Still mending, Foyt has that same old drive

Venture: The accident 10 years ago that crushed his legs is still with the legendary figure, but it's not stopping him from taking a Winston Cup shot with a new team.

February 17, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A. J. Foyt is digging into his briefcase. Dig, dig, dig. He is searching for a clear plastic surgical bag.

"Here," he says, pulling out the bag that seems to hold enough hardware to put together a car engine. "This is only about half of the stuff they took out of my leg."

In his bag, he has nine screws measuring 3 1/2 inches in length and a metal plate. They were used to help rebuild Foyt's legs after he crushed both of them in a horrendous Indy Car accident 10 years ago in Elkhart Lake, Ohio.

Both legs have continued to be a pain to him, but a couple of weeks ago the left one -- which had always been the better of the two -- started hurting so much he couldn't sleep.

"Hurt like a toothache," he said. He tried Aspercream to no avail and finally asked his son Tony, who owns horse and cattle ranches, to send over some "DMSO, horse medicine" to help relieve the pain.

Two weeks ago, he had the metal removed and his leg is like Swiss cheese. He has been on crutches ever since and he'll stay on them for another four months or so.

And that, and not the fact that Foyt is here fielding a new Winston Cup stock car team, is the news.

"It's interesting isn't it," said Rick Hendrick, who owns the teams of Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte and Jerry Nadeau. "He brings a well-known name and a following of both NASCAR and Indy Car folks, and once upon a time, the sport needed people like that to draw attention. Now, the sport is so much bigger than that that people hardly notice."

In fact, one of the reasons Foyt, the retired four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Indy Racing League car owner, gives for being here is because stock cars are what corporate America wants to see.

So Foyt is here with his Conseco Ford, with rookie Mike Bliss in the driver's seat in today's Twin 125-Mile qualifying races. The results will determine the starting lineup for the Daytona 500.

"We're here for the long term," Foyt said. "We're here to win."

Foyt is a long-term kind of guy. He won the Daytona 500 in 1972 in a car owned by the Wood Brothers. That victory came after three Indianapolis 500 victories and five years before he became the first driver to win a fourth Indy 500. But this is his first venture into Winston Cup racing as a full-time, full-season owner.

He has done all he can to stack the deck in his favor. He has hired his longtime friend and Winston Cup expert Waddell Wilson as his team's general manager and Terry Wooten, who has worked for the likes of Junior Johnson, Robert Yates, Bill Elliott and Ricky Rudd, as his crew chief.

He'll need their experience because his driver, Bliss, has four Winston Cup races under his belt.

"There weren't a lot of talented drivers out there to choose from that I was familiar with," Foyt said. "We're here to win, but I told Conseco don't expect miracles. I'm not writing this year off, but it's going to take a while to build something."

Foyt chose Bliss because he knew him. The 34-year-old from Mooresville, N.C., drove for Foyt in the USAC Silver Crown [open wheel] Series.

"He's different from every other owner," Bliss said. "Usually, when you have an owner, he's never been in a race car. With A. J., that's certainly not true. He concentrates on you and the car and he'll tell you where the car needs to be and what you're doing wrong. And you can trust what he says."

Always in search of another challenge, Foyt has chosen the perfect time to bring a rookie to the Winston Cup scene. Bliss is part of a rookie field many consider to be the most talented in history.

In the running for Rookie of the Year are two-time Busch Grand National champion Dale Earnhardt Jr.; 10-year CART driver Scott Pruett; former Busch Grand National driver Matt Kenseth, who won seven times over two years in the series and is the protege of Winston Cup veteran Mark Martin; three-time Featherlite Modified champion Jeff Fuller; Busch driver Ed Berrier; former World of Outlaws champion and Sprint Car Driver of the Year Dave Blaney, and Craftsman driver Stacy Compton, who finished fourth in the truck series points race last year.

Foyt seems to maintain his exuberance by keeping young people around him. In Indy Car racing, he is known for giving young drivers a chance. No one had ever heard of a driver named Kenny Brack before Foyt put him in his IRL car. In 1998, they won that series' championship.

"I'm here because it will be fun and because my children and grandchild are starting to race," said Foyt, who has signed a three-year contract with his team's sponsor. The Winston Cup team will be another avenue for family members eventually, if they want it.

Foyt turned 65 last month. Yesterday, he was effervescent. He seems genuinely happy to be here, even though he said he has already had to put "a couple million of my own money" into the team.

It may have been that expense that was a contributing reason for Foyt listening to friends when they told him he was eligible for Medicare.

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