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Sharing 'Super Tex' Stories on a Special 80th Birthday

Anthony Joseph “A.J.” Foyt, the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 and the only driver to win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Daytona and Le Mans, turns 80 today. We asked a few veteran motorsports journalists and broadcasters to share tributes and stories about the man universally known as “Super Tex.”

Still larger than life
By Jeff Olson, USA Today and RACER magazine

I’ve never told A.J. Foyt this, but my dad thought he was cool. And, in some small way, that fact played a role in where I’m at and what I do today. So, in a roundabout way, it’s A.J. Foyt’s fault that I ask A.J. Foyt stupid questions.

My dad loved the Indianapolis 500 but never saw it in person. He also loved A.J. Foyt but never met him. Our annual Memorial Day trips to the family farm always included some time sitting in a car listening to a crackling AM radio broadcast of the race, checking on A.J. If it sounded promising, we’d listen longer. If it sounded like a win was in store, we’d listen to the end.

When you’re a kid growing up in the ‘60s and your dad thinks A.J. Foyt is Paul Bunyan and you can’t see the race – you can only hear it on a car radio – you begin to believe the man really does have a blue ox. When I was 8, A.J. Foyt was 40 feet tall and carried his race car to the track. It was only later that I discovered the legend was much more real than I could have imagined.

A.J. can be a profound interview. He can be funny, clever, coy and cantankerous, often all at once. He has stories that will curl your hair. He also has stories that will make you laugh out loud. Once, when a certain successful driver of the modern era drove past him in the paddock in a shiny SUV at Pikes Peak International Raceway, A.J. interrupted an interview to point out the glaring lack of manhood of modern racers. The interview ended because the interviewer couldn’t stop laughing.

He grudgingly deals with sportswriters, but it’s not his favorite duty. Can’t say I blame him. Even yammering, know-it-all sportswriters would rather be anywhere than in the company of yammering, know-it-all sportswriters. We tread lightly around him, treat him like a legend, and laugh at his jokes. In return, he tells us things nobody else does. When finished, we tell ourselves we can’t believe we just interviewed A.J. Foyt, no matter how many times we’ve done it.

A few months ago, while working on a story about his team, I arranged a phone interview through Anne Fornoro, A.J.’s longtime publicist. I was told to call his cell phone at a certain day and time. I did, only to hear his voicemail message saying “maybe” he’d call me back. I told Anne that I’d called. She told me to try again until he answered. Gulp.

After the third unsuccessful try, my caller ID lit up with “A.J. Foyt.” I answered. “Who is this?” he growled at the fool who’d just called his phone three times, so I told him. He mellowed immediately, remembered he had an interview scheduled, and proceeded to tell some great stories about yet another surgery, this one to replace a hip. “Hell, I’m getting old,” he said.    

He’s about to turn 80, yet he remains larger than life. He’s still the guy who won Indy, Daytona and Le Mans, but he’s also the guy who beat the crap out of computers, hammered on his own race cars, been attacked by killer bees, tipped over bulldozers and lived to tell about it, survived too many crashes and surgeries to count, won more races than he can remember and is one of the greatest we’ve seen. Or heard.

If I have one regret, it’s that my dad didn’t live long enough to see where life took me. He finally would’ve seen the Indy 500 and met his hero. Now that would’ve been a story.

***

A long memory
By Dave Kallmann, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

In the mid-’90s at Indy I was hoping to get a couple of comments from A.J. on a story, the topic of which has long escaped me. I asked Anne Fornoro if she could get me five or 10 minutes. Later that day, or maybe the next, she told me she could make it work and then related how the conversation went down. 

She had asked A.J. if he had a few minutes to talk to a reporter from Milwaukee. (I’m not sure if this was in my pre-merger Sentinel days or after the creation of the Journal Sentinel.) He asked, “Is it that guy I don’t like?” She explained to him that no, that was probably someone else, and told me she didn’t know any more of the story.

