Open Wheelin’ Blog: Looking Back And Looking Ahead; “SuperTex” A.J. Foyt At 80

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INDIANAPOLIS — Blog by Race Chaser Online Open Wheel Correspondent Joel Sebastianelli — IndyCar photo —

It took me a few extra days to get my thoughts together, but for a man with a spirit the size of Texas, sometimes it takes those few extra minutes to get it all just quite right.

With that being said — January 16, 2015 was a special day for a special man.

A.J. Foyt — the man, the myth, the legend — celebrated his 80th birthday last Friday. Across the racing world this week, seemingly everyone has reminisced about “Super Tex” the man and the driver, and with good reason.

From individual spectacles like the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans (all of which Foyt won, the only driver ever to do so); to series like USAC, NASCAR, and what’s now known as IndyCar; from his first victory in a 100 lap midget race in Kansas City in 1957 through to his final attempt to qualify for the Indy 500 in 1993; from the Sheraton Thompson Special Watson Special Roadster he drove to Indy 500 glory for the first time as a driver (and the last time ever at the 500 for a front engine roadster) in 1964, to the Gilmore Coyote he piloted to victory in his fourth 500 win in 1977; and from car driver to car owner and everywhere in between, AJ Foyt has done just about everything there is to do in auto racing.

They say that age is just a number and it’s what you do with those years that matter. I’d say that the man often associated with No. 14 has racked up enough memories in 80 years to count for at least 160. In an age where raw danger and authentic, outlaw-like innovation has been replaced by conformity and corporate branding, his resume is as comprehensive as we’ve ever seen before and we’ll ever see again.

That’s not bad for a guy who dropped out of high school and wasn’t pegged to succeed in much of anything, or even live far beyond the brief burden of academia.

“Dad always tells me that no one expected him to live a day over 21, so what a blessing to see him reach 80,” said Larry Foyt, his son. “He certainly has made it an exciting 80 years in many ways.”

“To think that after all these years, it never fails that a fan or fellow competitor will come to me and share a story of how he has touched their life in a way they will never forget. His accomplishments on and off the track have been a source of pride ever since I was a little kid.”

The Foyt family patriarch has a life story that, if it was ever fully penned by Robin Miller, would be a longer read than Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” but with Russia traded in for the United States and dreary dialogue from the 1800s replaced with no-nonsense passion (and perhaps some artistic license on the spelling of Kevin Cogan).

It’s true that actions speak louder than words, but A.J. continues to talk pretty loudly…and he’s earned that right. Sometimes things would get physical, like that night with Arie Luyendyk in 1997 in the Texas Motor Speedway victory lane that will live forever in IndyCar lore. His own cars weren’t always spared from his wrath either. In the 1982 Indy 500, Foyt famously climbed out of his car, ripped off the engine cover himself, and began working during the race to repair his machine. Later on in 1987, he referred to his car over the IMS public address system as “a tub of shit.”

Throughout his life, he’s surely had to take some tunnels in lieu of bridges that burnt to a crisp, but more often than not, he took his challengers on face to face and gained the advantage with his speed on track and his quick wit in the pits. His intensity has always been fueled by a fire to win anywhere, in any car, at any time. Even as a car owner, this still rings true today and has been the benchmark for others in racing to meet.

“A.J. is such an icon, a larger-than-life guy who is an idol of every American race driver,” said former driver and current IndyCar owner Sam Schmidt. “He is the original racing bad ass, but he also has done so much for so many people in our sport. The numbers surrounding Super Tex’s career are staggering, but they don’t define him nearly as well as his unique personality and drive to be the best in everything to this very day.”

A list drivers inspired by Foyt’s competitiveness could easily fill the field of 33 in May and then some, but they’ve already shared their thoughts already in other places. Likewise, historians of open wheel racing who have been lucky enough to witness him race in person have far more interesting personal anecdotes than I do.

Almost as amazing as his accomplishments has been his indirect effect on others, touching fans, drivers, and even rivals from his era. I won’t speak for anyone else, but I have my own thoughts on how Super Tex’s career has impacted my life.

A.J. Foyt is a one-of-a-kind, all-American badass racer. I’ve never raced, my genes come from countries all over the globe, and as anyone who has ever met me will tell you, there are many words with positive and negative connotations that describe me and “badass” surely isn’t one of them. But even if I can’t relate to A.J., I can at least admire him. Nobody has done it quite like he has, and nobody ever will.

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and overstate things. However, the sentiment shared on Foyt’s birthday was and is genuine. I saw some of that expressed firsthand through my family when I was a kid.

My grandfather never received the full education that is taken for granted today and pursued a life around cars early in his life as well. He operated his own gas station in Rhode Island and enjoyed Foyt’s career while the former teenage mechanic peaked at the pinnacle of motorsports. The enjoyment my grandfather had for racing was instilled in me at a young age too, and from the time I was five until his death in 2008, I don’t think we ever missed watching an Indy 500 together.

It would be an overstatement to say that my lifelong goal of pursuing a job in racing media is because of A.J. Foyt. Still, I’ve always believed that everything that happens in life happens because of a domino effect that can span from just a few minutes or as much few generations. Foyt got my grandfather excited about racing. Several years later, my grandfather got me excited about it too. If not for my grandfather, I can say with much more certainty that I would not be as captivated by this sport as I am today.

Through Race Chaser Online and my newest gig as the co-host of “Mazda Road to Indy TV,” I’m finally living that dream and I couldn’t be happier with how the dominos have fallen to lead me to where I am in life now. In a way, I suppose the racing line in my family born and bred in New England was inspired half a country away by A.J. Foyt all those years ago.

This weekend, I didn’t just wish him a happy birthday. I also say a sincere thank you to the man who has done so much for the sport of auto racing.

But one more time, here’s another (albeit a few days abriged) happy birthday and thank you for 80 awesome years of kicking ass on and off the track, A.J. Here’s to great health and great racing for the rest of them!

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