America's all action hero

'He truly never met a race car that he didn't like. All US racing was clamped in an AJ Foyt stranglehold'

Detractors of America's all-action hero point to his rare European forays. But Joe Scalzo argues that Foyt did enough at home to be classed a true great

It was a great racing civilisation that America had going for itself in the mid-1960s, and certainly its highlight was getting to watch A J Foyt, the greatest gun going, patrolling the scene at Indianapolis, Langhorne, Ascot Park and the rest. It's a loaded question, but what did those three utterly different, but all monster theatres of war – one the celebrated Brickyard, the other a notorious mile oval of black dirt, the third the claustrophobic and explosive Los Angeles short track – have in common? A J. His name was smeared all over them. Who else ever won on all three, some of them more than once?

A lot of champion race drivers tend to nail one discipline, master it, and then ignore the rest. But from the very beginning of his seemingly endless career, when he was a 20-something novice manhandling Offenhauser midgets all over his native Texas, it appeared to 'Baby A J' that nothing but a stale existence would come out of specialising in the doodlebugs. So he started checking out different schools of speed, and he truly never met a race car that he didn't like. And so all US racing was clamped in a Foyt stranglehold.

At his zenith in the mid-1960s he would be seen not only dominating Indy, dancing through the 100 furrowed miles of the 'Horne and rim-riding Ascot, you'd also regularly find him way down in the stock car South, trapped in a 150mph ribbon duelling Richard Petty, Fred Lorenzen, 'Fireball' Roberts and the rest of NASCAR's tribe at Daytona, Charlotte or Atlanta; or else he'd be out on the hilly Monterey peninsula at Laguna Seca going after Jim Hall and Roger Penske in unlimited sportscars.

Functioning in a different universe from everybody else, it seemed that Foyt would have raced every day of the week had it been possible. As if trying to, he invented a whole new style; call it the burn-the-candle-at-both-ends method. This mode of adventure – and for a long time Foyt was its sole practitioner – was marked by A J competing so frequently and fiercely that his stamina and will to win quite literally exceeded belief.

Take, for just one example, the amazing string of eight races in 20 days he managed during the crackling September of 1963, starting with three different meets in three days on DuQuoin's one-mile dirt track. This Illinois triple-header opened with a 25-mile sprint car free-for-all – howling Offys and banshee short-stroke Chevrolets making wham-bam powerslides, rough-housing blasts, plunging swerves and desperation veers. In and out of firefights all afternoon, Foyt intimidated, demoralised, hosed everybody down and won without undue effort.

The next day was a stock car conflict of 100 miles, a face-off between factory Dodge 426s and factory 406 Fords. Foyt had recently resigned from Dodge to join Ford. But in warm-up a crashing Pontiac smacked into him; in the time trials his Ford lacked the horsepower to qualify faster than ninth; and in the main event Foyt went spinning out early, allowing his old team to run home for a one-two finish.

A J was scheduled next to hustle his earth-moving Indycar, after a night's rest. Except he didn't fool with sleep. Instead, he flew directly to Kansas City, where his stooges had hauled his refurbished sprinter for a 115-mile short-track blast around Lakeside Speedway. The great geriatric Don Branson sent over an air raid in an old Offy that blued Bobby Marshman's elbow, reddened Roger McCluskey's nose and helped set Jim Hurtubise's car on fire. Doing a superior job of ducking Branson's fusillade, Foyt took second place.

Everybody was back at DuQuoin by dawn. Time for 100 miles in Indycars, Foyt in a runaway brawl with his occasional nemesis, Rodger Ward. That day, Ward got annihilated.

Four days, four races, two wins.

Yet more Foyt candle-burning occurred during a weekday evening show at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis, where he was back rampaging in his Ford stocker, racking misery upon his former employer, Dodge. The Ford still wasn't right – this time it wore out the brakes – but Foyt won anyway. Burn that candle!

