WALLER, Texas – A ringing smartphone stalls A.J. Foyt’s soliloquy.
“J.R., how ya doin’?” one multiple Indianapolis 500 champion greets another.
Johnny Rutherford is calling cross-state in a brief exchange of check-ups.
“OK, give my best to Betty and I’ll see ya in Houston. You bet I’ll be there. I might not be turning cartwheels, but I’ll be there,” Foyt concludes the conversation.
Click it: Larry Foyt grows into overseeing day-to-day operations of team
He eases out of the chair behind the Texas-size desk in his spacious office at the A.J. Foyt Racing facility to point to a framed photograph of his 1958 rookie year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, bemoaning the quickening of time.
“I get stiff if I sit too long,” says Foyt, 78, who is steadily recovering from left hip replacement surgery July 1. “They gave me an X-ray and it reminds me of a ball joint from a ’57 Chevy. It’s truly amazing what they can do. I’m all artificial on my left side.”
Foyt, who’s undergone rotator cuff, knee, back and the left hip surgery in the past three years to alleviate pain related to injuries suffered in racing incidents during a career that spanned four decades, hasn’t forfeited wit or candor.
“I was needling Al (Unser) when he came down here last year for the (Indy 500 program) photo,” continues Foyt, referring to the knee replacements and back surgery the fellow four-time 500 Mile Race champion has undergone in the past few years. “I was saying, ‘Al, we weren’t supposed to live this long.’ I hate to say it that way. Still, looking down at the grass is better than looking up at it.”
A staph infection contracted after January 2012 surgery to remove bone spurs from his knee was “the scariest ordeal I ever went through,” surpassing even the concussion, crushed sternum and broken back suffered in the 1965 stock car crash at Riverside, Calif., in which a first responder pronounced his demise, or the ghost of a scar running the length of his right forearm from a 1980 run-in with the guardrail at Michigan, or the 1990 incident at Elkhart Lake in which his legs were dug out from an embankment.
“Everything has worked out pretty good; it’s just that at my age at 78 you don’t bounce back like you did when you were 28,” Foyt says of the latest – and hopefully last -- surgery. “I hate to give up. It got to a point where it got to hurting too much. It was embarrassing; I didn’t want people to see A.J. in that condition. I never thought I would see the day when I couldn’t get into bed; someone had to pick up my legs and turn me over.
“Right now, I’m coming back pretty strong.”
Presenting the A.J. Foyt Trophy at Houston races
His gait improving every day, Foyt is looking forward to the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston on Oct. 5-6. He’s the grand marshal and will deliver the A.J. Foyt Trophy -- shaped as a traditional Texas cowboy boot with Foyt’s signature on its heel -- to the winner(s) of the IZOD IndyCar Series doubleheader races. Race winner(s) and Foyt also will receive custom-made cowboy boots.
Click it: Video -- Get a look at the A.J. Foyt Trophy
Foyt also will be on pit lane with the No. 14 ABC Supply car for driver Takuma Sato, who produced a victory for A.J. Foyt Racing on the Long Beach street circuit in April.
“You always like to run in your hometown,” Foyt says. “I think (Sato will) run good, and they'll have to beat him because he's very fast on street courses. You know, if we don't get penalized on something, we'll be in good shape.”
Foyt’s first Indy car victory came in a Midget car in 1953 at Playland Park in Houston, which was on the Reliant Park site that hosts the event on a 1.683-mile, 10-turn street circuit.Overall, Foyt amassed 172 major victories (67 in Indy car racing), 14 championships and is the only driver to have won the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500, 24 Hours of Daytona and 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Silver- and gold-plated memories
Foyt surveys the memorabilia, gifts and trophies – a sampling of his collection – that fills shelves, tables and floor space in his office.
“A lot of my trophies are at the ranch house and the Indianapolis trophies are at the main house in Houston,” he says. “My wife said you just get this one area, I don’t want them all over the house. I’m kind of proud of all of them, though most are in closets. I’ve got a closet full of silver platters and trophies. There are some special ones here.”
The 1983 24 Hours of Daytona trophy holds especially fond memories. Foyt was with his father Tony – a block of Czech-German who owned the Foyt Brothers Garage and was with his son every step of the way in the early racing years -- in the hospital, where he was receiving treatment for an aggressive form of cancer. Daytona International Speedway president Bill France Jr., had been asking A.J. to compete in the marathon.
" ‘No use in you hangin' around here,’ " A.J. recounts. “I agreed to come down there.”
Following the victory, Foyt boarded a private plane, rushed to the hospital and presented the trophy to his dying father.
“If I never won another trophy in my life I was so glad to bring that one back to him. That was probably one of my highlights,” he says.
'Wouldn't change nothing'
Son Larry, the team director, runs the day-to-day operations of the racing business now, though Foyt is a valued consultant and frequent visitor to the shop. It’s freed him to enjoy other interests, such as fielding phone calls about thoroughbreds up for bid during this visit. He and wife Lucy will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary in June 2014.
“If I was reborn tomorrow I wouldn’t change nothing,” Foyt contends. “I don’t think a lot of people could say that. I know what it’s like to be on the bottom. I know what it’s like to be on the top and I know what it’s like to be in the middle. I’ve been up that ladder like a yo-yo.
“I'm on the downhill run. Every day is like a new day with me.”