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Interview with: A.J. Foyt
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: July 22, 2008
DG: Today is July 22, 2008. We are in the offices of A.J. Foyt who is being interviewed for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. How are you today, Sir?
AJF: I am fine. How are you?
DG: Doing great. Thank you for making time for us.
AJF: I am glad to do that.
DG: Thank you. Let’s begin at the beginning. Why don’t you tell us where and when you were born and about your early days?
AJF: Well, it is hard to think back long. I have been here a little longer than everybody thought I would be. I was born in the Heights at 505 W. 25th Street across from the Pickle Factory. Born in St. Joseph’s Hospital downtown Houston. I have always been a Houstonian. Even though I have traveled all over the world and raced all over the world, I always look forward to coming back here. A lot of people . . . even though I was in Indiana a lot . . . “You need to move up here.” “No, my hometown is Houston.” Every time I was injured in a race car, a couple of times when they wanted to amputate my legs, I said, “No, you get me back to Houston. If they want to throw me in the garbage can there, I will be thrown in a garbage can here in Houston.” I don’t know – it has always been my home. My mother and daddy were born here. It is just my hometown. I guess when I am laid to rest, I am going to be laid to rest here.
DG: What did you do when you were a kid?
AJF: Well, my daddy had an automobile shop. My great-grandfather. One of them was from Czechoslovakia and my aunt was from Berlin, Germany, I think, and they were in the automotive business. And then, my father was in the automotive business before he went to World War II. My mom’s side was Wilson Grocery Stores like on West 26th Street. I will never forget when Daddy was in the Air Force, he joined up . . . my mother worked for a hardware store. I could not tell you what the man looked like but I will never forget, it was Mr. DeLeon, and why names like that stick with you when you are very young, it did. Then, I went to Hams School out in the Heights and Hamilton. And then when my father got back from World War II, we moved over to actually Briargrove.
DG: You were around cars your whole life?
AJF: My whole life, yes.
DG: Your dad was a mechanic?
AJF: Yes, my daddy was a mechanic and he ran an auto shop, his own.
DG: Where was that shop?
AJF: Well, the original one was like at 18th and Ashland out in the Heights, across the street from Harold’s Clothing Store which a lot of people remember that, and then after he got out of the war, it was B&F Garage at 2212 Milford off of South Shepherd.
DG: Being in the auto repair business in Houston at that time had to be different than what it is now. What kind of things do you work on, what are your problems?
AJF: Well, back then, I used to help my father in the shop a lot. He had mechanics. Two of our main customers that we always had were actually Dr. DeBakey and then Denton Cooley. They were two. And, you know, Denton Cooley used to go to Indy quite a bit and watch . . . I will never forget, one year, he was up there and I told him, “Denton,” . . . we had to go to Decoin (sp?), I said, “Don’t leave. I might need you.” Well, believe it or not, I did. Got on fire and broke my leg and all that stuff and they flew me back to Houston out of the hospital there. Jack Trouter has always been here in Houston, Texas and always handled all my finances and everything else. So, they flew me home and I will never forget – I was in the hospital, here comes Denton and he said, “Well, you didn’t lie to me.” I said, “Well, I did not mean for it to be on purpose but it did happen.” Super people.
DG: Yes, he is a good guy to have on your team.
AJF: Yes, he really was. He operated on my father, open heart surgery – I will never forget, and my mother was so worried and Denton said, “Come on in. Your daddy is talking.” I went in there and I said, “Man, let me out of here!” I went back and said, “Mama, Daddy is fine.”
DG: Where did you go to high school?
AJF: High school, I went to, actually, Hamilton. And then, I went to Persian out here in West University, and then I went to high school – that was junior high but high school, I wound up at St. Thomas.
DG: I see. Now, you made a decision to drop out of high school just a little bit before graduation.
AJF: Right before graduation, I decided I just wanted to go with a racing career and, I don’t know, Daddy had a lot of cars that won races and I think what happened . . . he had some friends of his driving and they were great race drivers but they would rather finish second or third or fourth and before that, Daddy’s cars always won. They said, “Your daddy is slipping,” and all that. And, I don’t know . . . you know, when you are a kid, you don’t like somebody talking about your father and I said, “Them are great race cars.” And so, my first race that I ever drove was out Playland Park where the Astrodome is now. Ray Lavely (sp?) promoted it. It was a super place years back and just had a lot of fun.
DG:Playland park had a race track?
AJF: Yes. It was a quarter mile dirt race track and it had the rollercoaster and all that. Ray Lavely was the promoter. I will never forget it.
DG: Interesting. What do you remember of the Heights when you were living there?
AJF: Well, it was pretty rough when I was little. I think it has cleaned up quite a bit because it was not on Heights Boulevard where I was at. I was on 505 West 25th. I drive by there every now and then when people ask me today. I drove by there probably one month ago and the house is blue and white and it is still there. I don’t know, someday I thought I’d like to buy it but really, you know, it really would not do us any good. It is just where I was born and raised and I still like to drive by. People out of town a lot of times say, “Where were you raised?” I’ll drive . . . “You were raised in that little” . . . I say, “That is where I was raised.”
DG: Houston was a much smaller town when you . . .
