Retiree status can't keep Foyt from racing

Sunday, May 17, 1998


foyt
Car owner A.J. Foyt and his driver, Billy Boat, won the pole Saturday for the Indy 500.
(AP photo)
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INDIANAPOLIS -- A.J. Foyt climbed into the Bowes Seal Fast special and slowly squeezed himself into the driver's seat. He remembered the cockpit being more roomy, and himself as being more svelte.

The Sultan of Steering figures he has put on 70 pounds of padding since he first won the Indianapolis 500, so the ceremonial spin he took Saturday morning required a supreme act of will and complex contortions. But on cue, and a few minutes before qualifying, Foyt tooled around the Brickyard in the car that took the checkered flag in 1961.

It was a nice, nostalgic moment for the cantankerous old Texan, but not such a formality that Foyt neglected to wear his crash helmet. This is one driver who still takes his victory laps with his right foot pressed to the floor.

Five years since he ceased driving Indy cars in competition, A.J. Foyt has yet to subdue his competitive streak. Not content to be an icon at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he remains involved as a team owner. Saturday, his fingerprints were all over the place.

Billy Boat and Kenny Brack ran 1-3 in qualifying for next Sunday's 500-mile race, and both guys represent Foyt's garage. Indy's first four-time winner is now positioned to win a fifth 500 by proxy. He is approaching retirement both gradually and grudgingly.

"I don't care about the glory," Foyt said Saturday. "I just care about racing. I should be at the lake house, enjoying the lake and lying on my heinie. But I love Indianapolis. Indianapolis has been very good to me."

Holds Indy sacred

Foyt does not normally wax sentimental, but he has a weak spot for the Speedway the size of a steer. Foyt believes his fame, his fortune and his enduring fan base are all attributable to the driving he's done on this 2 1/2-mile oval. Indianapolis defines him as Waterloo did Wellington.

"You always remember who won here," he said. "It's like the Kentucky Derby. I don't know what other races Spectacular Bid or Secretariat won, but I know they won the Derby. You wouldn't know me, you wouldn't know Roger Penske, you wouldn't know (Mario) Andretti if you didn't have this place."

What made Saturday's showing so memorable was that Foyt was able to repay his debt to the Speedway with both words and deeds. He last won at Indy in 1977, and his role in the race had grown increasingly irrelevant ever since. Since he last drove an Indy car, in 1992, Foyt has brought 10 different drivers to the Speedway and finished no higher than sixth.

He tried to survive on racing savvy while Penske and others were throwing millions at technology and cornering the market on cutting-edge engines. Each May, he looked a little less like a legend and a little more like a dinosaur.

"He told me several times he was just tired," said Davey Hamilton, who drove for Foyt in 1996 and 1997. "There was a point where A.J. didn't have that fire and that enthusiasm to do the testing and do what needed to be done. But last year we picked up the pace. He was to be reckoned with before, but I really think he's on a mission right now."

On the comeback trail

The rules changes that created a chasm between the Indy Racing League and the more established CART circuit removed some of Foyt's competition, eliminated some of his high-tech liabilities, and restored emphasis to racing art as opposed to racing science.

Because his name still resonates with sponsors, A.J. Foyt was bound to benefit from these developments. As his cars became more competitive, his personality regained its former pugnacity. When Arie Luyendyk dared dispute a Boat victory last summer, Foyt reproached him with his fists.

"It's a big difference being A.J.'s driver from being somebody else's driver," Kenny Brack said Saturday. "(But) We haven't had any bad moments yet. It's great to be with him because he's got so much experience. He knows everything there is to know. I just drive the car."

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com

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