Racing fans here have been heard of whisper that they think Johnny Rutherford is going to win today's Indy 500. They whisper because they don't want A. J. Foyt to hear; everybody knows about A. J's yearning for a fourth Indy win.

Nobody with any sense wants Foyt to hear any blasphemy about his status as king of auto racing. That's because everybody is terrified of a Texas-sized temper that make a wild-catter's uncapped gusher look like a faucet drip.

But all this talk about Foyt's temper is really unfair. There's nothing the matter with Foyt except he was born with a cocklebur under his saddle and was weaned to high-test gasoline.

Now there are folks who claim Foyt is mellowing. And he will stand there, big as life with his belly hanging over his blue jeans, in a wide-legged stance as if to anchor himself to the ground, and he will say all these mild things about his 20th Indy.

"I'm just going to run an everyday race and not get all keyed up. Anything I do now don't make no difference. Hell, I've been motors that should run all day blow up after one lap and I've seen engines that should have stayed in the garage run all day."

He beams a smile as bright as a fresh egg in a frying pan and his eyes look devilish. "Cars are just like the weather - or like women. They're different everyday."

If that's a sign of A. J. mellowing, the interpretation is dead wrong. Foyt's just learned in 42 years to lay low in the brush instead of blowing his cover early.

Yes, there are two camps of A. J. Foyt followers. There are those who think he is a Damn Jewel, which, in Texas lingo means a man who delivers the goods without a whole lot of jawling around.

Then, there are those who claim he's just a plan old pain in the nect. But the DJs claim the PNs are folks who have made the mistake of trying to chew the fat with his racing car. You just don't cross A.J. when he's got his mind on that track. And, as further proof of the DJ claim, Foyt, when he's feeling right about his pistons and valves, will stand there all day and pose for Instamatic shots and sign autographs and give interviews and dish up the kind of sweet talk that could charm a bird out of a tree.

Foyt has been racing cars on every surface except water for 29 years. He has gone from dirt-track racing out South Main at Houston's Playland Park to running his own team (with a little help from Kalamazoo businessman Jim Gilmore). His success tory is the antithesis of Salt Walter's.

Walther's daddy, George, bought his son a car to race at Indy, but all Foyt's daddy ever did was give him a gokart when he was three. "No, I didn't get it handed to me," Foyt says sharply when the Walther name is dropped. "Everything I got, I got myself."

What Foyt's got is A. J. Foyt Engine Corp. and A. J. Foyt Enterprises, both located outside Houston on the Hempstead Highway. Then, there's an A. J. Foyt Chevrolet dealership nestled in among the posh shops on South Post Oak. Out in Waller Couty is the Foyt ranch with Charolais cattle, quarterhorses and thoroughbreds.

Plus a little oil property in Louisiana, some warehouses and what Foyt calls "a little real estate." His team has expanded to include lawyers and accountants - "headache people," he says with that smile that should be inspected by Ultra Brite.

'I guess I like it better running my own show. It's hard to race for other people after you've been in racing as long as I have.

"It may be that I've backed off just a little the last few years when we've had the jump on others. Maybe I'll have to get a new car. Defintely next year. I've got some new ideas. You'll see it when it gets there. Hell, I'll be racing as long as they have cars. I like it."

Foyt is a millionaire now. Car racing has moved him out of Houston Heights to a posh Memorial Drive neighborhood. He has a silver-blonde wife named Lucy and three children: A. J. III, 22; Terry Lynn, 18, and Jerry, 14.

But success hasn't changed Foyt one bit. He's more Texan now than ever.

Being Texan sells on TV and so A. J. outfits his crew of leather-faced mechanics in red-and-white checkered shirts that look like tablecloths from an Italian restaurant, and red-and-white checkered dude-ranch cowboy boots. And he was a white Stetson painted on the No. 14 car he drives. Good guys wear white hats.

So how come Foyt can't shake this image of being a man who's just found out he put salt instead of sugar in his coffee?

Don't ask Foyt Sr., who is known as Tony. He'll stand there, chewing on one toothpick after another. And when he finally says something, he screws up his face like Buddy hackett and talks out of one side of his mouth.

"Certain things, A. J. wants out. Certain things is nobody's business," he says shortly. None of the Foyt men like people with loose mouths. It is a Foyt trademark to summarize a 20-word emotion in a three-word phrase.

And, beside, Tony Foyt has another reason for watching what he says. "Tony's doesn't want to get the wrath of Junior," is the way one Foyt-Gilmore team mechanic explains Tony's taciturn behavior. "Junior will jump him quicker then he will hte rest of us."

But that's not a black mark against A. J. It only proves that blood is thicker than Texas oil and everybody who lives with pressure needs someone close as a whipping boy.

What is really irritating Tony is a couple of stories that have been circulating about his only boy. One is about the Destruction Derby held in the Houston Astrodome last January or thereabouts. It was a staged event, all arranged beforehand. Only, for A. J., it turn out quite as smooth as planned.

