DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For the first time in 26 years, A.J. Foyt was only a spectator at Sunday's Daytona 500. His string of 25 straight starts in stock-car racing's biggest show came to an end at the bottom of a ditch in the wooded hills of Elkhart Lake, Wis., last September.
But the indomitable spirit that carried him to four Indianapolis 500 victories would not let it end like that, so Foyt will be back. He'll be back in Indy cars by the Phoenix race in April, he vows.
He'll be back in the Indianapolis 500 in May. And there's every likelihood he'll back here next February, even if he has publicly declared that this is his final season.
He is still on crutches, his feet disfigured and sore, but he is working harder than he ever has in his 56 years to get back on the track.
"I was hoping to try to make this race," he said last week, "but it just came too quick."
Foyt has been working out daily with Steve Watterson, the Houston Oilers' strength and rehabilitation coach, at the football team's facility near his Texas home.
"I'm on every kind of machine you can talk about," he says. "I go out there six days a week for four to six hours depending how sore I am. The seventh day is like when you were going to school and there was a holiday."
He does it because he wants to race again, but "that's not the only reason. One of the biggest things to do it for is I don't want to be a dead cripple the rest of my life. If I didn't do it, I'd have two clubbed feet."
When Foyt's brakes failed going into the first corner at Road America that day last September, his legs and feet were so grotesquely mangled that at first, he says, the doctor who arrived at the scene "thought my legs had been amputated."
It took about 45 minutes to get him out of the race car, and "it seemed to take forever."
When he got to the hospital, he was asked to sign a form giving doctors permission to operate. "I said I'll let you operate but not amputate. If you're going to amputate, just take me home."
When he regained consciousness after the operation, the first thing he did was check to see if his legs were still there.
As bad as his legs were, his feet were worse. "My feet didn't even look like a foot," he says. Even now, they alternate between numbness and needle-like pain. One of his exercises, he says, is to try to pick up marbles with his toes.
"It sounds silly," he said. "I never thought at this age I'd be sitting there trying to pick up marbles with my toes. It's kind of hard when your toes don't work."
He peeled off his left sock to reveal the foot, which he says is about 80 percent healed. The right foot, the one he needs to mash the gas pedal, is about 50 percent.
"There's still quite a bit of numbness in it," he says. "Everybody in my house is in line to get my boots out of the closet, because I'll never be able to wear 'em again."
Foyt says he hopes to begin testing by the end of March. He is driving a car on the streets and thinks he probably could have gone one lap around the Daytona International Speedway fast enough to qualify for Sunday's race. "But there's no way I'd make 500 miles."