Two legends sat on the sidelines at Indianapolis this year, but their legacies live on
They changed a lot at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year, cutting down speeds and toning down the cut and thrust of the great 500-mile race. But the greatest – and most regretted – changes had come long before Tom Camegie’s cadaverous tones requested ‘drivers to your machines’ and Jim Nabors gave his annual rendition of Back Home in Indiana. Long before Chairman of the Board Emeritus Mary Fendrich Hulman falteringly uttered those famous words ‘Lady and gentlemen, start your engines’ and the multi-icoloured balloons drifted into a Hoosier sky which had everyone spooked by the spectre of rain that never came.
For the first time in 35 years this was a Memorial Day classic devoid of Anthony Joseph Foyt Jnr. For the first time since 1981 Rick Mears was not sitting close to or on the pole. For the first time in history, the reigning IndyCar champion was not even in the field, as poor Bobby Rahal sat quietly in his suite watching from the outside. Such things seemed unthinkable to these of us to whom Rahal is a true gentleman and for whom Foyt, for all his occasional shortcomings, was a hero. Somehow, I had also, always, believed that Mears would become the first man ever to win five 500s.
The Rocket had been the first to telegraph his punch, and it was delivered the only way he knew how. That he had waited until the Penske Christmas party to tell all but his wife Chris and team owner Roger Penske was typical of his thought for others. “That way,” he told RP, “everyone on the team will get to know from me personally, at the same time.” There could have been no other way of doing it for the man who, on his own ground, was the greatest race driver of his day. High on the bankings of the superspeedways, Rick Mears was a god, a patient, calculating, impeccably clean god that very few could aspire to match. He said that he enjoyed his first 500 as a spectator, acting as consultant to Team Penske, and there was something undeniably reminiscent of his own glorious style in the manner in which Emerson Fittipaldi took the team to its record ninth win out of 25 starts at Indy.
There are those who suspected that his numerous racing injuries had finally persuaded Mears to hang up his helmet, and he admits that he is starting to feel some of the old hurts, particularly those sustained in his major shunt almost 10 years ago at Sanair which took away his heels. “After all those years I felt I was getting burned out,” he said. “Each day I start to feel some of the past injuries. You live with them, but eventually they add up.”
Mears quit at the top, but Foyt was a different bear. Like Graham Hill he just kept plodding on, saddening friends and fans who grieved over his lost speed and uncompetitive performances, and worried about his sanity when he returned from that awful shunt at Road America in September 1990.
That day, his Copenhagen Lola had speared, brakeless, off course. It went through – not even over – an earth bank, shattering his legs in its passage. Foyt was 55 years old, but remained conscious as CART’s superhero surgeon Dr Terry Trammell tried valiantly to dig what was left of his limbs out of the earth of Elkhart Lake. Foyt went through the pains of hell that afternoon. “I wanted to be out of that car,” said the man who ignored Trammell’s counsel as he struggled to squeeze his bulk from the shattered cockpit. “It was one of the few times in a smash when I should have been knocked out. l even asked one of the guys to hit my head with a hammer.” The more Tramell counselled him to ease up, the more Foyt struggled and hollered. He always had done things his way or not at all. It was only when the pain really bit that he finally agreed to do things the other man’s way. They gave him enough morphine to knock out a bullock, but still he felt the pain.
Eight months later I saw him walk down the pit road at Indianapolis, in May 1991, a big raw irascible giant who looked meaner than a hungry Tyrannosaurus. The pain was still etched in every line of his face, he looked as if he was taking every step over broken glass. But he was walking. More than that; he was driving. And he was quick. Never mind all the pit lane gossip that his friends within USAC had slipped him the big pop-off valve. He still had to be capable of driving the car, whatever its specification, at sufficient speed to join Mears and Mario Andretti on the front row. He faded quickly in the race itself, but that qualifying performance had been a fine index of a man who, in his heyday, had few equals in the world. Those who saw him on dirt in USAC sprints still speak of his car control with complete awe, even the few rivals who could match him, such as Parnelli Jones. See photographs of Foyt as a four year-old, sitting in his pedal car, and the look already is that of a man unwilling to brook opposition.
There are few real legends left in motor racing, but Anthony Joseph Foyt is surely one of them, and one of the greatest. His last years as an active driver were blighted by the loss of that sharp edge, partly because he had become only a part-timer and had business interests to concentrate on. But he loved what he was doing and saw no call to stop. If you could put the present aside, nothing could tarnish the achievements of the past. 35 consecutive starts at the Brickyard, four 500 victories, 369 IndyCar starts, 67 victories, six national championships, 28 sprint car features and 20 main events in midgets, 41 USAC stock car successes, the Daytona 500 and the Le Mans 24 Hours. Had he come to F1 with Dan Gurney’s Eagles, as it once seemed likely that he would in 1967, he would have been every bit as quick as his illustrious compatriot with whom he had shared that Le Mans triumph.
As a driver, Foyt was as hard as nails. Fighting him has been likened to juggling chainsaws. Back in his sprint car days such fights were commonplace, especially during the period that the tall Texan affected a natty line in white silk shirts and earned himself the nickname Fancy Pants.
Jackie Stewart remembers that you took the rise out of Foyt at your own peril. “Ajay hated being put down,” he recalls. “He really didn’t like longhairs and we used to call him the Spiro Agnew of motor racing! But I always thought of him as the pussy cat and the bear, you know. He could be so charming, but he also had another side.”
