AJ Foyt was not content with a mere two wins in the Indianapolis 500 and a string of USAC titles. He went back to Indy as a constructor and proceeded to add another pair of victories driving his own Coyote cars. He tells Gordon Kirby why these were the greatest days
Thirty years ago, AJ Foyt ensured his legendary status in motor racing history by becoming the first man to win four Indy 500s. Foyt scored his third Indy 500 win in 1967, six years after his first victory in the American classic, but it would take another 10 years before Foyt made history by winning his fourth 500. When he finally pulled it off in 1977, the Texan had been the man to beat for a few years in a row and he did it with his own team, cars and engines, a remarkable accomplishment, unlikely to be repeated in modern motorsport.
Foyt made his first USAC championship start in the summer of 1957 when he was 22 years old, after making a name for himself in midgets and sprint cars. By the 1960 season Foyt had moved to the Bowes Seal Fast team where George Bignotti was chief mechanic and AJ came on strong in the year’s second half, winning four 100-mile dirt track races aboard the team’s Meskowski-Offy dirt car and beat Rodger Ward to take the first of his record seven USAC championships.
AJ scored his first Indy 500 victory the following year aboard Bignotti’s Watson/Trevis-Offy roadster after a famous battle with Eddie Sachs. A fuel rig malfunction late in the race seemed to have foiled Foyt, but then Sachs – inexplicably to some – came into the pits to change a badly worn front tyre, handing victory to Foyt. AJ says he probably would not have taken the safe route chosen by Sachs that day had he been in his competitor’s shoes. “Everybody says, what would you have done?” Foyt reflects. “Well, I was young and I wanted to win. I would probably have driven it ’til it blew and I crashed. He made the right decision. But would I have made that decision? Probably not.”
He also beat Sachs to win his second USAC championship that year. But Foyt and Bignotti argued about car set-up and Foyt quit the team in August of 1962, jumping to Lindsey Hopkins’ team. By the end of the year he was back with Bignotti before deciding to race his own cars with the help of his father Tony Sr and chief mechanic ‘Little Jack’ Starne.
Foyt won the USAC title again in 1963 and 1964, was second to Mario Andretti in 1965, and took his fifth USAC championship in 1967. He won the Indy 500 a second time in 1964 in what turned out to be the last win for a front-engined roadster, a Watson-Offy, then scored his third 500 victory in 1967 aboard his own Lotus-based rear-engined car, which he called a Coyote, grabbing the glory after the leading STP turbine car of Parnelli Jones broke in the closing laps.
Foyt believes the great drivers are separated from the merely good by a deep desire to win rather than any God-given natural talent. “You’ve got race drivers and then you’ve got race drivers,” he remarks. “It’s the same as a quarterback or the leader of any team. You’ve got quarterbacks and then you’ve got quarterbacks who want to go to that extra edge to be number one. It’s hard to explain but if you want to win you’ve got to work at it. It’s not easy. You’re going to have to give that little extra to win.
“I know some great race drivers who were always satisfied with second or third when they could’ve won. They did not want to put out that extra little effort. They were satisfied. My worst days were when I ran Indy and ran like crap myself. I couldn’t wait to get back there the next year to prove a point.”
After his third win at Indy in 1967, Foyt encountered a long fallow period at the Speedway. He was on the pole in 1969, but lost 20 minutes in the pits repairing a broken intake manifold. “In 1969 we sat on the pole with a car that was the first to have wings on the back of the rollbar. Then we broke a little fitting and we had to take the manifold off to weld it. Andretti won the 500 that year and he deserved to win. We went a lot of years chasing that fourth win and every time we were really strong it never happened.”
A new Coyote was designed by Bob Riley in 1973 and with his own turbocharged Foyt/Ford V8 engines, AJ was on the pole at Indianapolis in 1974 and 1975. He won seven races and took his sixth USAC championship in 1975, but his fourth Indy victory remained elusive.
