A.J. Foyt drove a race car in 200-mile per hour traffic today for the first time since he drove a race car into a wall six months ago. They used torches and tools to pry his crumpled body out of that car last summer. Today he came out of his car laughing. This old man loves his work.
"Whooee," Foyt said, zipping down the top of his flame suit, "didja see that time with Balough?"
Adrenaline addicts recognize the symptoms. Foyt was on a high. He didn't so much talk to his crew as jabber. The words spilled on top of each other. His voice moved up a note. His eyes danced left and right. Every word came flying through a smile.
"Balough blew an engine or somethin' and got sideways," Foyt said, meaning driver Gary Balough's car was out of control, "and I could see him coming up at me, and I couldn't do anything but back off, and I said, 'Gawdammit, here he comes,' aaagghhh, and I went whoawooohhh, and I said, 'This is it.' Don't know how I missed him."
This is not everyone's idea of a fun time. Many folks can't bring themselves to watch such stuff, let alone live it. But then Anthony Joseph Foyt, 47, a grandfather, a millionaire, the definitive race driver of our time, has never been confused with your basic common man.
So there he was next to his bright orange race car, the sweat of the day's picnic still on his happy brow, and you had the answer to your question. Yes, yes, yes, A.J. Foyt loves it. Loves to run.
Even if his stomach looks like the Goodyear blimp at low altitude, even if he's old enough to know better, even if he left a hunk of his arm in that car last summer and even if it still hurts where the old bones haven't healed yet, Foyt is racing because it is fun.
"I feel real happy, like a kid with an ice cream cone," Foyt said after finishing fifth in a qualifying race for the $927,920 Daytona 500 on Sunday.
Q. In the hospital or lying around home hurting, did you think of quitting?
Q. Not once?
Foyt. "Not at all."
Instead, the old man from Houston worked at rebuilding his right arm. The forearm muscle not only isn't as strong as it used to be; some of that muscle isn't even there. He squeezed hand-grip springs. He did pushups. He came to Daytona in January for tests of his car and himself.
Why quit? Foyt believes you die when your time is up. If you're walking down a street at the time, a safe will fall on your head. So Foyt drives 200 mph. "If the time comes on a race track," Foyt once said, "I won't mind."
He has been burned, and his back has been broken, and he was 46 last summer when he ground his Indy car into teeny-tiny pieces. But he keeps getting under the wheel. He told free-lance writer Jim Hunter he might retire in two or three years--or he might quit sooner if he has a serious accident.
Last summer's accident wasn't serious?
"Aw, I recouped from that one too quick," he said to Hunter.
Anyway, age doesn't mean much. "Not as much as eyes and depth perception do. And my eyes are still 20/20."
Still, it felt "kinda weird" to get back in a race car last month.
And it takes some getting used to, running 200 mph in traffic. In today's race, Foyt made a tactical mistake that he attributed to his time off. He let three cars pull away while he stayed behind the old leader.
"I thought there was one more lap," Foyt said. "I flat goofed up. I should have gone with those other guys. It takes awhile to get in the groove. I haven't run anywhere in six months, and I haven't run here in a year."
Such a blunder at Indianapolis--where he has won a record four times--would have sent Foyt into eruptions of anger, spraying the lava of his wrath over three states. Here today it was no big deal. Foyt wants to win, but he recognizes he is an interloper, however respected, in a game he plays only occasionally.
The Daytona 500 is the stock cars' Super Bowl. Of America's sporting events, only Indianapolis draws more customers than Daytona's customary 130,000. So Foyt, a racer, wants to race. He won here in 1972.
"I don't come to Daytona Beach just so I can say I raced at Daytona Beach," Foyt said. "I come to win. No other reason to race. But it ain't easy here. These guys are tough. Ain't no slouches. If I come here and see I don't have any chance to win, I'll go home. I race to win."
His car ran nicely today, he said, and he is excited about Sunday's race.
"People keep asking me why I keep on racing," Foyt said. "They say, 'Hell, A.J., 90 percent of them other guys are trying to do what you've already done.' I guess they're right. The way I look at it, though, is that I finished fifth today and I'm a fifth-place runner looking to move up."
Then Foyt excused himself, saying, "I've got to measure this," and next thing you know this 47-year-old grandfather millionaire is on his knees with a tape measure, measuring something under his race car.