At the non-championship Questor GP at Ontario in 1971, Stewart was racing for Tyrrell but agreed to shake down Frank Arciero’s F5000 McLaren M10B that Foyt would be driving. The crew had changed it a lot since Foyt’s first run, and Stewart was able to go significantly quicker than the Texan had. Jokingly, he told the mechanics to tell him that if he couldn’t get up to speed, he really ought to think of retiring. By the time the story reached Foyt it had been embroidered to the point where he failed to see any funny side. “I tried to explain to him that it had been a joke, but the last thing he said to me was: ‘Just remember, I’ll be the first car you come up to lap…
“Sure enough, he was! And as I got closer I was thinking: ‘Och no, here we go!’ and sinking deeper and deeper into the cockpit hoping he wouldn’t notice it was me… Of course, when it came to it he was an absolute gentleman and didn’t try anything, but he had me worried, I can tell you!” Later, Foyt deliberately grenaded the engine in disgust.
At Milwaukee in 1990 Mario was open in his respect for his nephew’s godfather after Foyt had lost control but gathered the black Lola back up right ahead of the Italo-American’s similar machine. They exchanged gestures, and later Andretti expanded: “Going into Turn Three the car was gone. I mean, gone! There are only a handful of guys out there who could have got it back, and Ajay is still one of them.”
That edge remained, but Foyt no longer had the speed he’d had in the ’70s and to some the great memories of Langhorne, Indianapolis and Daytona were in danger of fading the longer he continued. But the man who had wrestled his sprint car to the pole ahead of the rear-engined funnycars at Milwaukee back in 1965, still loved racing. For all the world it seemed he would be doing his 36th Indy as he went out to qualify on May 15, but then with a suddenness that surprised everyone, it was all over. He took his last lap of the Brickyard, the circuit around which he had started to build his reputation way back in 1958, just before Fangio retired. The last active link with that bygone era toured round, waving to the crowd, and then everyone knew. SuperTex was finally saying goodbye.
When his great friend Tony Bettenhausen Snr – the Tinley Park Express – had died in a qualifying accident at the Speedway in 1961, rival Eddie Sachs had cried like a baby. Foyt hadn’t, for his was a different make-up. Instead he hurled his helmet into the garage wall. But when he qualified 30 years later at 222.443 mph even he admitted that his eyes were moist. And as he rolled in this time, there would be genuine tears. He was, he said, standing down to give his young protégé Robby Gordon a better chance. As 150,000 fans screamed themselves hoarse, and the pit road rose as one to honour him, the veteran of five decades wiped the eyes behind the dark glasses. “I hate to get emotional like this, but for 35 years I’ve been looking up there, looking at the people, trying to produce for them,” he said. “It’s a hard decision, but there comes a time…” As Tom Carnegie wheeled the microphone into his friend’s face, the man who had terrorised the circuits and paddocks of North America, who had not been beyond physically assaulting reporters whose assessment of his prowess had not matched his own, choked with emotion.
It was a classy way to go, having just lapped an impeachable car at 221 mph, and he had a touching sense of timing. “This was the place that made AJ Foyt,” he said as the cheers all but drowned his fractured words, “and this was the place to quit.”
Now he and Mears, two of the three four-time winners, are passing on their own skills to younger drivers, and predictably they are doing it different ways. Mears, the man who was sent violently into the wall by car failure in qualifying at Indy in 1991, and then calmly went out to place his spare car on a record sixth pole (before winning for the fourth and final time), ultimately made the decision to quit in time to allow Penske to place Paul Tracy alongside Fittipaldi. Ever since he has tutored the young Canadian, giving him the best possible grounding for his own campaign. To some that might scarcely seem believable, in an F1 world where secrets are highly prized, yet even when Tracy was standing in while Rick recovered from his 1992 Indy shunt, The Rocket openly shared all he knew. It takes a big man to do that.
There is a lot of the younger Foyt about Robbie Gordon. He’s a brash kid with a big head and a healthy regard for his own ability that takes him well beyond concern over what others might make of him. All he’s interested in right now is winning races. Gordon had a whole rack of excuses why he qualified only 25th for Indy, why he visited the wall rather more often than ole Tex might have wished. And he trotted them all out at his press conference as team-mate John Andretti sat smiling quietly and Foyt looked on with interest. In the end. Ajay eased over to take the microphone. “The thing is about this boy,” he intoned in that famous drawl, “he buullshiits.” The mentor then went on to explain to the multitude just what Robbie Gordon was doing wrong, to the evident chagrin of the off-road star.
For all that, you sense that they get along just fine, that they understand each other. Gordon is no rentadriver. He’s with Foyt because that’s where Foyt wants him to be, and the legend probably sees a lot of himself in his young charger. Maybe, just maybe, this is the start of something big for both of them. The way Gordon has been running this year shows he has the speed. All he needs now is some more of Foyt’s smarts to hone away his rougher edges.
In the end, Mears walked away from the cockpit at the height of his ability, just like Parnelli had 25 years earlier. It was the perfect way to go, and he is adamant that he won’t be back behind the wheel. He’ll continue to guide Team Penske, and to advise son Clint who has just taken up racing. But his driving days are over and he is happy about it. “There are,” he confirms, “no regrets.” Even his father Bill and mother Skip are winding down the Mears merchandise trailer they’ve hauled for years to all his races.
With a slower race, a safer race, and two of its greatest champions stepping from the limelight, the 77th Indianapolis 500 marked a passing on of the flame, the two-pronged end of one era of IndyCar racing, and the start of another. But for Foyt there may be just one last hurrah. Standing behind the pit wall just before the start he admitted: “it’s like a nightmare, to be honest. Like a nightmare.” His eyes and mouth were tight again. Don’t take bets , that he won’t be behind a wheel when the NASCAR boys roll into Hoosier territory for the Brickyard 400 next year… D J T
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