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William Nack
September 30, 1991
As his unparalleled career winds down, A.J. Foyt still looks for fulfillment
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September 30, 1991

Twilight Of A Titan

As his unparalleled career winds down, A.J. Foyt still looks for fulfillment

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And they saw him crush his bones at Elkhart Lake and remember him saying, "Fire can make a dead man move." They stood in horror in DuQuoin, in 1972, the day he was leading the dirt track race by a lap, with only five to go, and he pitted for a squirt of fuel and the fuel hose broke loose and doused his head with two gallons of alcohol-nitro mixture. "I figured it would evaporate," Foyt says. "The exhaust pipes coming out the side, sometimes they burp fire, and when they did, I went up in flames like a Buddhist monk. I'd already left the pits, and I tried to jump from the car because I was burning, goddam, and when I jumped out of the car, I didn't have it stopped, and I fell in front of my left rear wheel, so it run over my left foot and it twisted and flipped me in the air, and I was still burning. I knew the infield had a lake in it, and so I'm trying to run for the lake, in a panic, and I'm limping on my ankle, like a horse with a broken leg, and my daddy was running after me with a fire extinguisher, and as I hit the inside guardrail, I fell over it, and my daddy squirted me with the extinguisher and put the fire out. Whew! My face was burned, and the docs told me, 'You won't have no beard.' And I said, 'Who gives a— —?' "

They saw him beat on his cars with hammers, in a rage, and snarl at the press and stomp through the pits. They heard him say whatever came to mind. He was trying to qualify a March chassis in 1983 at Indy and going nowhere. The public address announcer asked him what the problem was, and Foyt blurted, 'This car I'm driving is just a tub a— —" Robin Miller, a sportswriter for The Indianapolis Star, recalls looking over and seeing the reaction of Robin Herd, a co-founder of March Engineering: "Herd is sitting on the pit wall with his head in his hands. The Great American Legend just called his car a tub of— —." They all knew how Foyt and Bignotti used to carry on, fighting and shouting at one another. They sometimes fought so much that they forgot to celebrate. Rutherford recalls a time when Foyt, after winning a feature race in a sprint car that Bignotti had built, pulled into the pits, took off his helmet, threw it in the seat and yelled, "Goddammit, George, I'm getting tired of driving my ass off to make you look good...."

For years Foyt has been the most intimidating presence in motor racing, and there are few drivers out there who have not felt at least a gust of his passing heat. In 1982, in his rookie year at Indy, Bobby Rahal was coming out of a turn with Foyt right behind him. "I didn't cut him off," says Rahal, "but I think he expected me to move out of his way, and I didn't. And he shook his fist at me as he went by. But, you know, you're nobody unless you've had a fist shaken at you by A.J. Foyt."

As volatile as he can be outside a race car, no driver has ever seen him lose the handle on himself in a race car. "He tried to be, and was, very intimidating," says Mario Andretti, 51, Foyt's most enduring rival. "And I've had my run-ins with him. A lot of them. But I'll tell you one thing: I've never, ever, ever seen him do anything foolish out on a racetrack. Never. I've seen occasions in a race where he could have gotten carried away, but I have never seen his emotions get the best of him."

To be sure, most drivers who have known him long do not buy into the man's image as a distant, fearsome, unapproachable presence in the garages. Like his father before him, Foyt chooses his friends sparingly, but he will do most anything for those he chooses. All these years later, AJ Unser Sr. still can't figure why Foyt picked him. It was 1965, Unser's rookie year at Indy, and the last of his cars had blown up and he was resigned to not making the show. And there, in Unser's garage, appeared Foyt, who had already won Indy twice and had two fast cars ready for the race.

"You want to run my backup car?" A.J. asked. "Think it over and come to my garage."

Unser followed him like a puppy through clapboard rows of garages that made up Gasoline Alley. He finished ninth that year in Foyt's car, and he went on to win the 500 four times in the next 22 years, tying Foyt for most Indy victories. "I've often wondered why the man did a thing like that," Unser says. "It has meant a lot to me over the years. I wasn't anything, and there were experienced drivers standing in line to get in that backup car. For some reason he picked me. I still don't know why. He's just like that. He looks at somebody and likes them."

Rutherford was another. He was running an Indy Car in Phoenix in 1968, and he hit an oil slick and then a fence and spun to a stop. Andretti and Roger McCluskey hit the slick, too. McCluskey's car spun Rutherford's sideways, and Andretti's slammed into the right side of Rutherford's. It burst into flames. Rutherford put his hands on the sides of the cockpit to push himself out, and the leather glove on his right hand shrunk instantly in the ferocious heat of the burning fuel. He pulled the glove from his hand. Much of the skin on his fingers slid off with the glove, the skin turning inside out and hanging like tubes from his hand. Foyt came running from the pits and looked at Rutherford and hollered, "Goddamn!"

"A.J., my feet are burning," Rutherford screamed. The laces on his shoes were smoldering like wicks. Foyt dropped to his knees and, with a fingernail, raked down the burning laces until they popped open. Turning, he saw McCluskey lying on a stretcher, slightly dazed. Foyt, an immensely strong man, picked McCluskey up off the litter and handed him to a medic. "You're not hurt that bad, Roger," A.J. said. He laid Rutherford on the empty stretcher and followed the ambulance to the hospital. When the doctor finally showed up, Foyt bellowed, "Where the hell you been?"

"I was mowing my yard," the doctor said.

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