By any standard 1964 was a remarkable year for AJ Foyt. Arguably, it was his greatest season.
The legendary Texan got his season rolling in style half a century ago by winning the first seven races in a row – Indy 500 included – and adding three more victories later in the year to set a record equalled only by Al Unser in 1970. Foyt thus won his fourth USAC Championship in five years, defeating arch rival Rodger Ward who won the championship in 1959 and ’62 and finished second to Foyt in 1960, ’63 and ’64.
During this time Foyt drove for master mechanic George Bignotti’s Bowes Seal Fast team. AJ started his Indycar career in 1958 with Clint Brawner’s Dean Van Lines team and joined Bignotti in 1960. Rodger Ward drove for Bob Wilke’s Leader Card team and both operations raced beautiful Offy-powered roadsters built by AJ Watson.
Foyt’s Indy 500 win in ’64 was his second victory at the Brickyard and turned out to be the last win in the 500 for a front-engined car. Jim Clark had won at Milwaukee the previous year, thus scoring the first Indycar win by a rear-engined car, and of course Clark went on to win the 500 in 1965 aboard the superb Len Terry-designed Lotus 38, ending the long reign of the classic Indy roadster.
In 1964 Foyt won all five USAC Championship races run on the one-mile dirt tracks at Langhorne, Springfield, Du Quoin, Indianapolis and Sacramento. Foyt’s dirt cars were built by Wally Meskowski and his dominance on the dirt enabled him to handily beat Ward with 2900 points to Ward’s 2128.
In fact, the only other drivers to win USAC Championship races in 1964 were Parnelli Jones and Lloyd Ruby. Parnelli drove a Lotus 29 fettled by Eddie Kuzma to win at Milwaukee in August and at Trenton the following month while Ruby won the season-closer at Phoenix driving a rear-engine Halibrand-Offy. Jones was Foyt’s fiercest competitor in 1964, leading 555 laps to Foyt’s 861, but Parnelli was beginning to pull back, missing three mid-season races, so he finished no better than sixth in points.
Battling with Jones
For his part, Foyt also won the July 4th Firecracker 400 NASCAR race at Daytona in 1964 and ’65. In 1971 and ’72 he would win four more NASCAR races driving a Wood Brothers Ford, including the ’72 Daytona 500, thus joining Mario Andretti as the only Indycar stars to win NASCAR’s biggest race.
At the end of 1963 Foyt won a pair of road races at Nassau driving John Mecom’s rear-engine Scarab-Chevy Mk IV sports racer. He won again aboard the Scarab on Daytona’s road course in February of ’64 and later in the year he raced Mecom’s 7-litre Dodge V8-powered Hussein Can-Am-type sports/racer a few times. AJ was supposed to drive the mighty Hussein in that year’s Guards Trophy race at Brands Hatch but it wasn’t ready so he reverted to Mecom’s tried and true Scarab only to suffer a broken clutch after only a few laps.
At the end of 1964 Foyt and Bignotti parted ways. Foyt started his own team in partnership with his father Tony while Bignotti joined Mecom’s team. Bignotti and Mecom won the Indy 500 in 1966 with Graham Hill driving Mecom’s Lola T90-Ford while Foyt scored his third Indy 500 win in 1967 driving his own rear-engine Coyote-Ford. AJ also won his fifth USAC title in ’67, adding two more USAC Championships in 1975 and ’79 and a fourth Indy 500 win in ’77 so that he eventually achieved an unrivalled tally of seven championships and 67 Indy car wins.
Row 2 at Indy, 1977: Foyt (14), Gordon Johncock (20) and Mario Andretti (9)
In addition, Foyt won the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1967, co-driving a Ford Mk IV with Dan Gurney, and added a pair of Daytona 24 Hour wins to his resume in 1983 and ’85. He finally retired in 1992, aged 57, but continues to run his own IndyCar team with Takuma Sato driving. In fact, AJ Foyt Racing is IndyCar’s oldest team ahead of Penske Racing. AJ will celebrate his 80th birthday next January and still attends most IndyCar races although son Larry took over the responsibilities of running the team a few years ago.
AJ was renowned as one of the toughest racers of all-time but he was also highly respected for being a fair and clean yet forceful competitor. “I never felt like I was over the limit,” he remarked a few years ago. “One time they showed me a whole film of the 1961 championship when I beat Rodger Ward. He was a great race car driver on dirt and that film showed me and Rodger Ward at Sacramento, and I went between him and the fence. I said, ‘Holy crap!’ I couldn’t believe I did that. But I never felt like I was out of control.
“You’ve got race drivers and then you’ve got race drivers,” he went on. “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 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.”
Foyt shifted in his seat and broke into a grin. “Back in those days when the sun went down was when it all started,” he smiled. “You could stay up half the night partying away and get up in the morning and go to work feeling great, raring to go. You didn’t even feel it.
“Through the years I had a lot of fun. People say, would you change anything in life? And I say, the truth is no. I made a living doing what I love to do. I enjoyed life and I’ve got things I never thought I’d have. I was fortunate enough to win at Indianapolis, Daytona, at all the great dirt tracks, and overseas at Le Mans. I couldn’t have asked for a better life.”
All photos courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway