VALLEY STREAM, N.Y. — A.J. Foyt celebrated his 79th birthday the other day. I wonder if he has mellowed? Go ahead, you ask him.
Foyt’s great career has been retold many times. There were a couple of special years, which need to once again be showcased.
In 1960, Foyt left the Dean Van Lines team that had given him his Indy Car career start. He moved to the Bowes Seal Fast team with George Bignotti turning the wrenches.
The Bowes team had gone through a terrible period. In 1958, Johnny Boyd seemed headed for the USAC crown, but was badly burned at Langhorne, Pa., and was out for the season. In September, Jimmy Reece died in a Bowes car at Trenton, N.J., and the following year, George Amick making his first start in a Bowes car, perished at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
Foyt’s first ride for Bowes in 1960 was the Trenton opener. He finished fourth as defending champion Rodger Ward won. At Indianapolis, Foyt’s car quit with clutch trouble and Ward finished second. With Indy winner Jim Rathmann not running for the title, Ward’s 800 Indy points appeared to make him a shoo-in for the title.
Ward and Foyt ran 1-2 at Milwaukee. Ward was more than 1,000 points ahead. At Langhorne, Ward passed the race up because of the danger of the track. Jimmy Bryan took his ride and lost his life. Foyt failed to finish. At Springfield, Ward didn’t qualify and Foyt failed to finish. Foyt made up 320 points on Ward in the Milwaukee 200 by finishing second. Ward failed to finish.
At DuQuoin, Foyt got his first Indy car victory as Ward dropped out. Foyt ran third to Bobby Grim at Syracuse as Ward’s trouble persisted. Foyt got his second win in the Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Ward didn’t score any points and Foyt was closing in.
The second Trenton race, Ward and Foyt finished behind winner Eddie Sachs. Foyt took the point lead with a win in the Golden State 100. The finale at Phoenix saw Foyt win again. Ward was 10th. It was only the second time (Bryan in 1956) that the national champion received no points at Indianapolis.
Foyt won Indy in 1961, but Ward got “revenge,” edging Foyt for the championship. 1962 was a bad year for Foyt. He and Bignotti were at odds. Foyt quit and switched to the Lindsay Hopkins team. In 1963, Bill Ansted and Shirley Murphy took over the team and got Foyt and Bignotti back again. They won the championship.
Foyt enjoyed the greatest season ever by a national champion in 1964. There were 13 races on the slate. Foyt and his No. 1 won 10 races, including the first seven. After winning at Phoenix and Trenton, Foyt arrived at Indianapolis with a serious choice to make. Like many others, Foyt’ss team had both a roadster and a rear-engined car to choose from. Foyt picked the roadster. He was right. Ward’s second-place car was the only “pusher” to finish this tragic race.
At Milwaukee, Foyt won again by a full lap. At the first race on dirt at Langhorne, Foyt came home first. Next was the Trenton 150, which Foyt won by two laps. Foyt made it seven in a row on the dirt at Springfield, Ill.
For the Milwaukee 200, Foyt tried a rear-engined car for the first time. It quit after one lap and his string was over. Parnelli Jones won for the first rear-engined win of the season. Back on the dirt at DuQuoin on Sept. 7, Foyt was back in victory lane. Three weeks later, he won the Hoosier Hundred. A day later at the Trenton 200, Foyt left with clutch failure on lap 90 as Jones got his second victory.
At the Golden State 100 at Sacramento, Foyt was first, making him undefeated on dirt in 1964. In the season-ender at Phoenix, Foyt’s rear-engined machine spun out of the race as Lloyd Ruby won in Bill Forbes’ rear-engined Halibrand. Foyt won the title by almost 800 markers over Ward.
Foyt’s dominant season got him a nomination for the Hickok Belt, given to the athlete of the year, the first time an auto racer was considered. The voting sportswriters gave the award to Olympic swimmer Don Schollander.
The handwriting was on the wall for the famed roadsters. In January, 1965, Foyt broke his back in a NASCAR race at Riverside, Calif.
All taped up, he showed up at Indianapolis with a rear-engined car. Jim Clark seemingly put Colin Chapman’s Lotus/Ford on the pole. With the crowd going wild, Foyt knocked Clark off the pole, causing the gentlemanly Chapman to go ballistic.
Foyt didn’t finish and Clark dominated the race.
Foyt has certainly proven that he was America’s greatest driver and these couple of seasons bear that out.