Foyt determined to drive another Indianapolis 500

October 14, 1990|By Jim Hodges | Jim Hodges,Los Angeles Times

It was a late September Sunday in the rolling Kettle-Moraine country of southeastern Wisconsin and A.J. Foyt was tooling down the nearly mile-long straight at Elkhart Lake's Road America, shifting into fifth gear as he drove alongside Dominic Dobson. Ahead was the first of the course's 11 turns, a 90-degree right-hander, and Foyt pushed down the brake pedal to slow the car.

Nothing happened.

In an instant, he had to decide whether to exit the course into tall grass at the end of the straight or find a way to slow the car enough to negotiate the turn. This, at 180 mph.

Trying to turn the car offered the possibility of flipping it, so he aimed for a gravel shoulder that might slow him. He went through that, continued over a little hill and into the grass. Somewhere along the way, the nose piece of his Lola-Chevrolet broke off, and the race car suddenly had become a $350,000 shovel, with Foyt's feet at its point. It dug a trench about 12 feet long and six to eight inches deep before it stopped.

There was fear for his life and, once that was quelled, for his limbs. There was not, says A.J. Foyt, an internal discussion as to why a 55-year-old man who has won nearly everything there is to win in auto racing was still riding anything other than a limo to JTC the office or a pickup at a Texas ranch.

"I was in such pain, I couldn't think of anything else," he says now. "It's one of the few times I've been in an accident when I haven't been unconscious that I should have been.

"I had to get out of the car. I was trying to pull my legs up."

There was no pull. Worse, for a while, Foyt thought there were no legs. He had become twisted in the cockpit -- giving an idea of the severity of impact, since the cockpit is small and Foyt is not -- and his right leg was on the left side of the car. His legs seemed to end just below the knee.

"When I got there," says Terry Trammell, director of medical services for the Horton Safety Team, "my immediate concern was that he was all right . . . that he was breathing and there was nothing life-threatening.

"Then I looked down and saw his knees, which had become twisted around. The right foot was on the left side of the car, and I started dog-paddling in the dirt until I felt bone. I thought his left foot was possibly severed."

Instead, it was buried. Dirt had cushioned the blow, and several operations later Foyt is talking of the future, between complaints of life in a hospital.

"Laying on my butt all day is not A.J. Foyt," he says by phone from a sixth-floor room at Memorial Hospital in Indianapolis, where he has had several operations. "I feel I'm going to be back 100 percent, and if I didn't feel I was going to be 100 percent, I would retire.

"Laying on my --- in this bed is driving me crazy. If I felt I was just in the way on a race track, I would quit."

It's a thought others have had for him, which is motivation enough to keep driving. The challenge of being told you can't do something motivates young children to defy their parents and middle-aged Texans to order a car for the 1991 season. You get the idea that, if A.J. Foyt saw a newspaper article that said he could never walk a tight rope, he would look up Ringling Bros. and demand center ring.

But, he says, 1991 will be the last. It was planned before the accident, and nearly losing legs in tall grass just off a race course seems insufficient reason to alter a 35th year in Indy cars. He will retire from driving after another season, says A.J. Foyt, but will continue to field a team with another driver.

His final season, though, probably will not be a complete one. With lengthy therapy ahead, cars will be prepared with racing's Holy Grail in mind. Not Australia, CART's first scheduled race in 1991, nor Phoenix or Long Beach.

"Indianapolis is certainly my goal," Foyt says. "It's where I think I can do my best. I might run a race or two before that, but Indianapolis is my goal."

He has won there four times, more than any other driver except Al Unser, who has matched Foyt's record, and finished sixth there this year, his best showing of the season. It is the place of dreams for most drivers, but to Foyt it is an obsession.

It was thought that if he were going to make any more Indy noise, this was the season. He had Chevrolet power, and Chevy has won all but one of CART's races the last two seasons. He had Lola, the chassis of choice. The combination was enough to lure him back full-time after years of part-time participation during which, he says, his heart just wasn't in racing. His father had died and his father had been the man to count on in the pit while son won many of his 67 Indy car races.

But, Foyt says, he had neither Chevy nor Lola long enough.

"We didn't have time to do testing," he says. "I'd like to see someone, anyone, do as well as we did [under the circumstances]. I think we did well for just taking the car out of the truck and going racing.

"Really, this year was our testing."

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