AJF: Well, the point was, yes, it has really grown leaps and bounds. It is still a great town. There are a lot of things to do here. One thing I found out living here, that, you know, for Houston, for sports people, you’ve either got to really produce or they just don’t care about you. It is very simple. I feel like the people here in Houston really treated me fair and square and a lot of other towns had actually doing a lot more for me that I am not from and they said, “Well, why do you still live there?” I say, “That is my hometown and I love Houston.” I just like it, you know? You know, if you could go somewhere and maybe have a temperature of 68 to 70 degrees year round, I might say I’d consider moving but anywhere you go, the temperature is about the same.
DG: Yes. So, how did you make your progression? I mean, once you started racing professionally, you rose pretty fast to racing professionally in championship races. What was your first race? What was your first fast race?
AJF: Well, actually, my first major win, I will never forget it. It was in Olympic Stadium in Kansas City. That was my big win with AAA. And then after that, a lot of people said, “A.J. will never live to be 22 years old.” But a lot of those people that said that have lost their lives in race cars. So far, I guess I was lucky a lot. I did not ever feel like I was real wild like a lot of people thought because every time I have been injured real bad, something broke on the race car. You could see it. It wasn’t like me doing something foolish or way over my head, so I always felt like I was in command of my race car all the time; where a lot of people but I look back at some of the pictures today, some of the old movies and I will be truthful with you – it scares me to death! I say, wow, how brave was I? But I always felt like I was in command. I never felt like I was out of control. Even now when I look at them, it kind of makes me nervous and I can understand why a lot of people probably said, “He will never live to be 22.”
DG: Were both your parents supportive of your decision to race?
AJF: Yes. That is one thing . . . after I won Indy my first time in 1961, my mother and father did everything they could for me. I was at Tangerine Tournament and was out of money and my mother went and rolled $50 worth of pennies and sent it to me, you know, so I could get home, buy enough gas. Nowadays, you could not even get out of town on $50 for gas but back then, you could. After I won Indy in 1961 . . . my daddy worked hard all his life and I turned around and I went down to find out what my father owed on his home and he said, “Why do you want to know that?” I said, “Well, I just want to know it.” “Well, it is none of your business.” My daddy was Catholic and a ______, Bohemian, and, you know, he was strictly straight arrow. So, I found out and I went and paid their home off. Not that I had that much money because I did not have that much money but, you know, my wife never said anything about it and I went and paid the home off. Daddy kind of got mad at me. He said, “Why do you think that . . . I don’t need you to do it.” I said, “Daddy, you and Mama worked hard all your life, you gave me everything you possibly could, I have been fairly successful so far,” and I said, “If something happened to me tomorrow, I would know that you have a place that is paid for and you do not have to worry about it.” And I said, “That is just thanking you and Mama for what you did for me through the years. And, you know, I’ve got to say one thing about my wife – she never said a word. She was raised in River Oaks, I was raised in The Heights – a big difference. Her family was Dr. Zar and Dr. Sinclair. They owned the Heights Hospital years back before they sold it. And a lot of people said, “Well, you come from money.” I said, “Well, I don’t know where it was because I damned sure slept in the back seat of my car many, many nights traveling.”
DG: Fantastic. It seems like every sport is more developed now than what it was back when you first started. What was the whole world of racing? I mean, certainly the purses were smaller, the sponsorship was smaller. How did a kid get started who wanted to race cars?
AJF: Well, back then, you were able to do it on your talent and people watching you. I know the big thing there was Indy where a lot of people have to pay for the tires and Clint Brawner that won the championship with Jimmy Brown 3 years in a row. They watched me run Salem, Indiana which is high banks of everything just race track and I won the race and I was running IMCA, and he felt like, you know, if you were that good, that he wanted to give me a shot at Indy. I went to Indy as a rookie and here is the man that has won a championship 3 years in a row and I am trying to fulfill his shoes. I said, “Man, I don’t know about this here, you know. I am a little rookie here.” Jimmy Brown was one of the greatest race drivers before he died, you know, and lost his life – that ever sat in a race car. He was very talented. And so, I was quite nervous. The name of the car was Dean Van Lines. I will never forget it. Al Dean and them. They were super. So, nowadays, what is so much different, a lot of kids they kind of buy their way in. And, you know, back then, you built your own race cars, they did and they did their own motor work where you have the factories in it like Delauren, G-Force, Build a Cars (sp?); then you’ve got Honda and you had Chevrolet and all them build motors. So, it is a lot different today and it is a lot bigger money but, you know, I would not trade my racing for today’s racing because of all the fun that I had and look back at the cars I drove and to think that the magic number was when I went back there, is to try to run 150 miles an hour. That isn’t even fast enough for a driver’s speed and the last time I ran there, I ran a little over 225 wide open. If you would have told me back then or anybody else that you could be running around in Indianapolis wide open . . . there was a funeral home there named ______’s Funeral Home . . . they would say, that is where you would be. I am just glad that I lasted long enough to drive a car where you could run wide open, you know, and still have the old cars I drove that you were lucky to run 145 miles an hour.
DG: There were different circuits then as there are now. What was your first circuit?
