Nigel Roebuck

Legends: A J Foyt
As long as I can remember my feelings about A J Foyt have been equivocal. On the one hand, I revere him as one of the greatest racing drivers of all time; on the other, he seems sometimes to stand for everything one dislikes about the worst sort of American: brash, aggressive, fundamentally contemptuous of anything and anybody outside the US of A.

A quote from Foyt’s book: “I guess you could say that I’m a flag-waver – strictly American. I won’t even drive foreign cars. Hell, I won’t even wear a shirt with French cuffs. It was only natural that when the European cars and drivers started showing up at Indianapolis, it pissed me off.”

There’s another side to Foyt, though – and the only side that I, personally, ever saw. Whenever I had any dealings with him, I found him funny, charming, surprisingly modest. You speak as you find. And the man I last interviewed 20-odd years ago seemed, while ‘refreshingly forthright’, to be far from the one who called his autobiography, AJ – My Life As America’s Greatest Race Car Driver. Did he really believe that to be the case? He looked sheepish: “I don’t say that. I never say that. I’m good, I know that…”

Foyt did Le Mans just once, in 1967, and won it for Ford, sharing a 7-litre MkIV with Dan Gurney. It was a new experience for him – Le Mans, France, the whole thing – and he had his reservations, not least about the unfamiliar cuisine: “They brought me this fish on a plate, and it still had its goddam head on!”

The track, too, was different from anything he had encountered before – notably the trees which in those days lined most of the eight-and-three-quarter miles, including the length of Mulsanne, at which point the fastest cars were easily exceeding 200mph. “I guess it’s a safety thing for the spectators,” Foyt growled. “If a car goes off there, by the time it gets to them it isn’t going to be in big enough pieces to hurt them.”

When I talked to him about that race, he said this: “I guess I’d done but 10 hot laps in the car before I took over from Gurney for my first stint, and I followed Bruce McLaren in another Ford for a while, finding my way round. I guess he was in the lead at the time, and we were second. After a while I started to feel confident. I really enjoyed that win. I’d won Indy about 10 days before, and those two victories came right after 1966, which was my worst year in racing.”

Pick up his book, though, and you get the impression that AJ as good as won Le Mans single-handed, that Gurney was merely along for the ride. Dan laughed when I mentioned it: “Oh, I don’t worry about what A J says! That’s been his modus operandum all the way along. But the fact is that he could drive very, very well. At that time he was not a road racer — it certainly wasn’t his strong suit — but he was a great oval driver, and he was certainly right there from an engineering standpoint, too. He could shape a car up, and have it handling properly, better than any other driver of his time, I would say. I think back to those days in the Indycars, and it was usually AJ and Mario [Andretti] who ended up dukin’ it out for the championship each year.”

Foyt and Andretti. “AJ and I had our ups and downs,” said Mario, “and certainly we never cut each other any slack on the racetrack. But the thing about Foyt was that he was always mature enough, regardless of his temper, never to do anything stupid on a racetrack. I’d happily race with him, any time, any place.”

Foyt was in the paddock at Brands Hatch the first time I saw him. It was August 1964, Bank Holiday Monday, a blistering afternoon, yet he resolutely kept on his leather jacket, the front of which was adorned with a huge badge: ‘Indianapolis 500 Mile Winners Club’. He chewed gum constantly. All this was very pleasing to me, for it fulfilled my preconceived notions about a real American race driver: the crew-cut, the mean expression, the helmet devoid of decoration — save a prominent ‘1’ on the front of it. At 29, AJ, already a legend, was everything you would expect from a graduate of the sprint car school…

“I loved that time in racing,” he said. “You know, we was runnin’ the sprints three or four nights a week, and it was real dog eat dog, just goin’, goin’, goin’ all the time.”

Andretti, I said, had told me that, for pure pleasure, a dirt oval couldn’t be beaten. “I’d go along with that,” Foyt replied. “You get some big thrills with the sprints. You’ve got a lot of horsepower, you’re runnin’ them wide open, you’re slidin’ sideways… yeah, that’s a great sensation.

“In the early days when I was sprint car racin’, I believe maybe things were a little rougher than they are now and, yeah, you’d get fights occasionally afterwards. There was a lot of pressure on us all. A sprint car race, you know, is a short, sharp affair, and feelings do tend to run high afterwards, if you feel some guy’s been doin’ somethin’ dangerous, or blocking you and things like that.”

In the course of his career, Foyt won 67 Indycar races, more than any other driver. He won the Indy 500 on four occasions and the USAC National Championship six times. He won at Le Mans, as we said. And the Daytona 500, that most hallowed of all races in the south. And countless midget and sprint races.

“People don’t understand what made Foyt great,” said the veteran American journalist Chris Economaki. “It had nothing to do with how fast he went. AJ Foyt simply never made a mistake, never spun, never ran into anybody, never overshot his pit, never missed a gearshift… he was precision exemplified. He was as fast as the next guy, but not necessarily faster. It was his absolutely precise methods behind the wheel that made him eventually better than all of them — plus the fact that, as an individual, he was so colourful, which focused all the attention on him.”

That being so, it always seemed to me a tragedy that, although he was entered to drive a BRM in the 1964 US Grand Prix, and an Eagle in the ’67 Belgian Grand Prix, we never saw him in Formula One. When the USAC brigade came to England in 1978 for a pair of races, at Silverstone (where Foyt won) and Brands Hatch, I asked him why this had never come to be.

In part, the reason was financial, as with Pamelli Jones, who was invited to partner Jim Clark in the Lotus team in the mid-1960s, but turned Colin Chapman down. “There just wasn’t any money in F1 at that time,” said Jones. “If you wanted to make a decent living, you had to race in America — and I had a very good thing going.”

Foyt agreed: “Yes, the money did come into it, but I’ve reached a point now where I feel maybe I should’ve gone Formula One racing. I think I would’ve enjoyed it, too. But the problem with Formula One now is that if you’re gonna do it properly — and that’s the only way to do it — you can’t really do anything else. And I’ve got so many other businesses in the States that demand my time, and it’s never really been possible for me to think about a full season of Formula One. Maybe if I was offered the right car in the right place, maybe you’d see me in one…”

Right afterwards I went to talk to Tyler Alexander, then working with the McLaren USAC team. Did he think AJ was half-serious about this Formula One bid?

“Oh, sure,” Tyler replied. “And he’s already spoken to me about it. He’s serious all right. He says he’d test and learn the circuits, and lose 15-20 pounds or so. And, I’m telling you, even now he’d be bloody quick. I’ve seen him race a lot in the last few years, and when he’s in the car there’s no fooling around at all!”

It’s a pity it never came to be. I have never forgotten Foyt’s display of controlled aggression at that Silverstone 25 years ago. Persistent rain had made a fiasco of qualifying and his orange Coyote started a long way back, but AJ quickly got into the groove once the race was under way. Into Copse, every time around, he tried a run down the inside. “I took the first half-dozen laps quietly. I mean, I had done but two hot laps of practice, and only 11 in total! So, for a while, I followed [Rick] Mears and those other guys, figurin’ which way the road went and where to shut off for the turns and things like that. And then I felt ready to make my move…”