A.J. Foyt still cuts an imposing figure around Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Everyone knows of him, everyone knows his record and it seems everyone here has actually met one of the greatest drivers ever. He has seen and done virtually everything around this 2.5-mile oval, even getting retirement advice from inaugural Indianapolis 500 winner Ray Harroun three decades before he actually put it to use.
And yet, most of it wouldn’t have happened without Foyt’s ability to survive a series of harrowing, life-threatening predicaments that read like a plot from a bad horror movie, including his second round with Africanized killer bees in March.
“I’m just glad the foreman had a car down there where I was working or I probably wouldn’t be talking to you today,” Foyt said recently during an interview in his motorhome.
It’s not the first time Foyt or his fans got lucky.
He’s been coming to Indianapolis every May since 1958, and every year, crowds gather around the first garage stall in Gasoline Alley waiting to have an old photograph signed by their racing hero or merely catch a glimpse of the racing star.
Nobody really knows how many more trips Foyt has because at age 83, even he knows time is running short.
“I’m not real secure on my feet like I used to be,” he said. “If I have to go in a wheelchair or use crutches or a cane, I’m not going to let people see me like that. I’ve got too much pride for people to see me too messed up.”
The truth is Foyt has been living on borrowed time for a while now.
His list of survival tales is almost as impressive as his list of racing achievements — four Indianapolis 500 wins, the only driver to win Indy and the Daytona 500 and teaming up with Dan Gurney as the only American team to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
On the track, there was a litany of crashes.
The worst might have been in 1965 at Riverside, California, when his brakes failed and Parnelli Jones pulled Foyt out of his overturned car — after a track doctor had already pronounced him dead.
Then there was 1990 at Road America when Foyt’s brake pedal broke while he attempted to make a pass in the first and he was launched over the gravel catch pit, down a hill and into the dirt. He needed surgery to save his left leg and still walks with a limp because of the damage.
“I guess they don’t want me is what it looks like,” Foyt joked.
Anyone who thought Foyt might be safer off the track, though, doesn’t know A.J.
He survived the first attack from those killer bees on his Houston ranch in 2005 and nearly drowned after putting a bulldozer in a pond in 2007.
Twice in the past seven years, he has beaten staph infections.
Foyt also has undergone heart surgery twice, had three knee replacements and spent eight days in an induced coma in November 2014 because of a complication from a triple-heart bypass surgery. At one point, the outlook was so bleak, Foyt’s wife, Lucy, told the doctors she would respect her husband’s wishes to not use extraordinary measures to keep him alive.
When he woke up, he told the doctors he was at Indianapolis.
Then, in March, came a second round with the bees this time on a ranch in Del Rio, Texas. Foyt estimates he suffered nearly twice as many stings, 200 to 300, in the second attack, and the Texan acknowledged he was swollen, sore and hurting as he tried to slap the bees out of his hair.
But the seemingly indestructible Foyt is still going.
“I never itched so bad in my life. I thought they were honey bees at first,” he said. “I may have been there (at the hospital) for seven or eight hours. They had my head packed in ice in a hospital bed and I started to throw up. I got pretty sick. But after a couple of hours, I said ‘Let’s get out of here.’ I went home and took steroids for a couple weeks and then got myself off them. I hated to miss Sebring but I was just so sick I couldn’t go there.”
The harder part, though, is contemplating a future May without the iconic first four-time winner around the speedway.
“I can’t imagine IMS without A.J. Foyt at all. My whole life, when I think racing, I think A.J. Foyt. He was my hero growing up,” track president Doug Boles said. “He may say he won’t show up (in poor condition) but we’ll make sure we get him here.”
The team has already started making future plans, too.
Foyt handed his adopted son, Larry, the title of team president, giving him more of the daily responsibilities. And the coma scare from 2014 prompted Larry Foyt to start considering how to keep A.J. Foyt Racing in business and competitive for years to come.
But those who work with him don’t see Foyt slowing down anytime soon.
“He’s crazy. He keeps scaring the hell out of us. But, I guess when you’re 83 and you’re A.J. Foyt he can do whatever the hell he wants,” 2013 Indy winner Tony Kanaan said. “I’ll still drag his butt up here, trust me. I don’t want to think about it (Indy without Foyt).”
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