Defying expectations is what fuels Foyt's insatiable drive for success

May 24, 1991|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Evening Sun Staff

INDIANAPOLIS -- Don't waste any sympathy on A.J. Foyt. He doesn't need it. Furthermore, he doesn't want it.

Around the garages, some even say he doesn't deserve it, that he should have retired long ago.

But that's not A.J. And this is May. His month. And this is the Indianapolis 500. His race.

For 34 consecutive years, A.J. Foyt has started this race. He's the first man to have won it four times. Only his old buddy Al Unser has matched that total. No one will ever match 34 straight starts.

Sunday, his black Lola Chevy will be in the middle of one of the most famous, most successful and storied front rows in Indianapolis history.

But pole sitter Rick Mears and outside man Mario Andretti are taking a back seat to the 56-year-old Foyt, who has managed, somehow, to admit, at least once, that this race, probably, will be his last 500.

It is one of the hardest statements he has ever had to make. And it is obvious. "It's true, I'm not planning to be back as a driver," Foyt said. "I've always tried to stick to my decisions, but I'm not looking at it as my last race either. I'm coming back as a car owner. I'm not letting that last race stuff be on my mind."

In one of the more incredible performances in auto racing, Foyt -- coming back from eight months of physical therapy -- put his car up front with a 222.443 mph ride.

"When you think about it, it really is unbelievable," said former race winner Danny Sullivan. "Here's a guy, we don't know how old, who is in tremendous pain, who has a hard time just walking and he goes out, admitting he hated being the first one on the track the first day of qualifying, and he sticks it up on the front row. I think he has impressed us all one more time."

It was typical A.J., defying all others' expectations.

It was incredible because Foyt still is recovering from the most serious crash of his life.

At Elkart Lake, Wis., last September, the brake pedal broke on his Lola and the car sailed off the track, plowing through a dirt embankment 100 yards away.

The impact sheared off the nose cone, leaving Foyt's feet exposed as the chassis' front end folded under when the car finally stopped.

When they dug him out, they found both his feet crushed, his right heel dislocated, his left tibia dislocated, his left knee broken and his left heel crushed.

"They talked about amputating my leg," Foyt said. "I don't think I could live if they had cut my leg off. I don't know how I could've accepted that. But I know, I should have lost either my feet or my leg, one or the other. I don't know why I didn't."

Foyt paused.

"I guess I am religious in my way," he said. "I'm not like some of these race drivers who thank the Lord when they win a race, because I think when you win a race you earn it. But I know He's always beside everybody and He was beside me on this here, helping me get back a lot."

Foyt paused again, a little uncomfortable.

"But I worked awful hard too," he said, flexing his ego. "Without me, He couldn't have done it [brought about Foyt's recovery].

"I do know, I've never experienced such pain. When they were taking me out of the car I asked 'em please do something for the pain. And they said they gave me enough medication to knock out a mule. I told one person to pick up a hammer and hit me upside the head with it. I wasn't joking. I just wanted to be knocked out unconscious. I've never hurt so bad in my life."

He still limps. He still hurts. But he is still going to race. And in another of his more incredible statements, Foyt explained why he is cramming himself back inside his race car for one last dangerous ride.

"First, I did the rehabilitation for myself," he said. "Six hours a day, every day. I didn't want to be no cripple the rest of my life. And I'm here, because I don't want to be remembered as one. I don't want to quit like that."

A.J. Foyt has almost always had everything his own way. In fact, the last time anyone can remember anyone ever telling A.J. Foyt no was 1957, when he tried to talk his way into the Speedway and was told, "Come back later, Kid, when you have a race car." That year he sat in the stands in the first turn.

Four years later he had his first Indianapolis victory.

He is having his own way here now. He is the star of this race and he is nowhere to be found.

Wednesday, he called off a scheduled interview session, leaving his public relations people to take the heat from hundreds of reporters gathered to report on A.J.'s last ride.

Yesterday, he took his car out for its final shakedown on Carburetion Day and then ducked back into his garage.

The car is ready. He's ready. There are only two questions yet to be answered. Is he physically strong enough to make it 500 miles Sunday? And will A.J. Foyt become the only man ever to win five Indianapolis 500s?

"If I didn't think I could go the distance," he said, "I wouldn't have qualified the car."

As for the other, it will have to wait until after Sunday's race. If the old man wins, it won't be a surprise to A.J.

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