I assumed, correctly, that he must have been referring to Roger Jaynes, who was at The Journal into the late ’80s before taking off on some other projects, including public relations at Road America. Anyway, a few years, Roger was retiring from his second career, and he and I got together for a couple of hours to talk, mostly about racing. I told him what Anne had told me. Sure enough, that was him.

A.J. had dominated in USAC in 1979, winning five of the seven races (including one of two at Milwaukee), finishing second at Indy and dropping out once (second Milwaukee). Apparently Roger had written something about the level of the competition Foyt faced during the post-CART/USAC split, without Bobby Unser and Johnny Rutherford and the like. A.J. took it as a slam at his team. He may not have remembered the details 15 years later, but he sure didn’t forget the grudge. 

And then there's this fabulous anecdote from John Andretti from a 2011 story:

“I do remember one time ... he came in the garage and he was really walking gingerly," said John Andretti, a godson who has driven for Foyt. “I said, ‘What happened, A.J.? Your feet really hurting you?’ And he goes, ‘Nah, they pulled my toenails this morning.’ I guess they pulled them out to try to regrow them straight.

“It didn't seem like five minutes later he was standing half-naked in front of me showing me all his scars. ... ‘This one I got in Daytona, and this I got over here ... and this one down here.’ ... He looks like Frankenstein, by the way. He’s carved all over the place, and it's not to pull out his appendix.”
 
***

“An easy interview”
By Dave Calabro, WTHR.com, IMS public address system

I first interviewed A.J. in 1985. I was the rookie announcer on the Indy 500 public address. Tom Carnegie told me that Foyt was an easy interview! I walked I the garage, AJ stared me down and wanted to know what the hell I wanted. He told me he would do the interview, if I didn’t ask any BS questions. Thirty years later, I cherish the time I get to spend with the legend.

When A.J. qualified for the inaugural Brickyard 400, I interviewed A.J. on the IMS PA. I said “A.J., I hear your wife isn’t too happy about you getting in a stock car?” He responded, “she doesn't like it – but my girlfriend sure thinks it’s cool!”

The fans in the stands went nuts over that!

***

Finding the vintage Foyt
By Mike Harris, Associated Press (retired)

For more than 30 years, one of my favorite assignments as auto racing editor for The Associated Press was covering the 24-hour sports car race in Daytona.

It was a chance to get out of the northern cold (I lived in New Jersey for much of that time) and, better yet, it was a chance to renew acquaintances and enjoy some low-pressure fun with racing friends that I hadn't seen in months.

In 1983, my fourth year covering what became known as the Rolex 24, I arrived several days before the start of the twice-around-the-clock race to find a longtime acquaintance, A.J. Foyt, walking the pit lane. He told me that Bill France Sr. had personally asked him, several times, to come down and take part in the season-opening race.

Foyt’s dad, Tony, who was dying of cancer in a Houston hospital, had insisted A.J. go down to the beach and “have some fun.”

It was almost a very short race week for Foyt, who was supposed to share an Aston Martin Nimrod with NASCAR star Darrell Waltrip. The race began on Saturday and Foyt never even made it into the cockpit before the car was out of the race with a blown engine.

He was getting ready to head for the airport when Preston Henn, who owned a Porsche 935 entered in the race, sought Foyt out and asked if he’d like to be part of his team that weekend. Henn, who owned a flea market in Fort Lauderdale, was apparently very persuasive, talking Foyt into taking the ride, even though he had never driven a Porsche.

To prepare for the ride, Foyt, who was no novice in sports cars, having won the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans with Dan Gurney, spent a few minutes sitting in a 935 that had already fallen out of the race. One of the questions he asked crew chief Kevin Jeannette just before getting into Henn’s car for the first time was “What’s the shift pattern on these things?”

It’s no wonder that veteran sports car racer and endurance racing specialist Bob Wollek was incensed when he found out Foyt was in the car. I had trailed Foyt to pit lane and watched as he was buckled into the car and zoomed away into the rainy night holding a narrow lead on the pack.

Wollek showed up as the car drove away. He swore loudly and spiked his helmet on the ground as Henn tried to keep him calm.

