Three laps to go, floating out there in the middle of the high banking of Turn 3, Bobby Unser lost it.
Flat lost it. Swung low and, sweet chariot, suddenly lost control of his car while trying to get the lead underneath A.J. Foyt. All afternoon long, for nearly 200 miles around the two-mile stretch of Michigan International Speedway in Cambridge Junction, Unser and Foyt had been charging at each other, in a pair of USAC stock cars, like the hammers of hell, Foyt in a Ford and Unser in a Dodge. Into Turn 3, Unser was drafting right behind Foyt when, knowing he had the faster car and deciding to wait no longer, he dipped down and stomped on it. At once he was racing under Foyt, and now they were side by side.
"I'm trying to pass Foyt for the lead and I started losing my car in his draft," Unser recalls. "I let my car get loose; my rear end started coming around. The air from his car is sucking mine up toward him. My car is going to spin. And I'm going to hit him because we're so dang close together. I made a mistake and I knew better. I'm going to have a wreck. I'm going to wreck him, too, and it's going to be my fault. Just as simple as A-B-C. At about, oh, 165 miles an hour."
Foyt glanced over and saw the trouble Unser was in, saw he was out of control and about to spin into him. "He saw it," says Unser. "Saw I'd lost it. You know what the guys does? This'll show you how smart he is. Most drivers would have shied away. Not A.J. Foyt. Instead of trying to run away, or pulling to the right to get away from me—and maybe he can get away and leave me to hit the wall, but maybe I hit him, too—no, no...he guaranteed the outcome. Guaranteed it. And he did it out of instinct. There wasn't time to think about it. He pulled down on me. On me! He backed off and came down and cut the draft between us. Let my car bump his. It was a very gentle thing. And he put my race car straight. We quivered a little bit but he got me straight."
Roaring out of Turn 3, Unser found himself on the lead with those few laps to go, and down the front straight he acknowledged the debt to Foyt in the only way that he knew how, as one race car driver to another. "I had to wave him by," recalls Unser. "The man saved me from a wreck, and I owed it to him." That done, they went at each other furiously through the final three laps, with Foyt eventually winning a squeaker. Climbing from his car, Foyt spotted Unser.
"Saved your ass, didn't I?" said Foyt.
This was 18 years ago, back in the days when Foyt was still building the legend that he would come to be known by, as the greatest American race car driver in history. Those were the days when his father, Tony, was still alive and the son, craving his approval, fanned with his yearnings the inextinguishable fire that burned in his still-flat belly. Back when he and Unser were still going at it on oil-stained tracks across the land, when their memories were still fresh of raising rooster tails deep in the corners of dirt ovals like the one at Langhorne, Pa., where Foyt once spun like a dervish through the D-shaped circuit's most difficult and dangerous stretch, a dip that the drivers called Puke Hollow. That was back when, at California's Ascot Park, Foyt's keenest rival, Parnelli Jones, once stood in the middle of the racetrack, with cars broadsliding past him, so Foyt couldn't miss the finger that Jones was giving him. And it was when Foyt and Unser had still more Indy 500 victories in them (Foyt's fourth and Unser's second and third), and Foyt had this reputation as a profane, rude, swaggering, mesquite-tough, hot-tempered Texan who ate chili by the quart and flew a red bandanna around his neck. His driving style, paradoxically, belied that image and was, in fact, a sort of model of its kind: cool and clean, patient and precise, free of mistakes.
"That's the key to Foyt's greatness," says Chris Economaki, the editor and publisher emeritus of National Speed Sport News, who has watched Foyt since the 1950s. "He almost never made mistakes. Never put a wheel wrong. He never overdrove into a corner, or when conditions were bad. Never spun out, to speak of. Never overshot his pit. He judged his equipment. He won so many races with the canvas showing through a right rear tire that would have blown in another lap. He really understood the business he was in. Just never made mistakes."
It was the only style that could have suited the survivor he was to become and remains today. He is a dinosaur from another age, lumbering toward some inevitable extinction, the last of his species, the ultimate driver-mechanic, wearing on his shirts the grease stains from a thousand cars and on his face and neck the faint burn scars from Milwaukee and DuQuoin, Ill. Foyt still bears the limp he got last year in Elkhart Lake, Wis., where his brake pedal broke and he flew off the course and plunged into an embankment, burying the nose of his car four feet deep in the dirt, crushing his feet and driving a broken tibia bone, like a dagger, 12 inches up into his thigh. The wounds were so painful that he begged attending medics to knock him out with a hammer as he sat for 40 minutes while being cut out of the remains of the car. At age 56, A.J. Foyt is in his last year as a full-time race car driver, taking his bows as he does the Indy Car circuit a final time. Unless he decides to take one more turn at the Indy 500 next May—it would be his 35th straight appearance in the race, and those who know him believe he will be there—he will drive his last race on Oct. 6 in the Bosch Spark Plug Grand Prix in Nazareth, Pa.
In this age of complex, time-consuming specialization, when drivers rarely stray for long from their corners of the sport, Foyt leaves behind a career so diverse it may never be matched. Certainly no other man in the history of motor sports has done what he has over the last 35 years, winning not only those four Indy 500s, a record at the time, but also all those races in the sport's other disciplines, in radically different cars: the Daytona 500 stock car race; and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 24 Hours of Daytona (twice) and the 12 Hours of Sebring, all sports car races.