Tougher than a Texas prickly pear.
That’s living legend A.J. Foyt, the winningest driver in IndyCar racing history.
And even if complications following triple bypass surgery that left him in the hospital for nearly a month and prevented him from being here with the A.J. Foyt Racing team at the inaugural Grand Prix of Louisiana at NOLA Motorsports Park finally have taken their toll on the 80-year-old more than his multitude of injuries — including being attacked by a swarm of killer bees — ever did, he’s not a person you would like when he’s angry.
“There’s nothing worse than having to call him after a bad session,” said Larry Foyt, A.J.’s son, who has assumed the presidency of A.J. Foyt Enterprises, which includes the ABC Supply Hondas driven by Jack Hawksworth and Takuma Sato.
“I’m feeling pretty good, but it’s frustrating not being there when our cars aren’t running worth a damn,” Foyt said from his home in Waller, Texas, on Friday after hearing that testing on the Hawksworth and Sato cars has not been going well.
And that’s some of the milder language he uses, especially when talking about the stomach-pumping treatments that have caused him to lose 50 pounds.
“You wouldn’t want to lose that much the way I have,” he said.
But it’s also part of what made him Super Tex — a man who was so hard-driving, hard-living and straight-talking that even his father said of him, “When A.J.’s angry, it’s like dancing with a chain saw.”
Foyt’s ability to absorb pain and injury on the racetrack was unsurpassed.
Additional mishaps, including those killer bees, and mostly involving his beloved bulldozer — Larry said he thinks some were self-induced — have added to the lore of his indestructibility.
Foyt, it has been said, always believed in God, America and himself — and not necessarily in that order.
The first person to win four Indianapolis 500s, the only one to win the 500, Daytona 500, Daytona 24 and the 24 hours of LeMans, among other accomplishments, was named the Driver of the 20th Century, a title he only partially deflects.
“I want people to remember me just as A.J. Foyt, who in my day may have beat some of the other guys but (was) not the greatest race driver ever to sit in a car,” he said. “I won my share of races and I had a lot of fun. But as far as better than anybody else, I can’t say. I was just one of the good ones.”
That success has not carried over to his IndyCar ownership.
Foyt-owned cars have only one victory in the past 12 years: Sato’s triumph at Long Beach in 2013.
Until this year, when Hawksworth moved over from Bryan Herta Autosport following his rookie season, Foyt hadn’t even fielded a full-season second car since 2000. Sato, Foyt’s lone driver from last year, finished 18th out of the 23 full-time entries.
In this season’s inaugural Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Hawksworth finished eighth after qualifying 21st. Sato, fifth in the qualifying, slipped to 13th at the end.
“Week in, week out, there’s unbelievable competition out there,” Larry Foyt said. “We expected to be back in the top 10 this year, but we’ve been struggling. We feel like we’ve got a decent (setup) and certainly good drivers and engineers. But then everybody else is good, too.”
Still, maintaining the Foyt brand is important.
“A.J.’s fans are getting older, but there are still a ton of them who get excited when we’re competitive,” Larry Foyt said. “And we’ve got some younger ones getting into our team now. We’ve done a lot of growth in the last five years.”
That’s due, Foyt added, to a strong partnership with ABC Supply which, among other things, has helped make having a second full-time car a reality.
Just fielding one IndyCar costs upwards of $5 million. A second is about 75 percent of that total, but it allows interchange between the crews, improving the learning ability for all involved.
“If you’re going to go out there with the Penskes (four cars), the Ganassis (also four) and the Andrettis (four this week), you’ve got to have more than one car of your own,” A.J. Foyt said. “Our guys can drive as well as any of them.”
And Foyt does want to see his team be at the top again, which it hasn’t been since Kenny Brack won the CART title in 1998.
“I’ve never seen someone who could get so upset about second place,” Larry Foyt said.
Maybe that’s why, while A.J. Foyt had 67 IndyCar victories (15 more than second-place Mario Andretti and 32 more than current active leader Scott Dixon), he had only 30 runner-up finishes and 22 thirds. And when he is able to be at the race site — which he plans to be for Indy next month — A.J. has been a hands-on contributor.
For someone whose career dates to the dirt tracks around his native Houston in 1953, he’s remarkably attuned to modern methods of preparing race cars.
“Now we’ve got computers to tell us what we’re doing wrong,” he said. “It used to be just you talking to you chief mechanics figuring out what’s going on.”
Not that A.J. has fully embraced current Indy racing rules and regulations. He detests the tire rules that require changes controlled by the manufacturer, Firestone, and not the race teams. And don’t get him started on the new aero kits that give each car a distinctive look.
“Everybody says it’s good for the sport,” he said. “But if you touch those Honda wings, they just fly off.”
Not surprisingly, Foyt recalls fondly how back in the day you built your own cars instead of the spec vehicles now supplied by Dallara.
The one thing he does like about today’s racing: the increased safety. He lost too many friends from the 1950s and ’60s to accidents, although he claims that drivers are not braver than they were back then — just more secure that they can take chances without the risk of injury.
Having survived all of that, though, Foyt finally has acknowledged that it’s time to hand over the reins.
Larry Foyt, who spent time as a NASCAR driver and has worked for his father since he cleaned bathrooms in the racing shop, is the antithesis of his father in appearance and style. He’d easily be mistaken for an accountant.
“Larry was a good enough driver, but he didn’t have that killer instinct,” A.J. said. “I’m really glad to see him carrying on the company. He’s putting together a hell of a racing team, and they’re going to have a lot of good seasons.”
So does that leave A.J. with anything on his bucket list, save for a promise to be in New Orleans for next year’s race?
“Not that I can think of,” he said. “But I’d still rather be looking down at the grass than looking up at it.”