“That old has-been is going to lose us this race,” Wollek declared.

Foyt, who was about to turn 48 and had left his best years of racing well behind him at that point, apparently found a bit of Fountain of Youth elixir that night. He not only kept the lead car out front, but drove the fastest laps of the race and extended the lead before turning the driving chores over to Wollek and teammates Claude Ballot-Lena and Henn.

They went on to win that race and Foyt's love of sports car racing was rekindled. He continued to race at Daytona for the next five years, winning again in 1985. Wollek, who became a close friend of Foyt’s, was again part of that winning team and the two of them also combined to win the 12 Hours of Sebring that year.

I didn't cover my first Indy 500 until 1970, so I really missed out on watching Foyt at his very best in open-wheel racing. But on that rainy night in Daytona Beach, I finally got to see vintage “Super Tex,” the towering talent that was among the best racers of all time.

***

Magic at Milwaukee
By Robin Miller, RACER and NBCSN

Long before I got to meet, know, write about, argue and laugh with him, I got to watch A.J. work his magic in a race car. It was August of 1965 at Milwaukee and with his rear-engine Coyote out of commission, Foyt rolled his dirt car off the trailer, bolted on some pavement tires and beat Dan Gurney and his Lotus to win the pole position. To this day it’s still one of the loudest ovations I’ve ever heard at a racetrack and Foyt gave them plenty to shout about in the race as he led and muscled his dirt car around to finish second behind Gordon Johncock’s rear-engine car. People that saw A.J. at the end of his career have no clue how talented he was but on that day he was truly “Super Tex.”

***

Passing a test
By Dick Mittman, Indianapolis Star, Indianapolis Times, Indianapolis News (retired)

It was some 40 years after A.J. Foyt had won his first Indy 500, yet not only was A.J. now solely a car owner, still at the track in May, but several members of his earlier crew were still involved, too. I thought it would make a good weekday feature story so I went to his garages on the front corner next to Gasoline Alley.

A.J. was holding court in his hospitality area with a couple of photographers and another person or two. 

When he saw me, he exclaimed, “What do you want?” I told him about my story idea and he said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

He promptly turned his back on me and resumed his conversation with the photographers. I plopped down on a nearby chair. After a while his p.r. rep Anne Fornoro came by and asked whether I had gotten my interview. I replied, “No, but I will.”

So A.J. continued his conversation with the photographers for another 10 or 15 minutes, still with his back toward me, never even giving me a glance. Just as the photo guys were departing some of Foyt’s Houston friends came by. They were about to depart for the airport and a flight back home.

Still all I saw was A.J.’s back.

Finally, they headed out the garage door. Then there were only A.J. and me.

He turned around, sighed and said, “O.K., what do you want?”

And I got my interview.

A.J. liked to test the media – and others too – to see whether they were wimps.

During that same period I also covered Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight, who had the same temperament. I even brought them together a couple of times. As a writer you couldn’t have asked to cover two greater sports personalities.

They were the best because winning was the only thing they demanded.

And getting that interview that day was “winning” for me.

***

He did it his way
By John Oreovicz, ESPN.com

Eleven men walk the earth who competed in the Indianapolis 500 driving a front-engine “roadster.” By itself, that’s enough reason to congratulate A.J. Foyt on reaching his 80th birthday. 

A.J. is, of course, the most renowned and successful driver in that exclusive group. But Foyt is just as famous for cheating death as he is for the colorful life he lives. The Riverside stock car crash…big Indy car wrecks at Michigan and Elkhart Lake. Not to mention bulldozers and killer bees… 

In the 1960s and ‘70s -- what I consider Indy car racing’s golden era -- Foyt was The Man, the undisputed standard setter for every hotshot rookie to hit the scene, from Mario Andretti to Rick Mears. The winning slowed down in the ‘80s, yet he remained a towering presence in the sport. As he is to this day. 

Foyt did it all, he did it well, and most importantly, he did it his way. He’s most famous for his success in Indy cars, but he was just as good in a NASCAR stocker or a Porsche prototype. 