The following Sunday, A J was to be found in the Pennsylvania precincts driving the 'Horne. Making impossible pass after impossible pass, he was leading the stock car field at the 86-mile mark, but got taken out in a collision. Impatient to resume the campaign in anything available, he spotted the Dodge Hemi of a used-car salesman named 'Honest John' meandering in 14th position. Mongering his way into its cockpit by throwing 'Honest John' out, Foyt demonstrated why he was A J Foyt. Eight miles in arrears, he recovered two of them, then recorded the fastest average of the afternoon, as lap after lap he pulled off his trademark outflanking manoeuvre on Langhorne's outermost fringe, up where the oiled dirt merged against a rampart of dense woods; afterwards he was inconsolable about only finishing third.

Next he returned to the Indycar tournament and fell to the revitalised Ward in the Hoosier 100. But just six days later Foyt was in New Jersey, unbeatable all over again on Trenton's paving. Only then did he temporarily rest from his 20 candle-burning days – though not for long: he took John Mecom's Scarab to the Bahamas and ambushed the road-racing lads at Nassau's speedweek.

Continuing the same breakaway pace in 1964, he won an impossible 10 of 13 Indycar shows in nine months: Phoenix, Trenton, the Indianapolis 500, Milwaukee, Langhorne, Trenton, Springfield, DuQuoin, Indiana Fairgrounds and Sacramento.

Just as impressive as his ability to win was the way he continued to live injury-free. Those were very hazardous times. Two of the championship trail's icons, Eddie Sachs and Bobby Marshman, were killed in fires; Pamelli Jones and Jim Hurtubise were severely burned. A J alone seemed able to go on leading the ultimate race driver's charmed life.

Yet at last, he too joined the massed ranks of the damaged. At California's Riverside Raceway, during a stock car marathon, he was flat out when his Banjo Mathews Ford blew out its brakes at the end of Turn Nine and plunged to the floor of a canyon. Foyt's injuries included a broken back, damaged aorta, fractured heel and general trauma. Just 10 weeks later, hurting from top to bottom, he arrived at Phoenix International Raceway for the Indycar 150: he won pole position. In the race, however, mechanical ills put him out. A J had little success at other 1965 meets and, for a change, he lost the national championship to someone almost as exciting to watch as himself: Mario Andretti.

Actually, that season was all about change; US racing would never be the same again. The influence of Colin Chapman and Jim Clark, with their rear-engined Lotus-Fords, was everywhere, as if they had been witch doctors bringing their medicine to primitive people. Adieu, Offy roadsters! Goodyear and Firestone, the two rubber giants, were going back and forth in a bitter tyre war. The dirt tracks, for half a century the backbone of championship conflict, were being disenfranchised and the road courses accredited. Suddenly anything seemed possible, including Mario — fresh off the wild midget car bowls — being the first to try to plug into the same mystique that had created Foyt.

To equal A J, and become a race driver who dominated all categories with superior skill, you had to be a candle-burner. And so Mario was, setting a record by winning three main events on three different tracks, all in the same day. By 1968 he was making it an international issue. Just beginning to get his toes wet in Formula One, he appeared out of nowhere at Monza for the opening practice of the Italian Grand Prix. That was Wednesday. He practiced on Thursday, broke the track record on Friday and returned to America on Saturday morning in time to finish second (to Foyt!) in that afternoon's Hoosier 100. Foyt-like, Mario then employed a desperate series of commercial, private and helicopter flights back across the Atlantic to be at Monza for the start of the grand prix on Sunday morning.

The ending was a waste. An overwrought socialist deputy of the Italian parliament got Mario disqualified from starting the GP, saying that nobody could travel and race so much without rest. He'd obviously never heard of candle-burning.

The Foyt vs Andretti battles continued for the rest of the 1960s, through the '70s and '80s, even into the beginning of the '90s, and made it a good time to be a spectator. A J was never again able to steamroller as he had in the '60s, but he continued to add to his record of incredible versatility. He won two more Indys, in '67 and '77, when the 500 still really counted, the '72 Daytona 500, the '67 Le Mans 24 Hours (alongside Dan Gurney), the International Race of Champions free-for-all, seven seasonal Indycar titles, and more.

