HOUSTON -- So it wasn't Indy. Or Daytona. Or even the lumpy dirt track that 50 years ago helped set this collision course with risk. What was available was some 70 feet of brick walkway, a couple of light blue ramps and a wheelchair. Naturally, A. J. Foyt could make a race out of them.

Driven drivers grab speed where they find it -- and for American auto racing's most versatile throttle jockey that happened to be almost immediately outside the great doors to his stunning home here.

Last Sept. 23, Foyt's life almost came to a resounding end in a wreck during the Texaco-Havoline 200 in Elkhart Lake, Wis., when on Lap 26 he ran his Lola off the main straightaway and into a ditch, crushing the car's front around his legs.

It took 15 minutes to get him out of the car and into a helicopter for a 60-mile trip to Milwaukee County Hospital, where he underwent 4 1/2 hours of surgery to repair fractures of the left foot and left knee, a dislocated right ankle, broken right toe and compression fracture of the lower back.

The wreck apparently was caused by brake failure in a machine going about 187 miles an hour.

Until last week, Foyt was mostly confined to a wheelchair. But the chair does have four rubber tires, not to mention one-Foyt-power energy, so it frequently was taken for lively spins.

These happened as Foyt was about to be driven to high-tech therapy or simply out for a whiff of fresh air. No green starter's flag waved nearby as Foyt maneuvered his wheelchair and made ready to roll; he was always the pole sitter.

Pushoff got the Foytmobile drifting down the ramp that covers two nearby steps and along the no-turn course. Going bumpity-bump over the bricks, it finally passed through a black iron gate and down a much smaller ramp before coming to a hand-grinding halt in a parking area wide as half a football field.

That's folly.

That's Foyt.

Of course, one slight lurch along the way could have spilled Foyt and done even more damage to legs pieced back together with skin grafts, at least 300 stitches and a circular contraption with screws that kept his left ankle in place. Whoever said "Careful, A. J." soon was going to be wiping away a sheepish smile, for those were some of the least dangerous conditions the man has ever endured.

"Been hurt before," he said, recalling the wreck, "but never confined to a wheelchair or bed. I just don't know what I'd do if I were confined, paralyzed. Don't think I could ever live with it. If I knew I'd be confined like this the rest of my life, I wouldn't care to live. No way."

A couple of breaths later, Foyt talked about chancing exactly that. He's a contradictory man -- and contrary. His house is brick-solid; his life depends on 50-cent parts staying together in delicate cars going 220 mph or better. His house is airy, full of open spaces; his job has him strapped in body-tight spaces for hours at a time.

Even as he discarded his wheelchair for crutches last week, Foyt will be slowing down and -- hard as this is to believe -- walking away from racing. He said that plans for the coming season to be his last had been in the works before that awful spill in Elkhart.

"We were going to make a surprise announcement at the start of the '91 season," he said, "but the wreck pushed it up. Too many questions {about retirement}. Why should I lie? To be truthful, I'm getting up in age {he'll be 56 Jan. 16}. I'd like to be a car owner, just run the team. I know I'll be a bastard to drive for, 'cause they won't be able to BS me."

Foyt's honesty compels him to admit that he wants in 1991 not only a farewell lap around the auto-racing circuit but especially 200 laps May 26 around the course with which he is most identified -- the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

For many, Foyt is to the Indy 500 what Arnold Palmer is to the Masters and what Bill Russell would be to the NBA finals if the elderly could block shots with the young turks in basketball.

"No one will break my record for consecutive qualifications {at Indy}," he said. "Thirty-three straight. That'll stand forever."

Unless Foyt nudges it to 34.

That will be possible, the medics believe, and progress two weeks ago was such that a foot-to-knee cast on his right leg was sawed off for good and the circular strand of metal with the screws attached to his left ankle removed.

"I think we can get him rehabbed and make him competitive by Indianapolis," said Dr. Terry Trammell. "That's a very realistic goal. He could be back in a car as soon as the end of March or early April, but it'll take some doing. The brake pressure is going to be a problem for a while. It'd be nice to have a month to six weeks to do that."

Trammell was one of the first to reach Foyt after the accident and said: "At first, we really couldn't see his feet at all because everything was so covered with dirt. The dirt was loose so I kind of dogpaddled it out. I found his right foot, but it was over on the left side of the car. . . .

"I couldn't figure out how his knee could be where it was and his foot be where it was and still be connected. Once we got it all dug out and could see the way things were laying, it was quite a relief."

