SI Vault
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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Rutherford thought Foyt might lay the doctor out right there. "If looks could kill...," he said.

Foyt never left Rutherford that day. He helped wheel him out of the hospital after Rutherford's burns had been treated. He helped him into the car. And he was driving him back to the hotel when Rutherford, nauseated from medication, started to get sick. Foyt pulled over, jumped out, whipped open the passenger door, and then held Rutherford's forehead as he vomited into a ditch. "That O.K.?" Foyt kept asking. "You feeling better?"

That was nearly 25 years ago, but Rutherford still thinks about Phoenix. "I'll never forget that, ever," he says. "Lot of people classify him as an s.o.b., but he's far from it. He's a pussy cat. With people he knows who are in need or in trouble...."

As Tony Foyt was. He was dying in the winter of '83. For nearly 20 years, since A.J. and Bignotti had gone their separate ways, the old man had been his son's chief mechanic. Together, with cars they built back in Houston, they had won the Indy 500 twice, in 1967 and '77. "They fought with each other, they cussed each other, and they went everywhere together," says Delrose. "They drove down all the roads. How many times do you see a thing like that between a father and son? But they had that."

Through the years, Tony was the only figure of authority who could command his son's undivided respect, the only man who ever demanded and set limits for him, the only man who could ever stand up to him. A.J. has a galactic ego—"It swelled up too many years ago and stayed there," says Bobby Unser—and at times it is suggested that the way he carries on is like a prolonged case of the Terrible Twos. Taylor, who works frequently on Foyt's pit crew, recalls the aftermath of a frustrating practice session at Indy in the late '60s. When the car was rolled back into the garage, A.J. threw a tantrum that stunned even his crew to silence. Tony came forward and grabbed his son and slammed him up against a wall. "What the hell's wrong with you, boy?" he demanded. "You gone crazy?"

Only Tony could have gotten away with that. "He was the only guy I ever saw that could really deal with A.J.," says Taylor. "What A.J. probably didn't realize is that Tony was not only his father, but probably his best friend, his mentor, his team and financial manager, just a whole lot of people rolled into one." "Tony was the rock," says Delrose "His dad controlled him. He'd fire at the drop of a hat if anybody said anything against A.J. They loved each other. But they just didn't show it."

Tony never told A.J. how proud he was of his son's race car driving. Not one word of praise in all the years they were together. Not once in all the victory lanes they ever visited. Not even after that final victory at the Brickyard. Says A.J., "After I won, the crew was drinking and blowing their horns on how they did this and how they did that, and I said, 'Well, Daddy, what do you think? Did I do a pretty good job today?' "

Tony turned and grinned. "I don't know about good," the old man said. "You did fair...."

"That's the best words I ever heard from you," said his son.

In the winter of 1983, Foyt resisted all entreaties that he run in the 24-hour race at Daytona. He hadn't driven an endurance race since he and Dan Gurney had taken Le Mans in 1967. He did not want to leave his dying father, but Tony had insisted. "There ain't a damn thing you can do sitting around here," the old man said. "Go down there and have some fun. Get out of here."

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