For Foyt, being at Indy 500 is back home again

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INDIANAPOLIS – A.J. Foyt is back where he belongs at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and at 84, the living legend doesn’t waste time thinking about what is beyond his control.

A four-time Indianapolis 500 winner as a driver, the man who now owns the NTT IndyCar Series team bearing his name shakes his head when asked if he ever wonders how much longer he’ll return.

“I’ve looked at death,” Foyt said. “It’s something we don’t know about. When your time is up, it’s up. I’ve always felt that way.

“I can’t holler. It’s been a great life, a lot of fun. I’ve had so many of my friends who hated their jobs. I’ve had my ups and downs, don’t get me wrong, but still at the same time it’s been a great life. I’ve had fun doing everything I’ve been doing.”

His A.J. Foyt Enterprises operation has set up shop again in the familiar A-1 garage of Gasoline Alley and all seems right in the racing world because the team owner is intensely focused once again on another installment of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Foyt’s drivers, fan favorite and 2013 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Tony Kanaan and second-year driver Matheus Leist, are safely in the show for Sunday’s race. Kanaan qualified 16th in the No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet, with Leist 24th in the sister No. 4 Chevy.

The boss doesn’t need to state the obvious to his pilots, that this race means more than any other.

A.J. Foyt 1977 Indy 500 winner's photoIt’s always been that way, since Foyt arrived at IMS in 1958 and initially wasn’t allowed into Gasoline Alley until the Texan’s identity could be confirmed as a driver. He won the Indy 500 in 1961, ’64, ’67 and ’77 – the first to become a four-time winner – which is why Foyt always says Indianapolis Motor Speedway and this race made his name famous. (He is shown at right following win No. 4 in 1977.)

“Nobody knows me from winning the other races really,” said Foyt, whose lengthy list of accomplishments includes a record 67 Indy car victories. “They know me from winning at Indianapolis. That was always my dream, to be able to do good there. To be fortunate enough to win it one time was like a miracle to me.

“If I did good at Indy, the rest of the season was pretty good. If I did crappy at Indy, I didn’t care if I won every other race, it didn’t mean much to me. I couldn’t wait to get back.”

Some things will never change.

“It’s my second home,” Foyt said of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I’ve spent as much time at Indy as my home in Texas.”

After surviving his share of scary crashes when driving, Foyt has overcome a seemingly continual series of health issues in later years — triple-bypass heart surgery, 10 days in a coma, three staph infections, a left hip and both knees replaced, being stung about 200 times by killer bees and almost drowning after flipping a bulldozer.

Foyt shrugs about staring down death so many times. He grumbles about spending too much time with doctors and says he recently consented after constant nagging to having another test on his heart. “Everything is good,” he said.

When not at his second home, Foyt still likes to keep busy on his Texas ranches, which he estimates at about 15,000 acres. He loves his five bulldozers, recently buying another. It’s still a pain climbing on them as well as his tractors, but he does it. He also has about 1,000 cows and 40 horses, most of them racers.

“Everybody told me, when you’re young the kid with the most toys has the most fun in life,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of toys.”

But even when he’s playing with them, make no mistake, Foyt’s mind never wanders far from Indianapolis.

“Indy is everything to A.J.,” said his son, Larry, team president. “He is so competitive at every race we compete in, but when he gets to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his intensity goes to another level. When the race is over and we are headed to the next race, he is already thinking about things to go faster the next month of May.

“I can’t tell you how many times in the offseason he will be on a tractor at the ranch and come to the shop and tell me to call the engineers because he was thinking about how we can make the car better and has an idea. It’s fantastic really and goes to show how important this race, the facility and the people who have owned it and managed it mean to him.”

Foyt graciously accepts annual recognition, although he doesn’t see the need for too much fuss.

“What’s the big deal?” he said. “I had my fun in life. I know what I did. The people who follow me know.”

The fact that so many appreciate him and enjoy seeing him isn’t lost on him. He delights autograph seekers and smiles for pictures when newcomers visit his garage. But then it’s back to work.

A.J. Foyt in 1961In a recent moment of reflection, Foyt sat back and gazed at several old pictures on a table in a team transporter. He shares specific details about each one, especially what he did in that year’s Indy 500.

“Look at that one,” he said, shoving a picture forward. “I even had sideburns.”

There’s another from 1961, a few months before his first Indy 500 victory, which he reminds was the 50th anniversary of the race. Does he recognize that young guy?

“I’ve heard of him,” he said with a grin.

Foyt inevitably reminds that he’s always been a tough-talking Texan who isn’t shy about expressing himself.

“I’ve been that way and I ain’t gonna change, especially at this late stage,” he said.

He chuckles about how his racing life differs from today.

“I don’t think drivers have the drive that I had,” he said. “I slept in my car. I rented a basement for a week and slept on an Army cot.

“I won Indy and the next week I was at Salem, Indiana, running sprints, then I would run a midgets race. It was a different ballgame.”

But all these years later, A.J. Foyt is still playing. It’s May again, race day is near. He’s fired up. And he’s grateful.

“I’m lucky to still be here talking,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed every day of my life.”

Tickets for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 are available at IMS.com. The race airs live beginning at 11 a.m. ET Sunday on NBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

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