10 Reasons Why A.J. Foyt Is Still America’s Toughest S.O.B.

An exclusive interview with “Super Tex.”

Fred Enke/The Enthusiast Network/Getty Images

On a recent morning, I pulled a Kia rental off Highway 290 into the town of Waller, Texas, onto A.J. Foyt Parkway. Waller is one of those rural Texas towns that look rusted all over, like a Cormac McCarthy novel took place here. Behind a barbed wire fence, across from a middle school, sits AJ Foyt Racing, the shop of the current IndyCar team, owned by A.J. himself.

There are no Foyt Racing signs anywhere. The old man doesn’t like reporters. “The less attention I get, the better,” Foyt says to me. Just by showing up, I’m trying my luck.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, A.J. Foyt was arguably America’s most famous athlete. He won just about every kind of race you can—the Indy 500 four times, back when Indy was as big as the Super Bowl; seven Indy car championships (as a driver, more as a team owner); the Daytona 500; the 24 Hours of Le Mans; and innumerable races in small towns where the pavement ends at a quarter mile dirt oval. Along the way, he fought cops, was nearly burned alive, and was once pronounced dead in a racecar. Banned from Nascar, caught on live TV “bitch slapping” (his words) another driver—the list goes on.  

Today, he’s as dented up as an 80-year old man can be while still flashing a devil-may-care smile. As my luck would have it, he was in the mood for talking. I turned on the tape recorder, and he turned on the faucet, the stories pouring out for hours. Here’s 10 reasons why A.J. Foyt is still America’s toughest SOB.

1. He earned every penny, all on his own

There’s a saying in racing: To make a small fortune, you have to start with a big one. But Foyt started with relatively little. He was born in Houston in the thick of the Depression. “My daddy was in the automobile business,” he says. “He ran a shop of his own. I was young and always worked in there with him. Even then, my dream was the Indy 500. I listened to it on the radio every year.” Foyt nearly finished high school. “I felt that if I was working on cars in the winter time, maybe I could be a better race driver. Then I got my own midget and went on the Midwest circuit.”

In those days, drivers would wage war on dirt tracks, then afterwards, the pit crews would fight behind the grandstands. Town to town, sleeping in cars. When Foyt was 23, he impressed the right people and got a shot at his dream, Indy qualifying.

2. He is fearless

Unlike today, dozens of drivers (50, maybe 75) would show up to gun for a spot on the 33-car Indy grid. Nearly every year, someone would die in the pursuit. In 1958—A.J. Foyt’s rookie year—Don Edmunds of Anaheim, California hit a wall at 138 mph in qualifying. The Los Angeles Times recap: “Edmunds was removed from the badly damaged car and rushed to a hospital. His condition was described as fair.” Further down in the story: “A.J. Foyt Jr. of Houston, Tex., who passed his driver’s test only yesterday, turned a lap at 142 mph.”

Indy had an indescribable aura then. “Just getting there and making the race, that was my dream come true,” Foyt says.

On the first lap, a spectacular pileup sent cars tomahawking down pavement. Fan favorite Pat O’Connor was killed. Foyt didn’t finish the race, but he was back in 1959. Two drivers were killed at Indy that year. In 1960, two spectators were killed. The following year—1961—another driver was killed, and A.J. Foyt won the Indy 500 for the first time. He took the checkered in record speed, and collected a record paycheck too—$117,975. “That was a million bucks back then,” he recalls. “I ate at the White Castle afterwards. Eight-cent hamburgers.”

3. He is unkillable

Powering at about 150 mph in a stock car at Riverside in California on January 17, Foyt lost his brakes. He steered into the infield and all hell broke loose, the car tumbling end over end. “They got one picture of the car probably 35 feet in the air,” Foyt says. “They pronounced me dead out there. Parnelli Jones [another Indy 500 legend], he seen me move in the car. My mouth was wide open and packed with mud. He stuck his finger in there [and Foyt started breathing]. I broke my back. It was right after my 30th birthday. That was a hell of a birthday present.”

4. He is impervious to fire

In 1966, Foyt was on fire. Literally. On June 4, the driver—now a two-time Indy 500 winner—sat in what was left of a Lotus-Ford racecar after high-speed contact with a wall in Milwaukee, flames engulfing him. Fuel had spewed all over the machine, and at any second, Foyt believed, the wreck was going to explode. In order to yank himself out, he had to place his hands directly into the fire. Unlike other racers with their fire retardant gloves, he wore golf gloves when he competed, signature Ben Hogans. “I knew I had to get out or just fry,” he said back in 1966. “I gritted my teeth and put my hands into the burning fuel to raise myself out.”

He remembers getting home after the hospital stay, with second and third degree burns all over his hands, feet, and face. “My head and hands were all bandaged and my kids started screaming and running because they thought I was a mummy,” he told me. “I’ll tell ya. You can break bones and you can do a lot of stuff, but I don’t think there’s nothing no worse than burns. Peeling the skin off and scrubbing it with iodine and all that. Man, it hurt. But I come out pretty good.”

Three weeks later, Foyt was in a Lotus-Ford again, at speed at the Atlanta 300. Those old open-wheel cars wrapped the driver in fuel tanks, without the fire resistant technology common today. “When you crash, you’re on fire,” says Foyt. “It was like being in a bomb.”