AJF: My first circuit was IMCA and they run fairdays and half mile and I run there for almost one year. And then, I got picked up and started going AAA with what is called USAC, and USAC was one sponsored Indy. My first year I went up there, I was sitting in the grandstand in 1955 and that is when the late great Bill Buchovic lost his life, you know, coming off turn 2. So, fortunately enough, after 1957, I was lucky enough to get an offer from Dean VanLyons (sp?) to go there in 1958, took my rookie test and they tell you all that, and then when they dropped the green flag that day, I will never forget, I went down the back straight away and if you remember, Unser went over the wall, Jerry Unser, and cars are going all . . . and they kept telling, well, at the start, you’ve got to watch for the draft and all that. And I am saying to myself, nobody said about cars going all over the race track end over end over the wall. And then, one of my great friends that helped me on this French circuit, his name was Pat O’Connor. I will never forget him and Ed Legion (sp?) tangled his car sitting going in turn 3 sideways and his head was hanging out and the car was all on fire. So, I went by the 3 laps, you know, under the yellow flag, Carson (sp?) flag and I said to myself . . . I was still real young, I said this is a little too rough for A.J. Foyt. It really bugged me because I did know him that well and I know he helped me a couple of times and, you know, when you see a friend . . . I was never exposed to anything like that, you know? It really bugged me and I said to myself, I don’t know if I want this life or not. I had friends of mine get killed but it wasn’t like you just keep seeing them hanging out of the car and going slow and just seeing them burned to death. I mean, he was already dead but still, it is hard to take.
DG: So, you had that moment while you were still in the car?
AJF: Right, and one thing about the cars today – they are probably 500% safer than they used to be because I have been burned 2 or 3 times and spent a lot of time . . . I have been to St. Luke’s, I have been to St. Joseph’s when they flew me back and Memorial here with my legs and all that so I know what it is like to be hurt real bad. I think it was 1990 is when I had the terrible wreck at Elkhart Lake and that is when they were talking about amputating my left leg and that is when I said . . . I signed it . . . they said, “Well, we’ve got to try to reestablish blood flow.” I said, “This is fine and this is all I am signing it for, doctor. If there is any amputation, just make sure” and I told the other people, “Put me in the airplane and fly me home and let my doctors here just make that decision.” I did not want it made up there. And had a great doctor named Dr. Steele at Milwaukee, Wisconsin – I will never forget. He really saved my legs.
DG: So, what was your motivation? You grew up in the house, you wanted to do it for your dad probably.
DG: Well, when you had those doubts, what was it that kept you going, what was it that pushed over . . .
AJF: I do not know. I really liked the challenge, you know, and I got to meet some people and I was kind of having rough times and knowing I could beat them. And then, I just got to thinking I’ve got to beat them. And, you know, if you’ve got the willpower, you can do anything you really want. I will never forget, one time I was at my father’s shop in 1961 and a lady customer came in. My daddy’s name was Tony. She said, “Tony, your boy had a great, great weekend. Aren’t you very proud of him?” He said, “Yes.” He said, “Well, what is he doing now?” He said, “He is over there working on that car.” “You mean he is working on a car after winning the Indianapolis 500?” And the lady came over and said, “I cannot believe you are doing this,” do you know what I mean? I was working under the dashboard. I got out and the lady, I wish I could remember her name – she looked at me like you’ve got to be crazy to still be working! But I will never forget that when that happened. The lady was bragging on me and wanted to know where I was at and my daddy told her and she walked over and said, “I cannot believe you are doing this after a big weekend.” That has been my whole life. I enjoy working.
DG: Was your dad part of your team?
AJF: My daddy was part of my team until he got real sick and passed away. He was my full chief mechanic from 1966 until he passed away. The only thing I am so glad about – that my mother and my daddy both lived to see me be the first 4 time 500 winner. When my daddy was dying, there was no way . . . I was at the hospital up there with him and Bill French, Sr., Daytona, called me 3 times. He said, “We would like for you to run a 24 hour race again,” and the last time they ran was Dan Gerner and I was the only American that has ever won the Lamont 24 hour race, the American driver, and we still hold a track record there even though they are running cars today. And I said, “Well, daddy” . . . he said, “There is not a damn thing you can do sitting here. Just go out and have some fun.” And I went there and fortunately, I was lucky enough to win the race and bring the trophy back before he passed away and I said, “If I never won another race,” I was just so glad to do that. And he was the one that kind of pushed me into going. I really did not want to go there because I felt like I needed to be there.
DG: So, you are making history at Indianapolis and you are traveling around the country. What was it like when you came home? How did Houston treat its race car . . .
AJF: Houston was always . . . when I first won the Indy, it was . . . oh gosh, I am trying to remember . . . going out 45, that first big mall here, they honored me and they had a parade and all that. Houston has always been very good to me. The TV and the newspapers have all been very, very good to me.
DG: Great. Your accomplishments on the racetrack have gotten you in several Hall of Fames and you hold several records. Are there any races that stand out in your mind for any reason, a particularly good win? I had the opportunity to talk with Darrell Royal at one time and asked him about his national championships, and he wanted to talk about the ones he almost won.
