Doubts race in mind of proud father Foyt

Autos: Legend A.J. Foyt is conflicted over his son's rising profile in the sport. Though happy for Larry's success, he knows well the dangers.

Auto Racing

January 29, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

MOORESVILLE, N.C. - Where else would you expect to find the cantankerous, four-time Indianapolis 500 champion and owner of open-wheel and stock cars, if not in an old-fashioned garage with bare concrete floors and metal lights dangling from the ceiling?

It is from here that A.J. Foyt will send his Winston Cup team with driver Ron Hornaday to Daytona next week. And it is here that his son Larry's Busch Grand National team is housed. Both cars, Hornaday's Pontiac and Larry's Chevrolet, will wear A.J.'s famous No. 14.

A.J. enters this new millennium the same way he left the old, doing things his way. And if he comes in conflict with himself on a daily basis, that's just part of the life he chose all those years ago when he decided to go into the business of racing.

And conflict seems to be his daily companion, be it through health-related or parental issues.

He had a heart problem over the winter and wound up with three stints and five balloons in his chest. But when his doctor walked into his hospital room to give him the recommended low-fat diet he was expected to eat from then on, A.J. waved him away.

"I simply told him, `Doc, I like fried food, cheese and ice cream and that's what I'm going to eat.' Lucy [A.J.'s wife] was there and I told him to give her the paper with the diet. Now she eats healthy and I eat what I like."

Standing near him, A.J.'s son, Larry, smiled at his dad.

"I'm used to hearing him talk like that," Larry said, explaining how he feels about his dad ignoring prudent advice. "As many bad wrecks as he's had, they didn't kill him. The way I look at it, God knows where he is when he wants him. God is waiting for him whenever his time comes."

Larry is 23 and has the same love of auto racing that A.J. does. He has been to every Indianapolis 500 since he was born. It's what inspired his love of racing. "The guys who raced there were heroes to me," Larry said, sliding his eyes toward his dad and recalling how fans and racers at some of the small tracks where he raced last year would come up and tell him how much A.J. Foyt meant to them.

But it is Larry's love of the sport in which his dad excelled that causes much debate within A.J's mind.

It hasn't been easy to convince A.J. that racing is right for his children. That in itself is a little surprising, because in the late 1970s, when Kyle Petty followed his dad, Richard, into professional stock car racing, A.J. sat in his garage at Indy one afternoon and lamented that his oldest son, Tony, was training racehorses.

"Richard told me he'd give anything to see Kyle do something else," A.J. said that day long ago. "And here I sit, wishing my sons would follow my footsteps."

That moment came before several of A.J.'s most serious crashes, which left him with mangled body parts and painful knees. But even then it might have been just a momentary lapse, because A.J. spent a great deal of his energy trying to keep his kids away from motor sports.

"It's easy to look at the success I've had and think, `Yeah, I'd like them [his children] to do that,' " A.J. said. "But I look back at some of the accidents I've had, the scars I have now and the friends I've lost over the years, and I think, `Who would want that for their kids?' I had to do it because I didn't know anything else.

"My success gave my kids choices - like a college education. That's what I wanted for my kids, and I tried to insist on it."

He did insist on it, and his success rate has been very good.

Tony, his oldest son, runs the family ranch near Houston and trains horses. Jerry runs a car dealership.

Larry is actually the son of A.J.'s daughter, Terry. But A.J. and Lucy adopted him when he was 2 years old and have raised him as their son.

Larry will tell you A.J. tried his best to prevent him from racing too, "but I sneaked off and won the state championship in go-karts." And then, of course, there was no hope of stopping him.

After winning that state Karting title in 1996, Larry asked his dad about getting an open-wheel race car. Thinking it would be difficult for the then-inexperienced 20-year-old to find a sponsor, A.J. promised a car, but only if his son could find a sponsor. Larry found one.

A.J. admired the stubbornness, even though it irked him. He bought a Formula-2000 car, and Larry raced part time on ovals where his dad's cars raced. At Atlanta Motor Speedway that year, Larry crashed during the race.

His rear wheel was hit by another car, and the impact launched him into flight. When the car finished a midair tumble, it landed and burst into flames as it slid into the wall.

"I felt the heat from the fire, and I got out of the car pretty quick and laid down," Larry said. "I remember lying there and seeing A.J. coming out to me on the track. That's when I said to myself, `Man, I think I might be dead.' I looked up and A.J. was standing over me and I said, `What are you doing out here?' "

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