Typically, Foyt said: "I'd really like to be ready for Daytona {in mid-February}, but I guess not."

And what if Foyt's recovery were slower than expected? What if he couldn't make it for Indy?

"If I don't make it {in 1991}, I'd have to do it the next year," he said. "If I still feel good, I'm definitely gonna run Indy one more time. Some way. Even if I'd retire this year, Indy will be the final blow."

Although his life has been documented in a couple of books and many of his relevant statistics and quotes assembled in a 78-page brochure, not all of the Foyt blows could possibly be counted. Blown away, like so many ugly clouds, are the number of fistfights after races and the times he ran somebody off a real road in a fit of rage.

At age 6, Foyt was driving 50 mph, in a midget car built for him by his father and adorned with the No. 8 of his hero at the time, Doc Cossey. His first official race of record came at age 18, when he won a feature for midget cars at Playland Park, which now is part of the Astrodome complex here.

"Nobody had much money," he said. "My first car was a '38 standard Ford coupe, which I bought in a junkyard. Build the motor up and worked on it in my father's shop. Lots of free labor. After a race, if you did good, you went out and had some fried chicken. If you lost, it was a drive-in for hamburgers. A fun deal."

Before his first race at Indy, in 1958, there was a trip to Indy.

"Drove there nonstop with three other guys in '55," he said. "Me and Tommy Mangrum, Harry Wolf and Sonny McDaniels. Split the gas and the driving. Slept in the car 'cause we had no money for a motel. Next year, I took a midget up there and ran at a track across the street."

The first lap of his first Indy 500, Foyt spun out. He was part of a 15-car melee in which driver Pat O'Connor was killed, and he remembers thinking at the time: "This is a little too rough for me."

Thirteen of the 33 starters in Foyt's first 500 eventually were killed racing. He is the only one of the survivors who has not retired. Drivers who started racing long after he did have had successful careers and retired, while he charges on.

Early in his unauthorized biography of Foyt, Bill Libby quotes Rodger Ward as admitting: "I will put myself in places on a race track most drivers will not go. Foyt is the greatest of drivers because he will put himself in places no one else will go."

Foyt's significant numbers: the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500; the only driver to have won the Indy 500, the Daytona 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans; the only driver to have won the national Indy-car and stock-car titles in the same year, 1979.

For his first 500, Foyt qualified at slightly more than 143 mph. For his 33d 500, Foyt qualified at 220-plus. He smiled at the increase of nearly 80 miles per hour on the same track and said:

"Maybe 15 years ago, Pontiac built this sports car that I got up to something like 148. With the air-conditioner and radio on. I'm thinking: 'Hot damn! Ain't this something. Got the radio on and I'm running faster than I did {at Indy} in '61.' "

Foyt said the late-'50s were more dangerous times to race than now -- and only one death at Indy since 1973 bears that out.

Coincidentally, Foyt's house was built with recovery from serious accidents in mind. The original design had all the bedrooms on the level above the winding staircase. But his last terrible accident before this one, in Milwaukee in '66 when he was badly burned, got the master bedroom moved to the first floor.

"Never had a scratch on me till '65," he said. "All the races I'd been in. Lucy {his wife of 35 years} and I were supposed to take a vacation in Japan when I got burned so bad in Milwaukee. We'd finally planned another one and the last thing Lucy told me before Elkhart was not to get hurt and screw this vacation up. I told her not to worry. Then this happens, on Sept. 23, her birthday."

Wheelchair activity in his home was not easy, because the den and entertainment area feature step-downs. Although he lost 27 pounds, Foyt looks hardy. At one point during his wheelchair confinement, he turned and asked Lucy to bring a unique gift a fan had sent. Soon, he was holding a crooked, high-gloss cane.

Foyt: "The note said: 'It's hard as you are, A. J., but I want to say one thing. I have no liability insurance, so if you whomp somebody upside the head, you don't know who this came from."

Away from racing, Foyt has a foible. He's scared of heights.

"I'll climb a tree," he said, "but I'm petrified. Hang on so tight it would take a bomb to blow me off. I get on a tall ladder at the ranch and I'm all right -- until I look down."

Looking back on his career, Foyt said a fellow driver, Gary Bettenhausen, put it best. To A. J. in the hospital, Bettenhausen said: "If you want to work only on weekends and make a pile of money quick, you gotta spend a little sheet time."

Foyt laughed.

"Sheet time."

Within 10 minutes, he was back in bed.