AJF: Well, like 1975 and 1976, all I had to do was stay out of trouble, rain caused it and one time I broke a sway bar and I ran 2nd and 3rd and in 1977, that 4th one was so doggone hard to win, and all I had to do was stay out of trouble. I had everybody covered so bad. It ended they could not even run close to me. And I still tease Mario Andretti . . . in 1969, I sat on the pole in runaway and we broke a fitting and had to stop. I told him, “Andretti, I gave you that race.” There has always been a lot of friction between Mario Andretti and the Foyts. I told him, “I gave you that race. You know I did.” But, you know, I won a couple I should have not and then I lost 3 or 4 I should have won but that is racing. It is just like ballgames or anything. I don’t know, you hate . . . I think it was 1976 when it rained. I came in the pit, it started raining and before I got out, it started raining hard and they red flagged the races over halfway and they gave it to Johnny. And I said man . . . and it dried. They said, “Well, we could not finish.” I said, “All I need is one straight away to take back the lead to win.” They said, “Oh, no, no. If we start it, we want to finish it and it is not going to dry up that much.” Well, it was dry enough to do it. Man, I begged, “Just give me 1 lap is all I need.” That is what hurts, really, when you know . . . and then it was just my scheduled pit stop – cost me the race but that is racing, you know. It is like anything. It is like the shark the other day in the Masters. But it happens. I think that is one of the biggest things because one thing I found out in racing – you hear all these brave race drivers who have never been scared. Well, I have raced a lot and probably won as much or more than 99% of them but there was not a race that went by that one time in that race, that I just did not scare myself to death! I will be truthful with you. And when these guys talk, they are so brave. Well, A.J. Foyt was never that brave, I will be truthful with you. And I felt like I must have been a little braver than them because I ran a lot faster but at the same time but at the same time, I cannot truthfully sit here and tell you that I just did not scare myself to death more than once in a race. I hear these other guys talking – I just shake my head. Why are you lying to yourself because that is all you are doing.
DG: Maybe that is what it takes to get back in the car.
DG: Now, you were the only driver to win the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500, the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 24 Hours of Le Mans – the only driver to ever do all 4 of those. Which one was the hardest?
AJF: To be truthful with you, the first 500 I won in Indianapolis. That was the first . . . my biggest thrill probably in racing was hoping some day I was good enough just to qualify for the race and then be fortunate enough to win it. That was my dream, is just be good enough to make the race. And, like I said, what else could I say after I won it the first time, then won the championship 7 times? But, I mean, it is just a big honor because, you know, it is just like Kentucky Derby – you can have a bad field of horses and regardless of who wins it, everybody in the world knows the Kentucky Derby. That is like the Indianapolis 500. I won Daytona and I won the 400s down there and I won Ontario and California, Pocono I won 4 times the 500 which is only 1 Indianapolis 500 . . . you know, it is like the Superbowl. So, regardless if you know anything about racing, when people talk about the Indy 500, they know what that is and to me, I would have to say that has been the biggest achievement in my life, to be fortunate enough just to win it once, much less 4 times.
DG: That win came so early in your career. Were you surprised? Did you know you were that good? Did you think you were that good? Or did you find out with that race, hey, I really am that good?
AJF: Well, you know, at that time, I was running midgets and sprint cars and stop cars, that I just loved to challenge people. That is the reason I used to go to Nascar and run. I could only go down there when there was full FI International but I liked the challenge in different fields. I felt like I was pretty good but I had a good team, too, you know. Big Naughty and them, the crew were very good. You know, when you’ve got a good combination going, I don’t care if it is football, baseball, hockey or whatever it is and you all get to clicking, it is hard to beat that kind of team, and some of it is going to be luck and some of it is going to be just because you are a lot better and a lot smarter. So, all in all, we had a good combination going. I cannot take full credit because I had a team. To me, any kind of sport that you are winning is team effort. I am not one of these guys to say if it wouldn’t have been for me, that car wouldn’t have won because it possibly could have won with other people in it. But it was all a team effort and we all worked hard together on trying to win. That was our big deal was trying to win, not run second. Like I used to say, “You show me somebody that is happy about second and they are happy – I will show you somebody that has never won a race.”
DG: So, if everything else was equal, if 2 cars are the same, what did you bring to it that would make the difference? What do you think made you a good race car driver?
AJF: I felt like I knew the mechanic side of it, I knew the mechanic side of it real well and I knew what it took and things like that, and that is one thing because, you know, I used to work on my cars myself 75% of the time. I used to build my own motors and things like that so I knew all about the race car. So, I felt like that helped me a lot. I knew when I could push it a little harder and when I didn’t have to push it.
DG: Right. I want to go over some of these other . . . there was a time on the racetrack – I want to find the year – when you were in an accident and they declared you dead on the track. And then, you were revived. Can you recall that race?
AJF: Yes, I really can. That was Riverside, California. My good friend, Billy Wade, lost his life testing for Goodyear at Daytona. I was not driving for Ford at the present time. I had just left them. And I was in Phoenix, Arizona testing for Goodyear Tires. We flew over there just once a race and then Ford after Billy Wade lost his life. He was from Houston here. A super friend of mine. He was a little older than I was. A super race driver. Mainly stock cars. And, like I say, he lost his life at Daytona testing. And I was out there and Ford wanted me to drive his car. I said, “Fine.” So, I drove it and what happened, I was running second to Dan Gurney and the brake pedal broke where they had it mounted. And it was running at that time about 180 or 190 miles an hour down the bankside, so I went off in the ditch and went end over end. I knew it was going to be bad. I just did not know how bad. It was actually Parnelli Jones saw me laying there and the one doctor said it was like 5 or 6 laps ago, we’ll just get him out afterwards. Don’t’ worry about it. And for some reason, Parnelli and them were there at the race and fairly close to the car and when they saw me kind of move, I guess he stuck his finger in my mouth where it was all full of mud and that, then they kind of revived me. Then, I woke up in the hospital. My mother just had a heart attack and I can remember as plain as anything, I said, “I’ve got to talk to my mama, I’ve got to talk to my mama.” Some way, they arranged for the telephone to be in my ear. I told her that I was supposed to have a broken back and my legs were broke. And I said, “But I am fine and I want you to know this is me. Now, Mama, I am tired and sleepy,” and then I went to sleep for about 2 or 3 days. But I can remember that. I remember I kept saying, “I’ve got to talk to mama,” because she had had a serious heart attack and was very bad off.