His record speaks for itself, but the impact his larger-than-life personality has left on the sport is even greater. Most Indy car fans remember not only the famous victories, but the classic “A.J. moments” – jumping out of his car mid-race to take a hammer to a balky gearbox, stomping and smashing a laptop computer, or dropping the occasional expletive in television interviews. That’s just A.J. 

I was at the Speedway the day in 1993 when he suddenly decided the time was right to retire. Totally impromptu, he ran a couple ceremonial laps in his No. 14 Lola-Ford/Cosworth and basked in the adoration of the IMS Pole Day crowd one last time. Back then, people often said that A.J. should have quit years earlier. But on that sunny May morning, everyone wished he could keep running forever. 

So happy birthday, Super Tex. Next time I see you at Charlie Brown’s, breakfast is on me.

***

Hero, friend, Grand Champion
By Paul Page, IMS Radio Network

It’s hard to think of A.J. as 80. That may the date on his birth certificate but that’s all. He’s still a kid. Actually, A.J. Is many things. He’s the crew-cut guy driving a roadster and scaring young reporters like me. He won his fourth “500” on my first IMS Radio broadcast. He’s given great entertainment and frightened me, sometimes at the same time. The extrication from his car at Elkhart Lake seemed endless. A few days later he was picking his scabs in his hospital room and laughing with me. He has teased and dared officials. Refusing to get rid of his black leather driving gloves is an example. He would drive by the Stewards waving and laughing. He has yelled at his team, the media, and other drivers. Then there was that Coogun Kid (Kevin Cogan) on national TV. You don’t cross swords with him unless you are prepared to have your butt whipped. But I saw him sad on his ranch when a horse died. And I’ve seen him happy either setting another record or sitting with friends and a glass of Crown.
  
Look in those eyes. They sparkle like a kid thinking up trouble. That’s A.J. for me. A hero and friend at the same time. A man who loves his family and friends.

He won at Indy four times, at Le Mans, Sebring, Daytona, and an endless list of bull rings. Tough and hard but with a soft side he doesn’t want talked about. I call him the Grand Champion, because he is.

***

An exclusive ‘Super Tex’ moment
By Dr. Jerry Punch, ESPN/ABC

One of my favorites was my very first ever MRN Radio broadcast at the Daytona 500 in 1980, I was asked to be the garage reporter, which is the entry level lowest rung on the reporter ladder. My job was to try to interview anyone who fell out of the race and came into the garage area. The pit reporters would get anyone who stopped and got out on pit road, the only problem was that I had no portable radio equipment. All I had was a single 4-foot-long microphone cable sticking out of the wall over by the inspection scales. I found a garbage can near where the cable protruded and found a piece of broken plywood to put over the top of the garbage can to use as a makeshift seat (so I wouldn’t have to stand and lean against the wall all day). If anyone fell out of the race, I would have to walk to the back of the garage and ask them to follow me all the way back to the scales area and sit on my garbage can seat for my interview. Seemed rather hopeless that many of these angry drivers would even consider, but it was what I was asked to do.

Well, as fate would have it, the very first driver to have a problem was the legendary A.J. Foyt. I remember watching as Foyt’s Gilmore orange-colored car coasted right by me in the garage with a plume of smoke trailing behind. He had blown the engine in the early laps and was rolling back to where his hauler was in the very back of the garage. Just after his car rolled by, the MRN broadcast went to commercial, which was my chance to open my microphone and tell the anchor (Barney Hall) that I was going over to get A.J. Foyt for an interview. There was this silence from the MRN anchors and then a snicker and an “OK, whatever” type response. I was so excited as I walked around two different garage buildings to the very back of the garage, where A.J. had rolled his car right up to the ramp behind his large hauler.

