With over 50 years in motorsports – as a driver and team owner – American A. J. Foyt’s remarkable career has seen him make his mark nationally and abroad in at least four countries: Canada, Great Britain, France and New Zealand. His race record includes: winning the Indianapolis 500 four times in 35 consecutive tries; the 24 Hours of Le Mans (1967); and the Rolex 24 At Daytona (1983, ’85). He’s won 12 national titles with a total of 172 major race wins in Indy Cars, NASCAR, USAC stock cars, midgets, sprints and sports cars.
When people ask Foyt what it is like to be a national hero he simply replies, “I’m not a national hero as far as I’m concerned. I’ve had fun through the years of racing but as far as me being a hero, I’m just still A. J. I’m really happy with the racing I did here in this country, and I was fortunate enough to win races in everything I competed in.”
Comparing his wins of the Rolex 24 At Daytona and Les 24 Heures du Mans, Foyt explained, “These two races are totally different because they are run on different types of tracks. They are both difficult tracks to race so you have to stay on your toes around the clock. Today every team has three or four drivers, but back in my day it was just two drivers at Le Mans and three drivers at Daytona. Dan Gurney had raced at Le Mans before he and I were teammates, so he gave me some tips on what to do and what not to do, as well as what time of the night you had to be real careful, so that’s what helped my success at Le Mans. What he told me was to be careful between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m., of the fog at those hours and smoke coming from the fans’ campfires. It is that time of night when most of the accidents occur so being aware of these points made a not so easy time a little bit easier, having a partner like Gurney made it a lot easier. Back then the Le Mans track was a lot faster than it is today because the Mulsanne Straight didn’t have a chicane in it. The race is held on regular roads that are narrow – it’s not a closed circuit like Daytona. As for Daytona, it was very challenging, especially when it rained. There was no resting, you had to stay alert. You had the high banking and then you’d come off that onto the road course in the middle which was flat, so when it rained the high banking was easy but there was nothing easy about the flat section.”
Foyt explained that Daytona was particularly special for him because Bill France personally telephoned to invite him to race there, “My Daddy was dying of cancer in the hospital but he told me ‘There’s no sense you just sitting here, go have some fun this weekend.’ I didn’t want to go but when Mr. France phoned me again my father said ‘Get outta here, there’s nothing you can do here.’ So to be fortunate enough to bring back the trophy to him made it very special.”
In motorsports, fathers and sons often work together on a team and in some cases compete against each other on track. Foyt’s father played a major role in his racing career and now his son Larry is Team Director at A. J. Foyt Racing Ltd. “Larry is playing a major role with my team and it gives me a lot of pleasure seeing him doing that end of the business instead of driving,” said Foyt. “He was a pretty good race car driver but I’m glad to see him take such an interest in managing the team. When he got hurt at Indy I didn’t care to see him race anymore. I felt like he would be more important in the family business and I’m glad he finally agreed with me.”
There comes a time in every great race car driver’s career when it is time to hang up the racing shoes. For A. J. Foyt that time came at the 1993 Indianapolis 500. “I knew my career was coming to an end because I wasn’t as healthy as I needed to be to race and I couldn’t perform liked I used to,” said Foyt. “When I won the Indy 500 in 1961, Mr. Hulman, who owned the Indianapolis Speedway, sent me and Ray Harroun (who won the first Indy 500 in 1911) to New York to appear on the television program What’s My Line. I remember asking Mr. Harroun, ‘When do you know when to quit?’ He said ‘It will probably come to you all of a sudden and you’ll just know.’ I think that’s what happened to me that day at Indy in 1993. I got word that Robby Gordon, who was driving one of my cars, crashed for the second or third time and I just said I’m through; I can’t concentrate on running cars with young drivers and then try to drive them too. I just knew it was my time to quit.”
Fittingly, the motorsports legend was named Grand Marshal for the historic 2012 Rolex 24 At Daytona. “Being Grand Marshal for the 50th Anniversary of the Rolex 24 At Daytona is a big honor for me,” said Foyt. “Mr. France, Bill Jr. and Jim France really helped me when I needed help getting my racing career started. I’m proud to be there this year for them.”
While complications from knee surgery kept Foyt from travelling from his home in Texas to Daytona International Speedway for the golden anniversary race, he followed the celebrations and race action via live coverage from Speed TV.
[Source: Rolex Motorsports; photo credit: Photo credit: Rolex / ISC Images and Archives]