DG: That is an amazing story. It is lucky for you he was there.
AJF: Yes. Dr. McGee and them, they all flew and my wife, all her family were doctors and for some reason, I kept saying to them, and they called my wife, I said, “Check on my doctors. Check on my doctors.” Then, the Houston doctors got on, the Ford Motor Company flew them out there and then after about a month or so or 3 weeks, something like that . . . I was in intensive care about 2 weeks and my breastbone was falling apart. I will never forget, on that breathing machine, it was terrible back then. Oh, God! And then, they flew me, I think it was in Methodist. I was in there about a month or something like that.
DG: And I apologize - I do not have the sequence but was that your first major accident?
AJF: That was my first major accident, yes, sir.
DG: Was it hard to get back in the car?
AJF: Well, I don’t think that was as hard as the first time I got burned, you know, because the race cars, every time you hit something, they would blow up and explode. And, you know, in 1965, I got hurt and then in 1966, I got burned real bad. And then I came back in 1967 and every time the car kind of jumped sideways, you know, it petrified me because you knew every time you were going to hit the wall, it was going to blow up. Really, today, that is what is so safe about the cars. And I had __________ plastic surgeon, he had worked on me about all he could work on me and they always come home, and I am going to tell you what – being burned, I was like 20% to 30% second and third degree burns of my face, my hands and all that and, you know, it was awful painful. And I will never forget, some friends of mine while I was at St. Joseph’s Hospital recuperating after some burns when they flew me back, I said, “Man, if I just had a Dr. Pepper.” One of those idiots, my friends, one of them, I don’t know, I guess it was some whiskey or something, they put the spoon in and my mouth was all burned. Oh! I said, “You dirty dogs! Why would you do that to a friend?” They died laughing. They said, “Here. Here is some Dr. Pepper on a spoon” and they dumped it and my hands were all bandaged up. I wanted to shoot them if I had a gun. They were pulling a crank on me. That was the hardest thing, I think, when I started back in 1967. Then I got burned later on that year at Phoenix when Andretti and I tangled again but I did win the championship that year. I think that was the biggest thing I had kind of . . . being broken up and hurt, yes, it does, but I think the biggest thing I had in race cars was fire because I did get trapped in them a couple of times after I crashed. That is a horrible feeling. They always say it is a quick death. I’ve got news for them – they haven’t been trapped in one burning and trying to get out because in Milwaukee, I fried up. My feet were hung in there and I could not get out and the skin like on a chicken bone, slid off both my hands, you know, and they showed me while the car was on fire and they had a picture where I folded both arms like that, fell back down the seat and then I finally said, if I don’t get out, some way to get my feet out, I am just going to sit here and fry. I will never forget, they rolled me at Milwaukee in a wool blanket. Oh my God! Talk about . . . but, you know, I am still here talking about it so it could not have been too bad!
DG: Oh, I don’t know about that! There was a race in 1966 and you were there . . .
DG: Well, I am reading here . . . in Milwaukee. And you had the wrong car for the track but you put different tires on it and won the race anyway.
AJF: Oh, that was actually, what I did . . . I went there and I won Springfield the day before with my dirt car. And then I turned around . . . I guess that had to be one of the highlights . . . in my dirt car and Jimmy Clark, Gurney and Parnelli were all on Ford Motor Company ______ cars. And that was the thing, you know, and the dirt cars were obsolete. And I wanted to race so bad, I said, man, I just wonder if I can change the tires and put pavement tires on it and make the race. Well, I had one guy helping me and I was doing the work and I said, “Just see if we can run it.” He said, “You are second fast and field.” I said, “You cannot even read the stopwatch.” I said, “You are crazy!” So, I wound up, and it was so funny . . . my good friend before he died was Gordon _______ a lot of fresh orange juice here. And Bobby Unser was driving for him and ran second in his dirt car at Springfield the day before and he had spent all this money on re-engine cars which I broke mine, you know. And so, I just got a dirt car. And he told me, he said, “Look at you. You are on the pole and we are in the last row and you set racing back 50 years.” I almost won the race. I had to make a pit stop because my car was just a 100 miler and I ran 2nd in the race. And I would have to say when we came down to the start, it shows me – it would be like you and a bunch of little Hondas or something, me like a big Greyhound bus and we are coming down to the start. So, that was one of the highlights of my career.
DG: You led the race for 18 out of 200 laps but you had to stop for a new rear tire. You came in 2nd.
AJF: That is exactly right.
DG: Well, that must have been one of those times where you felt like it was your driving . . .
AJF: Well, I would have to say, yes. I had the ability to do it. I still cannot believe I did it but I did it.
DG: The sport changed a lot while you were racing.
AJF: Yes, it has.
DG: Can you talk about some of the changes? I mean, a lot more money has come to each of those areas.