At the base of the ramp was a whole mass of writers, photographers and other media, and standing about a foot up on the ramp was Chris Economaki with his CBS Sports blazer on and his microphone in hand. Chris, who was one of my heroes as an announcer, was trying to get A.J.’s attention, but A.J. was up inside the hauler about 15 feet away, just fuming and fussing to car owner Jim Gilmore. As I approached this group, I politely asked each one to excuse me as I weaved through the layers of media then got to the ramp. There, I was stunned to see Chris waiting at the bottom of the hauler ramp, intermittently screaming “A.J., A.J., need to speak with you A.J.” – but Foyt was not even acknowledging he existed.

Then, without really thinking, I walked up the ramp into the hauler, and stopped about two feet behind A.J. He turned and saw me standing right behind him, and just stopped talking all of a sudden, then he whipped around and shouted “Doc, what are you doing here?” (You see, I was the doctor who did his complete physical for his NASCAR license just a few days before; and had shared with him how much of a fan of his I had been my whole life. We had a great conversation about his career and medical related injuries, all during the exam.) Now I said to him that I was so sorry he had fallen out of the race so early, but I was really there as a radio reporter to do an interview for MRN. Then he cocked his head to one side and said “now wait a moment, you say you’re a reporter; but aren’t you the one who did my physical, I mean my complete physical?” I smiled and said, “yes, I am a reporter, but I just did the physical because I wanted to get to know you better,” then I paused and said, “I am kidding, I am a real medical doctor and am just filling in today on the radio.”

He looked at me and just smiled and then laughed out loud. He said, “OK Doc, let’s do your report, where’s your radio gear?” I told him that I didn’t have any gear and that my only microphone was sticking out of the wall on the other side of the garage, and that I would need him to walk all the way back out to the scales. He looked at me and then glanced down to the back of his hauler ramp where Chris and all the other mass media were waiting and said “OK Doc, I’ll be over there to talk with you in just a few minutes.” I told him thanks, and turned and walked down the ramp and back across the garage.

As I approached my microphone it just so happens that the MRN broadcast was in commercial again, so I clicked on and told them that I had just gone over to speak with A.J., and that he said he would be right over to talk. This time, there was a lot of laughter from the other announcers who believed that I was so naive and inexperienced that I actually believed what I was told. Well, after the commercial was over, the MRN broadcast resumed, then just a few minutes later, I heard this loud commotion back in the garage, and suddenly here was A.J. marching toward me with a whole mass of media in tow. Alongside of him was still Chris Economaki, waving his CBS mike and trying to get A.J. to stop and talk. A.J. had apparently not spoken with anyone at all. He walked right up to me and said, “OK, Doc, I’m here let’s do this.” I offered him my garbage can seat but he declined, then I put a headset on him and me. I clicked my microphone on and interrupted the guys who were calling the race with an “excuse me guys, but I am here in the garage with ‘Super Tex’ A.J. Foyt.” You could hear a pin drop on the MRN show – no one was laughing now! I did about a three- or four-question interview with him that lasted probably 90 seconds to 2 minutes. He was incredible and so gracious with his answers, so open and honest and very emotional about how difficult it was to work so hard to get here and then last only a few laps, etc.

Following the interview, I thanked him and he smiled and headed out of the garage. I didn’t know until the next day that I was the only live interview he had done before leaving the track. In fact, the majority of my interview with him was quoted in that following week’s Sports Illustrated magazine. Wow, here I was in my very first radio broadcast, getting a chance to interview my hero, and had it all chronicled in Sports Illustrated – it just couldn’t get any better than that.

After that day, it was sealed. He was not only my hero as a driver, but a true man of his word. A few years later, my first son was born and I named him A.J., after my hero! Over the decades that have passed, we have become such great friends. He has overcome the odds so many times in his life to win races, and most recently he has shown his Texan toughness to overcome some medical conditions that probably would have killed a lesser man. He may be the toughest and yet most tender racer I have ever known. I always believed the Dale Earnhardt had a little Foyt in him, and I feel the same way about Tony Stewart – wouldn’t give you an inch on the track, but off of it, they would give you the shirt off their back if they could help you. Special men who have reminded me of the most amazing man to ever climb into a cockpit, A.J. Foyt.


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