A.J. Foyt returns to the Indy 500, his legacy long secured and grief fresh from his wife’s death
WALLER, Texas — A.J. Foyt was 15 when a boat that he and two friends were riding in capsized in a storm. The young Foyt clung tightly to a buoy until a fishing vessel found him, too late for one of the other boys that had already drowned.
Not long afterward, Foyt and some buddies were climbing towers and one of them grasped a power line and was electrocuted.
Foyt will have you know that he never considered touching those lines.
So began a life spent cheating death, one that one of the greatest auto racing drivers in history has been forced to reflect upon in recent weeks during what usually is a time of joy. The month of May means the Indianapolis 500, the biggest race in the world, and it’s a crown jewel event that Foyt won a record-sharing four times.
Lucy, his beloved wife for nearly 68 years, died last month. For Foyt, now 88, the prospect of mortality has finally become inescapable. And few have had so many escapes.
Foyt was retired when he suffered two near-fatal attacks by killer bees, one sending him into shock. He once flipped a bulldozer into a pond on one of his Texas properties, emerging to shout: “I ain’t no Houdini! I needed some air!” He has had several staph infections, one leading to a concrete spacer in his leg that eventually led to an artificial knee.
When Foyt had triple bypass surgery a decade ago, he was left comatose; Lucy was told his organs were beginning to fail. Yet his high school sweetheart had seen him defy death so many times that she refused to turn off his respirator. Naturally, he recovered.
And then there are the wrecks, so many of those. Like his 1965 flip in a stock car at Riverside, when doctors on site pronounced him dead. Parnelli Jones stepped in, scooped dirt from Foyt’s mouth and that was all it took to revive him.
Or the crash in 1972, when Foyt had to leap from a burning dirt champ car. It ran over his ankle and broke it as Foyt, engulfed in flames, ran toward a pond. His father grabbed a fire extinguisher to save his son.
That brings his story to March 7 of this year, when Foyt went to a Houston hospital to have a pacemaker installed. He was deeply opposed to the procedure, mostly because he believes a pacemaker killed his mother in 1981. He asked the doctors what would happen if he didn’t get it.
“I think they were scared my heart was slowing down too much,” said Foyt, who has never slowed down a day in his life. “(The doctor) said the bad thing was you can pass out or have a stroke. Well, I didn’t want to be driving from Houston out here to the shop and pass out and kill somebody. So that’s the reason I did it, because I still like to drive my own car.”
He showed up on time for the procedure, Lucy by his side, and they waited — and waited and waited.
“They told us to be there at 5:30, so OK. It got to be about 10:30-11 and they said, ‘It might be another hour or two,’” Foyt recalled. “I said, ‘You can forget it and stick it up your ass.’ I started to put my underwear and pants on and was walking out. They said, ‘No, no, no, we’re gonna get you right in.’ If it was an emergency, it would be one thing. But they want me to sit there another couple hours? They can go to hell.”
The Associated Press recently spent a day with Foyt at his race shop in Waller, reminiscing about a colorful career that made him famous far beyond the track. He was same ol’ A.J. that day, cracking jokes, talking about his ranches, career milestones and how, unlike longtime rival Mario Andretti, he had no issues with isolation or depression during the pandemic.
“That’s Mario Andretti. That ain’t A.J. Foyt,” he said with a snarl.
The tough-as-boot-leather Texan was irreverent about death that day, too. Foyt drove during one of the deadliest eras in motorsports, and far too many of his racing contemporaries pulled off pit lane never to pull back in. The number of those who survived is dwindling with time, of course; two good friends not only died on the same day earlier this year but had funerals on the same day, too.
“What do you do when your friends die? You get new friends,” Foyt said with a shrug.
It’s not so easy to replace Lucy, who died unexpectedly just seven days after AP visited Foyt.
“Super Tex” had just spent the first weekend in April at Texas Motor Speedway, attending his first IndyCar race of the season to watch his two drivers compete. He and Lucy have what he called “sugar diabetes,” and when Foyt called her over the weekend, she mentioned that she wasn’t feeling well.
By the time Foyt arrived home Sunday night, she was far worse. Foyt on Tuesday finally got her into an ambulance to the hospital, but Lucy suffered a massive heart attack. She died the following morning.