Retro Racing

W hen the 91st edition of the Indianapolis 500 takes place on May 27, Anthony Joseph “A.J.” Foyt Jr. will participate for the 50th consecutive year and continue his role as the legend of the famed Brickyard. That gives him a 55 percent share in the action.

    For 35 of those years, A.J. was a driver. For the following 15, he restricted his role to that of being a car owner. For many of the 50 years, he was driver and car owner both. You can also throw in chassis builder, engine builder and mechanic.

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A.J. Foyt’s first Indianapolis 500 was in 1958 when he drove this Dean Van Lines Special for Al Dean. He started 12th and finished 16th after a spinout. The Offenhauser-powered roadster was built for the 1955 season by Eddie Kuzma. (Phil Hall Collection photo)

    As a driver, he won the 500 four times (1961, ’64, ’67 and ’77). As a car owner, he has three wins, the aforementioned latter two and 1999 with Kenny Brack as driver.

    Though his Indy 500 career is a book in itself, Foyt went on to win seven United States Auto Club (USAC) National titles in Championship Cars, championships in USAC sprint and stock cars and many races in those classes, plus midgets and sports cars. Our focus here is in the Indy 500, and with a half century to cover, descriptions will be all too brief.

    Foyt started his racing career near his hometown of Houston, Texas, in 1953 at the age of 18 under the guidance of his father Tony Foyt. A.J. raced modifieds, midgets and sprints. His first USAC midget competition was at the 16th Street Speedway, across the street from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, on May 29, 1956. He stayed to watch that year’s Indy 500 and returned in 1957 as a spectator.  That year, he ran 35 USAC midget races, five sprint car events and five races in the Championship cars, landing a ride in the Al Dean cars vacated by Jimmy Bryan.

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Foyt’s second Indianapolis 500 win in 1964 turned out to be the last for a front-engine roadster at the Brickyard. The Sheraton-Thompson Special was a Watson, built for the 1963 500 for another driver and updated for ’64. (Phil Hall Collection photo)

    In the Indy 500, the 23-year-old Foyt was the youngest driver in the field. He started 12th for Dean, but ran into problems, and a spin in an oil slick took him out and relegated him to 16th place. He finished 10th in Championship points.

    Returning to the Dean operation for 1959, Foyt lost an engine and had to wait until the second Saturday of qualifying to make the 500 field. He started 17th and finished 10th. Foyt was unhappy with the car, blamed chief mechanic Clint Brawner (which would set a pattern for years to come) and looked for a new ride. He found it with the Bob Bowes Seal Fast team and chief mechanic George Bignotti.

    At Indianapolis, he struggled to make the field, starting 16th. Clutch problems relegated him to 25th place in the 500, but the season showed improvement as A.J. won four dirt races and clinched his first USAC National Championship.

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Not a fan of the rear-engine cars at first, Foyt reluctantly wheeled this Sheraton-Thompson Lotus-Ford in the 1965 500. Though he started on the pole, differential problems sidelined him early, and he was credited with 15th place. (Phil Hall Collection photo)

    Carrying the number one, Foyt started seventh in the 1961 500 and, after a late battle with Eddie Sachs, scored his first win, running out of fuel on the victory lap. He went on to repeat as the National Champion.

    Things didn’t go well in the 1962 500. Foyt started fifth, but had brake trouble. When he was unhappy with his crew’s service, he got out of the car and fixed the problem himself (another sign of things to come). His car then lost a wheel, and he finished 23rd. Unhappiness with his crew led to him leaving the team later in the season for an unsuccessful stint with Lindsey Hopkins. He then returned to a reconstituted team owned by Bill Ansted and Shirley Murphy under the Sheraton-Thompson banner, with Bignotti again handling the wrenches. He won for them late in the season and finished second in points.

    Things seemed to go better in the 1963 500 with A.J. starting eighth and finishing third among the new rear-engine entries.  He finished all 12 events on the season and won his third championship.