“In ’75, ’76 and ’77 nobody could run close with us,” Foyt recalls. “In ’75 I ran second or third, real strong, and I had to pull it in. We ran second or third and ran out of gas in ’76, and in ’77 I felt like I had it won easy and I ran out of fuel again! I said: ‘Man, am I ever going to win it four times?’
“The ’77 race was a great race all day long,” he continues. “At that time they didn’t have yellow flags and I ran out of fuel and got 32 seconds down on Gordon Johncock in George Bignotti’s car. I started picking him up by two, two and a half seconds a lap. I told ‘Little Jack’ that I was going to turn the boost up when we got a little closer because I didn’t want to take a chance on blowing the motor up. It was our own motor and I knew about what it could stand in boost.
“As I was closing down on Johncock I knew that Bignotti would let me get to within about 10 seconds of him and then he would send Johncock on. I drove for Bignotti and I knew he wasn’t going to let me get any closer than that. So it got down to 10 seconds and Jack said, ‘Have you turned the boost up yet?’ I said, ‘No, not yet.’ And it got to nine, eight, then seven seconds, and I said, ‘They’ve got to be in trouble.’ And right there, Johncock blew up.”
With 16 laps to go Johncock’s engine blew and Foyt finally had that long-sought fourth win. In those days Indy cars raced with unlimited turbo boost, restricted only by fuel mileage. Many people believe that was the heyday of Indy cars as the world’s most demanding cars to drive.
“You had a lot of power and not nearly the downforce you have now, but still you qualified at over 200mph,” Foyt observes. “People don’t realise today what it was like. I’m glad that I raced at Indianapolis long enough to run the Speedway into the 1990s where you never had to lift all the way around. The last time I qualified, like 225 or something, there was no lifting. When I talk to good friends of mine like Parnelli Jones I say it’s a shame you retired when you did because it’s hard to tell you what these new cars drive like compared to the crap we used to drive. Of course, it’s the same thing the other way. These boys today don’t know how hard those cars were. You didn’t have near the equipment they have today but you were running almost as fast.”
Foyt is also among those people who believe those were Indy car racing’s greatest days from a purely sporting perspective. “You could build your own car and you could run for Firestone or Goodyear,” he remarks. “You could do whatever you wanted. I always liked it when you controlled your own motor situation even though you blew up a lot more motors than you do today. Right now, you’re in somebody else’s hands and there’s no way you could build your own stuff and compete with Honda.”
AJ broke his back in a stock car at Riverside in 1965 and badly broke his legs in an accident in an Indy car at Elkhart Lake in 1992. He came back to race at Indy one more time before retiring at the ripe old age of 59.
“I think the biggest thing that’s happened in Indy car racing and stock cars has been the safety,” he says. “That’s one of the biggest things that’s advanced in racing over the past 30 years. You still had 200mph laps back in those days. But the advances in safety have made the speeds today about a hundred times safer than it used to be.”
Foyt enjoys an all-time record 67 USAC wins as well as a record seven USAC championships. He also won seven NASCAR races, including the 1972 Daytona 500, and won the 1967 Le Mans 24 hours with Dan Gurney and Ford as well as the Daytona 24 hours aboard a Porsche 935 in 1983 and ’85 and the Sebring 12 hours the same year.
Today, at 72 years old, Foyt continues to oversee the operation of his IRL team. Briton Darren Manning drives for Foyt this year and AJ continues to attend all the races. He has ceded the team management duties to his son Larry but AJ still makes all the big decisions.
“Through the years I had a lot of fun,” he remarks. “People say, ‘Would you change anything in life?’ And the truth is, no I wouldn’t. I made a living doing what I love to do. I had a lot of fun and was able to win a few times at Indianapolis and have the opportunity to be able to win overseas and at Daytona in sports cars and all that stuff. I enjoyed life and I’ve got things I never thought I’d have. If I had the chance, I’d do it the same all over again.”