A.J. Foyt

Dario Franchitti draws upon a long pause to carefully construct his response to the out-of-the-blue question, “Who is A.J. Foyt to you?”

The setting: Earlier this week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The occasion: To mark Foyt’s 80th birthday on Jan. 16 – a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner giving his unfettered thoughts about the first four-time Indy 500 winner. His synopsis:

“Anybody who has ever watched A.J. race knows that he’s unbelievably tough, and I hope indestructible. He’s kind of like Parnelli (Jones) in the fact that I would have hated to race against them. He would have been so tough.”

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And then there’s what one would consider the “softer” side of the Texan.

“When I had the accident in Houston, I got this message from A.J. basically saying, ‘Hope you’re OK. While you’re (recovering) in Houston, if you need anything just call me.’

“He’s a hero of mine. At Indy last year, I went to his garage for him to sign a poster of mine. That’s going to go in the memorabilia room,” said Franchitti, a student of global motorsports history. “The word is overused, but A.J. is a legend.”

A snippet of Foyt’s career: He has won the Indianapolis 500 (1961, ’64, ’67 and 1977), the Daytona 500 (1972), the 24 Hours of Le Mans (1967), the Rolex 24 At Daytona (1983, ‘85) and the 12 Hours of Sebring (1985).

Through the decades of joy and accomplishment interspersed with physical pain and loss, Foyt contends he’s been exceptionally fortunate on an off the racetrack.

“If I was reborn tomorrow I wouldn’t change nothing,” he said. “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.

“Every day is like a new day with me.”

A.J. Foyt's 1977 Indy 500 carIn no particular ranking, here are 14 (in honor of the car number he’s synonymous with) notables from his career:

* Foyt’s first Indy car victory came Sept. 5, 1960, in a 100-miler in DuQuoin, Ill. He started fourth in the No. 5 Bowes Seal Fast car, beating Bettenhausen to collect the $5,165 top prize. He won his first ever race in 1941 in an exhibition at the Houston Speed Bowl, driving the No. 8 midget built by his father. He won his first midget race in 1953 at Playland Park in Houston.

* Foyt’s first lap led in an Indy car race came on June 5, 1960, in the Milwaukee 100 (Laps 78-81). He started fourth in the No. 5 Bowes Seal Fast car and finished runner-up to Rodger Ward. Foyt made his most career starts (45) at Milwaukee.

* In 1963, Foyt competed in his first sports car race at Nassau, the Bahamas.

* Foyt is among three drivers to have won the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race four times. The others are Al Unser and Rick Mears. He is the only driver to have won the Indianapolis 500 in both a front-engine roadster and a rear-engine monocoque.

* His 67 Indy car victories – all under USAC sanction – are the most of any driver.

* He is the only driver to win 20 USAC races in one season -- 1961 (10 midget, six sprint car, four Indy car).

* In 1964, Foyt won a record 10 Indy car races on the way to his fourth USAC national championship. Al Unser matched the number in 1970.

* Overall, he won seven Indy car national championships under USAC sanction – the most of any driver.

* He is the only driver to have won 20 or more races in USAC’s four divisions: Indy cars, stock cars, sprint cars and midgets.

* In 1992, Foyt qualified for a record 35th consecutive Indianapolis 500.

* As a team owner, he won the Indy Racing League title with Scott Sharp (1996) and Kenny Brack (1998).

* Brack delivered the first Indianapolis 500 victory for Foyt as a team owner in 1999.

* In 2013, A.J. Foyt Racing won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and the pole position at Houston with driver Takuma Sato.

* In 1991, USAC and CART reserved the number 14 exclusively for Foyt as long as he remains active in Indy car racing as either a driver or owner. Upon his retirement from the sport, the number will be retired. Foyt first ran a car numbered 14 in October 1962 at Sacramento, Calif., and won the race. But why 14? Foyt has said it had a good heritage; Wilbur Shaw, Tony Bettenhausen and Bill Vukovich have been some of the others to run the number.

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Happy 80th Birthday, A.J. Foyt