While all this was going on, eras of racing were coming and going, and so were the demands of what a racing driver had to do: the rear-engines of the 1960s gave way to the bewinged and turbocharged monsters of the following decade, and finally the strange aerodynamic missiles of the '80s and '90s with their mysterious ground effects. It was in one of these, at Indy on May 15, 1993, that Foyt brought his five fantastic racing decades to an end by rolling into the pits and saying, aged 58, that, at last, he'd had enough.

Typically, he contradicted himself by racing in the following year's Brickyard 400 (finishing 30th), and then attempting to qualify for the same event in 1995. Since then, operating his own team in the Indy Racing League, modern Foyt has won the seasonal championship as well as the Indy 500 with Kenny Brack. He's unstoppable; incomparable

That said, he never followed Mario into F1; in fact his European efforts were few. Did he avoid the international scene because there wasn't enough money? Or because he knew he couldn't hack it? In his angry autobiography, he offers an answer of sorts by arguing that American drivers "don't get a fair shake" in Europe. Besides, he boasts, did he not win "their best race", Le Mans?

Opinions vary, but it could have been a simple fear of home-sickness. A J is Captain America. The only hero he has ever owned up to was macho, swaggering John Wayne.

Foyt is not a sympathetic character in the way that Andretti is. Getting an assignment to interview him is akin to combat duty. But nobody's perfect. It brings to mind what somebody said about artists: admire them for their work, not their personalities.

I know it's sticking my neck out, but I'll match the candle-burning A J of the 1960s against anybody who ever raced.

A J in Indycars

• With 67 career victories, Foyt remains easily the most successful Indycar driver of all time. His seven championships are also a record.

• Foyt remains the dominant figure in the Indianapolis 500 record books. He sits atop the wins pile with his four victories. His tally of 35 (consecutive!) appearances has never been beaten, and he's the only driver to win the 500 in front -and rear-engined cars.

• Foyt and his father Tony were very close as they ran their family team. But A J's dad was not one to give praise away. "My father never told me I ever drove a good race. Never. After Indy '77 [Foyt's fourth win] I guess he was finally happy... I asked if I did good, and he replied, 'I don't know about good, you did fair'."

A J in Sprint Cars

• Foyt began his career in tail-happy sprint and midget cars on dirt ovals, and remained fiercely loyal to the branch of the sport in which he'd cut his teeth. He continued to compete regularly in USAC events right up until 1975, usually in cars he owned.

• In total he won 28 USAC sprint events, 20 midget races and two Silver Crown wins. He won the 1959 USAC sprint title and '72 Dirt crown.

• The challenge of racing on dirt or paved ovals that midget and sprint cars provided was one that A J never tired of. "An oval to me is a lot harder to run than a lot of rood courses," he said. "On road courses you can make a mistake and gain it back at another corner, but on an oval you're not allowed to make it back up."

A J in Sportscars

• Foyt's Le Mans victory alongside Dan Gurney in 1967 was his only appearance at La Sarthe; leaving him in an elite band of six drivers to have a 100% record in the French classic.

• The first of Foyt's two Daytona 24 Hours victories, in '83, came after he swapped cars. When his Pepsi-backed Aston Martin Nimrod retired, he switched camps and joined Preston Henn's T-Bird Swap Shop Porsche 935 squad to win.

• Foyt's last-ever major race win was alongside Bob Wollek at the Sebring 12 Hours in 1985 (weeks after winning the Daytona 24 Hours). This promoted the Texan to the rarefied group of seven drivers to have won all three of sportscar endurance racing's major classics.

A J in Stock Cars

• Foyt started the Daytona 500 no less than 29 times, and by winning the 1972 event he became part of an elite club, alongside Mario Andretti, to win NASCAR's big one and the Indy 500. By also winning at Le Mans, he has achieved a triple crown that remains unique in world motorsport.

• Foyt won seven NASCAR events from 128 starts, but never came close to winning the Winston Cup. He won three titles in the lesser USAC series.

• It was in a stock car crash at Riverside '65 that Foyt suffered his first major injuries, the worst a broken back. A doctor at the scene declared him dead, but Pamelli Jones and Ralph Moody swore they saw him move and began shovelling dust from his mouth, allowing him to breathe.