AJF: Well, I think the biggest changes are you’ve got the tire companies in it and you’ve got the factors in it, like Goodyear. They were the ones to make the first fuel cells which made the car so much safer for the drivers. I was the first guy or still the only guy to run 500 miles in Indianapolis in 1964 without changing a tire. Nobody has ever done that yet, and it is just so much engineering went to them and made them so much safer. That is the biggest thing that has helped the racing. And, like you say, to do things that were done, a lot of money came in it and to me, I think money a lot of times screws up more sports than it helps. You need it, don’t get me wrong, you definitely need it but I would not take my career back for nobody ______ regardless if I made $2 or $200 million. I had more fun back then because the guys nowadays do not know how much fun that it was back then – trying to build your own stuff, build your own motors and keep them together. And nowadays, everything is handed to these boys on a silver platter. They still race hard and things like that but it is nothing like the old days. I mean, they do not even put their visors on the helmet. Before, you had the helmets and you would put your own visor on. They got the people a helmet . . . “Oh, let me clean your helmet,” and all that. I mean, it is just . . . I don’t know! I don’t know if I could accept it!
DG: Racing has become a lot more popular, too. I mean, outside of the money, just the number of people that come to races.
AJF: Right, I mean, it has always been pretty popular at Indianapolis and then when champ cars and Indy cars started to fight, it kind of slowed down but the last couple of years, it has come back pretty strong. One thing I like about Indy cars over stock cars – and I won in both of them, don’t get me wrong . . . Michael Walter has won about 2,000 races and the more I ran down there, I won more races than him. It is hard to believe. I am just throwing his name out because Napa sponsors them and, you know, he has just never been what you would say a big winner. I either think you need to come up . . . that is something I do not think you can . . . I think you inherit that on driving ability. I mean, I know people work hard to try to be a good race driver and I think it has got to be kind of . . . it is like a race horse – it’s got to be bred into you. I mean, it is just like my son – none of my kids cared about racing. Now, my grandson, Anthony, A.J. Foyt IV, he loves racing. But it is just funny how it happens in the genes. You see brothers sometimes in any kind of sport – one brother loves this and the other brother does not even care about it. The same mother, same daddy and all that. I think you inherit a lot of that.
DG: That 4th Indianapolis 500, that came about 10 years . . . there was about a 10 year gap.
DG: Do you remember that . . . well, obviously you remember it . . . can you talk about that Indy? I mean, how did it finish? How did it end up?
AJF: Well, I really ran away from the field all that day and what happened, I ran out of fuel probably about 25 laps to go, had to make it and I coasted in. I was about 30 seconds behind Gordon Johncox and that was my old mechanic that kept him up, George McNaughty and Jack that still works with me built my cars and it was so much faster than everybody, I was catching around 2 to 3 seconds a lap. And you had what you called a boost control where I would turn it upright at the end of the day if I had to, to try to break the motor if I needed a lot more power. But I was catching him so fast, I talked to my chief mechanic, Jack Storm that works here, I said “Jack, they are going to let us get within about 10 seconds and McNaughty knows how hard I drove. He is going to send Gordy on.” Well, it went 10, 9, 8, 7 . . . Jack says, “Have you turned the boost up?” I said, “No, they’ve got to be in trouble,” because I did not want to take a chance of me blowing up my motor and I was catching them too fast – I got within, I think, about a second and a half ______ when he exploded because I know McNaughty told him turn it up and get away. Don’t let A.J. get in striking distance, because he knew how determined I was wanting to win. And so, my good friend was Ed Alexander, was a Goodyear engineer. I will never forget him because they had 3 or 4 different ______ compounds and I asked him, I said, “Do you think these tires will last me?” He said, “A.J., you know how to make them last and you know how to destroy them. That is going to be up to you.” And he passed away right after that. I was really happy because he was one of the top engineers and we did a lot of testing together. It was really kind of a soft construction. If you abused it . . . well, I had to abuse it a little bit to catch them as quick as I did. He said, “You know how to make it live and you know how to destroy them,” because if they would bring test tires out and I did not like them, I destroyed the hell out of them, you know. I really would work through them hard and really give them the works. I’d say, “No, that isn’t any good.” So, I had a lot of fun through the years.
DG: Fantastic. We are in your office here and the room is filled with trophies. Do any of them stand out in your memory, have any been more meaningful?
AJF: Well, a lot of my Indy trophies, my real pretty ones, but a lot of these are little ones. There is one trophy I have at home that I will never forget. It is kind of a truck, a real truck, and it’s got a trailer on it and it’s got little Coca Cola bottles and they are filled with Coca Cola. Little bitty bottles about that tall. And I wanted that trophy so bad. That was at Ontario, California, and it was whoever sat on the pole won that trophy. Well, the offies (sp?) were a little bit faster than my Ford Motor and I kept saying, man, I want it, I want it. And I did not think I could beat a couple of guys that were real fast in offies and I went to qualify and I won it. I have to say that is one trophy I really wanted and it is really a beautiful trophy. It is in my house at home. Then, I’ve got the big trophy at the Astrodome where our equipment is, it is about 20 years ago. It is about 7 feet tall out in the showroom here. I guess about 3 years ago when Mr. Francis’ secretary’s husband was about to pass away, she called me and said they were always big fans of mine and would I send a trophy, so I have given a lot of trophies away.
DG: When did you decide to retire from racing?
