After 24 years, up to speed with Foyt

ON MOTOR SPORTS

Auto Racing

May 27, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS -- Before I came to the Indianapolis 500 for the first time 24 years ago, I dreamed A. J. Foyt ran over me on the racetrack because he didn't want to do an interview.

There was a reason for my nightmare.

I had worked for The Evening Sun for less than a year when my sports editor, Bill Tanton, told me I would be covering the 500 and that I had to write a story on Foyt. I didn't know much -- anything, actually -- about racing then. But I did know the name A. J. Foyt.

I had read somewhere that if you made an appointment with Foyt before Indy, he was very good about keeping the date. I got a number for his garage in Houston and called him up.

I asked for "Mr. Foyt." The gruff voice on the end of the line said, "Junior or senior?" I thought, "He's old enough to have children."

"Senior," I said. And waited.

"This is him. Whadayawant?"

I told him. We made a date. I hung up and felt my stomach churn. The voice. It wasn't the voice I'd heard on TV coming from Foyt.

Of course, I wanted A. J. Foyt Jr. I was sick. A day later I called back. Pretended I'd never made the first call. Went through it all again and wound up with an interview time with the right A. J. Foyt.

When the day came for me to go to his Indy garage and meet him, he was in a foul mood. He wasn't talking to anyone, other reporters told me as I arrived at the racetrack. But I had an appointment. Rookie bliss.

I went to the odd, rickety wooden garage in Gasoline Alley. There were ropes blocking off entry. I crossed them. There was a closed door. I knocked. The door opened and a woman looked me up and down. I said I was there for my interview with A. J. Looking at my green skirt, she said, "He hates green. He's not in a good mood. But he's sitting back there, if you want to try."

A deep breath and in I went. A. J. was sitting on a workbench in the back. Another rope blocked my way and I cupped my hands to call to him. He cupped his and yelled back, "What are we yelling for? Come on back here."

I sat on the table top with him, surrounded by car parts and tools. He told me how he would have been a gunfighter in the old West. He told how he thought he could win the race on Sunday. He told me a lot of things over more than an hour, and then I thanked him and started to leave.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"To write my story," I said.

He smiled.

"You're not done, though, are you?" he said.

I looked confused.

"This is my dad," he said, as A. J. Foyt Sr. emerged from the shadows. "He's been waiting for you all week."

And then the two enjoyed a laugh and I joined in. All the time they had known about my rookie mistake.

This past Friday, A. J. and I reminisced about that meeting. He didn't remember the details as well as I did -- but then, he had had a bigger detail to remember that Indy. It was 1977 and he won the race, becoming the first four-time winner in its history.

"Turned out I didn't bite," he said, with a grin. "I've really never been mean."

I looked around the new cinderblock garages, and we both noted Indy's physical changes over more than two decades. Physical changes have come to us, too. And, I told him, I've changed since that first meeting. For instance, I said, "Over years of interviewing, I've come to be not quite so afraid of you."

He laughed, and I remembered another time in his garage when I came in for an interview and found him smelling a bouquet of Texas bluebells a fan had sent.

"Have you changed?" I asked.

"Me?" he said. "I don't think I've changed. I still get awful upset when things go wrong. Mother's Day here, my cars had three wrecks and I used a bad word. I had no idea the TV cameras were behind me. My wife called and gave me what for. She said she's sick and tired of hearing athletes use that word on television. I told her I didn't know. But, well, if you're going to be competitive, you're going to blow up.

"You just want things so perfect. Even if we win, I won't be totally happy. I'll want to have done better. It's what separates the winners from the losers. You seldom see a real calm and collected guy become a great winner. It's the fire that makes the difference."

It's always been the fire.

I have very clear images of Foyt getting out of his race car on Indy's pit road, grabbing a hammer from a crew man and pounding away on his race car, more in frustration than in hopes of repairing it.

I can see him walking briskly toward his garage, with his John Wayne, sea captain kind of rolling gait. After being forced to drop out of the 500 early, he'd storm into his garage, while reporters gathered round the ropes outside it to wait for him to re-emerge and tell us what went wrong.

Those old garages are gone. Foyt's movements have been slowed over the years by extra pounds ("I stay fat so I won't be tempted to get back in the race car," he says.) and knee operations. Now 66, his hair is thinning. The creases around his blue eyes are deeper.

But, A. J. is right. He hasn't changed. Not in the things that matter.

He's still the competitor.

He set the winning mark at Indy everyone tries to reach. Al Unser has reached it. Rick Mears has reached it. Four Indy 500 victories. And Foyt thinks someone else could reach it and maybe even break it.

He doesn't sound at all sad about that idea, which worries me for a moment, until the competitor in him surfaces again.

"But," he said. "I do have one record no one will ever beat. The 35 straight years I qualified for this race. I don't think anyone will ever match that."

A. J. Foyt smiles at me. I smile back. We're both happy. He has his records. I have the knowledge that he has yet to run over me at Indy.

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