    With the rear-engine revolution in full swing for the 1964 500, Foyt was unconvinced. He arrived at Indianapolis undefeated on the Champ Car trail and stayed with a front-engined roadster, an updated 1963 Watson-Offy. He started fifth, avoided the major crash that claimed two lives and ran the race with just two pit stops and no tire changes. Foyt had his second 500 win. He continued to win with the roadster, but when he switched to a Lotus-Ford later in the season, he was unable to finish a race. Despite that, he claimed his fourth USAC National Championship.

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By 1971, A.J. Foyt was running both cars and chassis that were built under his control. That year, he qualified the ITT-Thompson Coyote Turbo-Foyt in sixth place and finished third. He already had three Indy 500 wins and would have to wait until 1977 for his fourth. (Phil Hall Collection photo)

    After a debate with himself, Foyt went with the Lotus-Ford for the 1965 500. He started on pole position for the first time, but differential trouble struck and relegated him to 15th place. A return for the 1966 500 was even worse as he crashed on the first lap and placed 26th.

    Unhappy with other designs, Foyt constructed his own chassis for the 1967 500.  His Coyote-Ford, carrying what would become his traditional number, 14, started fourth and finished first for the third time after the STP turbine car driven by Parnelli Jones failed late in the race. Foyt went on to claim his fifth USAC title that year.

    For 1968, Foyt had three cars in the 500 and began a long run as the owner of several entrants besides himself. He started eighth and finished 20th, thanks to gear problems.  

    Using turbocharging, Foyt took the pole for the 1969 500 and finished eighth.  In 1970, he had four cars in the 500, started third and finished 10th. Later in ’70, Ford bailed out of most forms of racing and sold its Indy engine package to Foyt, who would be responsible for building them. Eventually, the Ford Indy V-8 was labeled the Foyt engine. With the turbo-Offy getting the upper hand at Indy, Foyt’s V-8s had a hard time, and so did he.

    In 1971, he placed 3rd, but followed that with 25th in ’72 and ’73 and 15th in ’74, despite winning another pole. Jim Gilmore took over sponsorship of Foyt’s cars starting in ’73. He would continue as a full or later, associate, sponsor through the 1991 season.

    For 1974, USAC started limiting turbo boost and placed a 280-gallon limit on fuel for the 500. This combo helped the Foyt engine, and it showed in Foyt’s performance. He earned the pole again for 1975 and finished third. For ’76, he started fifth and was runner-up. That was topped in 1977 when, after starting fourth, Foyt scored his fourth and final 500 win.

    However, the Foyt V-8’s days were numbered as the British Cosworth V-8 was making inroads that would end the days for both Foyt’s and four-cylinder Offy-based engines.  

    For 1978, Foyt used his engine for the last time in the 500 and finished seventh.  He was in a Parnelli chassis with Cosworth power for 1979 and finished second, running out of fuel on the last lap.  He went on to win his seventh and final USAC Championship that year. 1979 was also the season several car owners split with USAC, forming Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). Foyt stayed with USAC, but it would begin an era of unrest in American open-wheel racing that continues to this day.

    The 1980s were not good for A.J. in the 500 with a fifth-place finish in 1989 his only top 10 placing. He was seven laps behind. He placed sixth in the 1990 500, when he switched to the Chevrolet Indy V-8. His final 500 as a driver was 1992 when he finished ninth, down five laps.

    Though he entered a car and practiced for the 1993 500, Foyt announced his retirement on May 15, took a ceremonial lap before time trials and reverted to being a full-time car owner.

    Foyt continues in that role with varying degrees of success. The Indy Racing League (IRL) was formed starting with the 1996 season, and A.J. joined the circuit, where he remains. Success, friction and a continuing cast of changing drivers have resulted in performance all over the map, but the highlight was in the 1999 Indy 500 when Dutch driver Kenny Brack drove Foyt’s car to victory.

    A.J. is slated to have several cars in the 2007 500, and while their finishes are unknown, what is fairly sure is that A.J. Foyt Jr. will complete a half century of involvement in the Indianapolis 500.

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