AJF: Well, really fully was 1993 when I quit. I was at Indy and probably could have won the ________ because we were very, very fast. And I was ______ 2 cars. Robbie Garden was in the other one. He wrecked twice and the morning of qualification, I was shaking down . . . I was running pretty quick, faster than anybody. I turned around and I said, “Yellow came out. Who is that?” They said, “It is our other car.” I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” And then I pulled in and the crew said, “You know, the car isn’t too bad but it is wanting to _______.” I said, “I am through.” They said, “What do you mean you are through?” I said, “I quit.” “You are kidding!” I said, “That’s it.” And I have not been back in an Indy car since. And who told me, that he came to me, it was Ray Hoorum (sp?), when I won in 1961, Tony _______ sent us to New York, is what my line was or something like that. I went there and I asked him because he raced for years, I said, “When do you know it is time to quit?” He said, “It will come to you.” And it just kind of came to me, bang, right there. And I said, “I am very fast today. They cannot say I went out and wasn’t very fast at Indianapolis.” I just told everybody. Nobody could believe it. It was hard to quit but I knew it was time. I was pretty crippled up and I was told if I had another accident, I would probably lose one of my legs or something like that. At my age, at that time, it was not worth it, you know? I had many victories, a lot of glory, a lot of fun. I said, if I am going to be a car owner, I cannot keep driving _____ get your own car. And that is how it all came about.
DG: What made you want to be a car owner? I mean, you knew you were going to stop racing at some point. What was the attracting . . .
AJF: Well, the deal there was the sponsors that pay the money wanted me to keep racing and, you know, I started Indy and I felt like that day, that was a good place to walk away from it.
DG: And then, when you made a decision to retire from full-time racing, just for the purpose of this story, give me the chronology? What did you do? You had a dealership here in Houston?
AJF: Yes, I had A.J. Foyt Chevrolet here and then I had the Honda dealership which I am out of the car business. We got rid of them a few years ago.
DG: And you have racing teams now?
AJF: Yes, just 1 Indy Car. ABC Supply is my sponsor on it.
DG: How is that program doing?
AJF: Well, you know, it has been kind of a rough road and the reason why, you know, at first we had the Toyota Motors weren’t competitive at all, then I had . . . my grandson is a rookie, that we won the championship the year before when the Indy pro car was with him and he won in the drags and he won in the go karts. So, when I had Salazar . . . and we have won the championship a couple of times. And then, Pensky and all of them, they’ve got drivers that have been with them 7 or 8 years which is good. So, we have had to go through a string of drivers, you know. Our equipment is just as good as theirs and for the crews, it is good. Pit stop – we are just as fast or faster a lot of times. But, you know, you’ve got to have the whole combination clicking together. And little _______ races, we have had a 2nd and top 10 twice. We started last week 20th and we made a smart call. It was the rain tires and they dropped a green in a hollard (sp?) pit. We put pavements on. We were running 4 to 6 second laps faster. Then, the yellow came out again and caught us so we wound up 9th overall but we ran second for quite a while. So, we ran pretty good.
??: [Inaudible question]
AJF: Well, you know, going back to it and being a team owner, we won the championship twice, came back and won the Indy in 1999. So, you know, it has been pretty rewarding and a lot of fun.
DG: Do you get the same thrill out of owning the winning car as you did out of driving it?
AJF: No. I mean, people tell you that. No. You know, a lot of times, when I was winning, I was owning my own race cars then. So, you know, I guess one thing right here in Houston, when we built the other coyotes that we started in 1967, it was built right here in Houston and then in 1977, a car was built right here in Houston. And what was a big honor? We had the A.J. Foyt motor and I drove it and I had the car and we won with it and set records. So, that was a pretty big honor I do not think anybody will ever top. I had my own motor, it was a Foyt motor, a coyote chassis which is Foyt chassis, and I had old A.J. driving it. So, I mean, I would have to say that was probably one of the highlights of my career, my old racing deal, to be able to do that because I do not know if anybody is going to ever break that record.
DG: It may be the part that the media chooses to play up but it seems like racing and a lot of sports are known for the rivalries. Were there any rivalries that sort of defined your racing career?
AJF: Oh, yes. Andretti and I used to have a big one. Mario.
DG: Was it as it was portrayed in the media? Were you really friends or were you just . . .
AJF: No. Well, I guess you would have to say kind of like DeBakey and Cooley. Foyt and Andretti. There was just a big challenge. I mean, he was good and he was from up north. I cannot say what I want to say. And I am from Houston here, so it was a big challenge. I guess one of the big challenges when I used to go back there in his backyard in 1960, nobody won the championship on the east coast, especially the mid coast, for 25 years, and I accomplished that in their backyard. So, that was a big straw in my hat. Like I said, no, we had a rivalry. We always had it. I beat him in the championship 3 or 4 times by just a few points but we had our differences. I crashed him a couple of times on purpose. I told him to quit chopping me off or I am going to park you. I usually totaled him first. They have actually tamed it down a lot more than it used to be. It used to be kind of a dog eat dog. I mean, it was not very smart of people but that is the way it was.
DG: You were also asked many times to go race more often over in Europe and you usually said no. Would you share your reasoning for that?
AJF: Well, the reason was I felt like my name was made here in the United States and, first of all, I did not like the way they cooked. I could not understand their language very well. I just did not like the way they lived over there. I just loved it here in the United States. And every now and then, we still have to go overseas for certain things but it is like taking a whipping when I go over there. I do not enjoy it at all. My wife likes to travel over there with the kids. I say, “You go.” I have been all around. Now, if I go, it is a 2 or 3 day deal and I am coming back to Houston.
DG: There is a story that I came across in the research that I would like to share with the tape. It was told by Dick Hutcherson who was part of your stock car operation. He said that in Daytona one year, a young man got killed in the qualifying race, and that you told him to find the boy’s dad and make sure that he had enough money to deal with the . . .
AJF: Yes, we flew him home.
DG: It is the kind of story that probably would have . . . well, when he told the story, he said it might have surprised some people that knew you just sort of as the hard-driving race car driver.
