circuit - dirt oval to superspeedway to European road course - he was always regarded on the track as absolutely clean and fair as a driver.
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