5. He beat the Europeans—in Europe

On June 11, 1967, in front of 310,000 fans and millions more watching on TV, Foyt and teammate Dan Gurney won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France—the world’s most grueling endurance auto race—during the absolute pinnacle of that event’s fame. It was the first time an American manufacturer (Ford Motor Company) won Le Mans with exclusively American drivers. Foyt became the first rookie to win Le Mans, and the first man to win the Indy 500 and Le Mans in the same year (the two races were two weeks apart; Foyt’s third Indy 500 win). Never, Super Tex would remember to this day, had he ever driven anything as fast on a racetrack as that Ford GT40 Mk IV at Le Mans.

“We was running close to 250 mph down the Mulsanne Straight,” he says. “I mean, we were fast.” He was criticized for taking the race lightly, after saying to a reporter: “Why, hell-fire, Lee Mans? Listen here. It ain’t nothing but a little old country road. We got a lot just like it back in Texas.”

6. He’s a hell of a fighter

As anyone in racing will advise you: Never get in a fight with A.J. Foyt. Even if you win, you’ll lose. Foyt’s truculence first made headlines soon after his first Indy 500 win. Promoters were supposed to pay Indy winners a fee to appear at a race, but one promoter “was cheap,” as Foyt recalls. “I cussed him and they fined my ass a thousand bucks. That was a lot of money back then [1962].” Years later, Foyt was banned from Nascar for six months and fined $7,500 following an enraged on-track incident in which he was black flagged three times and nearly ran down track officials. (The ban was lifted eight days later.)

But his most famous incident came on June 9, 1997. As a team owner now, at Texas Motor Speedway, Foyt won the True Value 500. Or at least he thought he did. He was in victory circle collecting his trophy when Arie Luyendyk, another Indy 500 winner, entered. “When he first came in, I thought he was going to congratulate us,” Foyt says. Luyendyk was claiming, however, that there’d been a scoring error, and he had won the race. “He came in there and he’s throwing a fit, like a damn nut. I just wanted to slap him upside his head. So I did. I throwed him down. And a trooper jumped on my back, so I throwed him down. I didn’t know he was a policeman!”

Track stewards decided that Luyendyk did in fact win the race, but Foyt refused to give up the trophy. It’s still sitting in his race shop; I saw it with my own eyes. As for Luyenkyk? Says Foyt: “I never liked the guy.”

7. He’s all busted up

During his career, Foyt suffered one severe injury after the next, and kept on returning to his car, long after colleagues said he shouldn’t. Once he told Sports Illustrated, “Listen, I been in crashes, bad crashes. I’ve been busted up and burned and twisted all around, and somehow, I can take it. I can handle the pain.”

At the 1981 Michigan 500, Foyt hit a wall; he required two hours of surgery to piece on arm back together. He was back in the car the next season. Another example: Foyt was gunning at Road America on September 23, 1990, in an Indy car. He was 55 years old by this time. On lap 24 of the Texaco-Havoline 200, he went off and shattered a leg.

“They were talking about cutting my leg off,” Foyt recalls. “I worked real hard to get back. They all said, There’s no way I’ll race again. I was determined to prove the media wrong. I said, I’ll be back. They all said that if I did, I’d be back in a wheel chair. I said, I’m gonna walk to my racecar. And I did.”

Less than a year after the crash, Foyt walked to his car at the 1991 Indy 500, and qualified second. Today, he calls this moment “one of the highlights of my career.” He retired from driving two years later.

8. Cops are scared of him

Even highway patrolmen bow down before Foyt. When you walk into his race shop, among the dizzying myriad of memorabilia (a Green Bay Packers helmet signed by Bart Starr, the last Indy car Foyt drove, etc.), there’s a Ford GT (probably a 2005) with very few miles on it. Foyt told me he once got pulled over doing 165 mph in this car. The cop didn’t give him a ticket. Another incident, he recalls, he was late for a race at Pocono in Pennsylvania. A trooper pulled him over. “He put his 10 gallon hat on,” Foyt recalls. “He come up and said, Who do you think you are, A.J. Foyt? I said, Yep. He said, Don’t get smart with me! He looked at that goddamn driver license and said, Hold it down!” Off Foyt drove, sans ticket.

9. He laughs at death

One of the most stomach-churning motor racing crashes of all time came on May 15, 1982, during qualifying runs at Indianapolis. Gordon Smiley, 33, died instantly when his car hit the wall near turn 3 straight on. “He couldn’t hit the wall no harder,” Foyt says. “Probably 200 mph, maybe 175. Car just exploded. There was nothing left of him. I was the next car out.”

The next car out? I ask Foyt how he did and he shrugs, as if he was talking about a stroll in the park. “I always qualified pretty good.”

10. He’s old, still scary

Through it all, Foyt seems, as he nears his 81st birthday, a happy man—and fearless still, a force of nature. He’s lost track of how many stents he has in his heart. Still, when we go to lunch, he orders chicken fried steak with fries and gravy. If I had to guess why a man like that could be so steady after all he’s been through, I’d guess it’s about his family. He’s been married to the same woman for 60 years, and talks about his kids as if they were deities. Some of them raced professionally, but none do anymore. (Larry Foyt, 38, a former race driver, is currently president of A.J. Foyt Enterprises.) When asked why he doesn’t push his kids to race, Foyt answers: “My wife once said, I can replace my husband. But I can’t replace my kids!”

“Oh, hell,” he says, smiling. “It’s been a hell of a life.”