AJF: Well, I never cared to blow my horn when I did things like that. I did that a lot of times but I did not want people to know who did it. And Hutch and I were very, very close through the years. It is just they did not have much and I knew they were really working and I told them just to find his daddy and do whatever they had to do and let me know and I will pay for it. I was always known to be the bad guy and really deep down, I was not as bad as it looked like on the surface. I had my problems with the media and things like that through the years because, you know, if I am racing, I am racing and if I’ve got problems, I don’t want to sit there and talk about it like a lot of these guys do now. Just leave me alone until I get my problems worked out, then I will be glad to talk to you. So, I was kind of written up bad a couple of times for that. It is just like the line dike deal in Texas, you know, a few years ago. They kept playing it over and over on the deal and my wife was very upset because Larry, my son, was going to TCU, “Aren’t you proud of yourself?” “No.” And then, somebody called in and said, “Oh, it is racing back like in the Playland days. They race and then they go back there and fight.” And finally after about 12 o’clock, I am driving back to Houston from Dallas and somebody else called . . . “Oh, man, it is ______.” I finally turned the radio off. She is chewing me out royally.
DG: You referred to line dike story. I do not know if you wanted to share that for this purpose or not but we will let people look that up on their own if they want to find out. Well, you became one of the icons of the sport and, you know, when they were trying to make racing more popular for people, they would name the big names. I remember watching races back then and they would talk about who was leading and they would talk about where you were. So, you got extra attention from the media probably when you wanted less.
AJF: All in all, the media was good. I mean, I cannot really say anything real bad about the media. A lot of them, they knew how to treat me and like Robin Miller out in Indianapolis said, “When he’s mad, don’t go around him. Give him 10 minutes to cool off,” and, you know, I was fine. But I guess I take racing today really serious, even though I am not driving, and maybe I take it too serious and I jump on some of the guys. I don’t know, I mean, to me, it is not a game, it is a business, and if you have ever won, like I said, you do not want to settle for 2nd. I don’t care if it is in the car business or the media, you always want to be number one. And through the years, I worked awful hard to be number one and I just hate to settle for anything else less. And I know a lot of people, they will settle for . . . “Oh, man, we did this and that” . . . well, fine, good.
DG: You have talked about your decision to stay in Houston, the fact that Houston was home. Is Houston and Texas sort of the right place for your personality, the right place for your desire to win, the right place for your drive?
AJF: I think so. I was always teased when I first went up north and all that, from Texas, and I guess one of the big things that when I started out, Bill Homeyer was from Houston, Texas, here but if you weren’t from California, you could not get a ride. And I think that is something that I was saying – I do not have to be from California. I am good enough right here in Texas to get just as good a ride as them because mostly everybody that is a pretty good race driver, they would always move to California, have a California address. And I think that is one thing that when I used to go out there for ___________, I drove that much harder. It is a wonder I am talking to you today because I wanted to beat them so bad in their backyard, I could eat, you know? And fortunately enough, I was lucky enough to do it a lot of times. That is one reason I just wanted to say, Texas can be on the map, you know. That is the reason I am still here and like I said, I will be here until I am deceased.
DG: I am not sure of the extent to which you felt like you were an ambassador for Houston but Houston certainly claimed you as our ambassador. Are there any people that stand out in your mind that you met because of who you were, because of who you became, outside of racing?
AJF: Well, yes, I have met some great people down here through the years, some really nice people that have helped me on a lot of things. Like I say, Houston . . . I don’t know . . . it is not really race-oriented like some of the other countries but one thing about the people here, they do recognize if you do something or you work hard and I think a lot of people know where I came from and how hard I worked down here to get where I am at today. I am just glad to be here.
DG: After what you have been through, probably a little surprised, too.
AJF: Yes, right.
DG: What does the future hold for A.J. Foyt?
AJF: Well, I am getting up there in age. I don’t know! My mother died very young, 64. My daddy was 69. Now, I am 73 and I read the obituary column this morning. Wow, a lot around 74 and 75, they are gone. It is like Tony Snow and some of those people. They died so young. It is just hard to believe, you know? But, you know, like a guy told me one time before, he said, “You only have one square deal on earth. He put you here and he is going to take you.” And I have always lived by that. I felt like when our time is up, if it is up me talking to you, to have a massive heart attack or something, I feel it will happen. I have lost some good friends of mine that just came out of the doctor’s office and they are laughing, they are healthy, healthy, healthy and in 24 hours, they have passed on. I just always felt like I guess when He makes room for you, it is going to happen.
DG: Yes, sir. Any regrets?
AJF: Not really. If I had my whole life to live over, to know how I had to live it and how I had to start, it has been wonderful. It has been a wonderful life. A lot of fun. A lot of heartaches but a lot of fun at the same time.
DG: Just as a final closing thought, it is 15, 20 years from now and somebody looks at this tape. Is there anything you want them to know about you, about your career, about your hometown?
AJF: Well, one thing I can say, if there is somebody moving down here, if they stay here long enough, I think they will love Houston as much as I have. It is a wonderful place. They’ve got good sporting events. They’ve got good restaurants as you can see, as big as I am getting! But no, I mean, I guess I would like people to know me as just A.J., that I had a lot of fun, I worked hard, and I never wanted to settle for nothing less than first. I never wanted to settle for second. I don’t know, that is about it.
DG: Thank you, sir.
AJF: O.K. Thank you.