What happened was Houston Oiler quarterback Dan Pastorini won some kind of race in A.J.'s T-Bird, but when it came A.J.'s turn, he was told he couldn't drive.

A.J. had borrowed a U.S. Army tank from Ft. Hood and it was stashed close by for A.J. to jump into, shouting that if they wouldn't let him drive his own T-Bird, then he'd just have to smash it.

One more rehearsal and the'd have probably gotten it down cold.But, as it turned out, Foyd was in the top of the tank with somebody else riding as a passenger. That's when the whole act fell to pieces.

I mean, there's A.J., with no straps to hold him steady, leading the charge in an M-16 tank and when they hit the T-Bird the tank went eight feet in the air.By then the tank commander had been kocked around so much that he'd lost his ear phones and microphone, so the driver of the tank kept it going like some enraged bull in a Mexico City ring.

Foyt was hanging on for dear life and being tossed around like a powder puff - which is something, if you've seen A.J.'s heft - and by the time they got the tank lassoed to a halt, A.J.'s had broken ribs and a splintered bone in his leg.

The tank driver had to have 34 stitches in his chin and the passenger needed 16 stitches over his eye.

They carted Foyt and the others to the hospital, but A.J. bolted when they started talking about giving him shots for this and that. And A.J. had his answer ready by the time the Pentagon called to ask about the damage to the tank.

Anyway, Tony Foyt, Sr. doesn't like to talk about that. Or much else, for that matter.

The other story irritating Tony comes straight from the horse's mouth - A.J.'s latest bone to pick with the press.

He had just finished his Indy qualifying run two weeks ago and he was a little put out about logging only 193.465 miles per hour because he was aiming for the pole position. That's when United States Auto Club officials discovered a malfunction in their testing equipment - a valve bolted onto A.J.'s engine to measure the turbocharger boost pressure and make sure it didn't exceed 80 inches of mercury.

There was a crack in the flange, folks. Nobody really looked to see what it did to Foyt double-overhead cam engine that used to be called the Ford engine, but is now called the Foyt engine.

A.J. was already back in his garage - some say in a sulk - when USAC officials ran up and offered him another ride that had to be run that instant so that track conditions were as close as possible to the first run. So he took old No. 14 back on the track and was let in line ahead of all the other qualifiers.

There was a crowd of 200,000 on hand for the qualifying and they thought A.J. was being put ahead because he was a star. They booed and that ticked off A.J.

Another thing that set him off was only improving his speed to 194.563. All the way back to the garage he was telling himself he should have stood in bed.

Now, here's where story No. 2 really begins. Some cub reporter with a hand microphone was trotting alongside A.J. and Foyt kept telling him he didn't want to talk just now. Real polite-like.

To hear Foyt tell it, the kid was pushing the mike so close to his face that it interfered with his breathing. That's when A.J. had enough and grabbed the mike and there was a little bitty scruffle.

A.J. was mad enough about this incident, so you can imagine how much madder he got when a picture and a story appeared in his home-town paper that said A.J. hit a woman reporter. A.J. makes it clear that Texas men may get mad every once in a while, but they don't go around hitting women - particularly women they don't even know.

"I wouldn't care if the press never talked to me again," he said, sticking his hands in the back pockets of his jeans and rocking back and forth on his cowboy boots.

"Why would you like to be bothered all the time? And what should be in the newspapers is printed wrong. I never read abything except sometimes when a fan sends me a clipping about myself. It just gets me mad and so it's better you don't read about yourself.

"Besides, I get up at four in the morning and that's before the paper comes. I go over to my dealership or out to my ranch and work. I go to bed early and get up early."

Yet the rumor grows stronger every year that Foyt, despite his troubles with Army tank and the fracas with the mike, is mellowing.

Certainly, he is showing more interest outside of cars racing now. He's into horse racing, for example. His thoroughbreds are winning and some are even running at Churchill Downs, and he has hinted that a Kentucky Derby victory might go well with all his Indy 500 trophies. "I've got some quarter horses running in Louisiana and down in Mexico," he says impassively. "And I've got a couple of good horses in Poker Joker and Leaves 'Em Thinkin."

When you ask him about the bally-hooed struggle for a fourth Indy win, Foyt gives you this song and dance about. "If it's supposed to be, it'll be. I'm not going to lose any sleep over it."

You can almost believe that of a man who has logged about 6,400 miles at Indy alone and won more than $800,000 here. You can almost believe it when he underlines his casualness with a cherubic smile, when you see him worrying his thining hair into a coverup job on his forehead, when he poses in the pit for a gaggle of women who squeal, "A.J., look this way," and he waves and smiles prettily.

But when you watch him squat on his heels and talk to his mechanics about this little thing and that big one, when you see him get the wrenches out himself and start stripping things from the engine, when you see him spit between his teeth, while he tests the spring of the wing on the back of the blood-red racing car, they you think maybe he really is a damn jewel to have survived all these years with no scars and still be top dog at the Indy 500.