A.J. Foyt returns to the Indy 500, his legacy long secured and grief fresh from his wife’s death

WALLER, Texas (AP) — A.J. Foyt was 15 when a boat that he and two friends were riding in capsized in a storm. The young Foyt clung tightly to a buoy until a fishing vessel found him, too late for one of the other boys that had already drowned.

Not long afterward, Foyt and some buddies were climbing towers and one of them grasped a power line and was electrocuted.

So began a life spent cheating death, one that one of the greatest auto racing drivers in history has been forced to reflect upon in recent weeks during what usually is a time of joy. The month of May means the Indianapolis 500, the biggest race in the world, and it’s a crown jewel event that Foyt won a record-sharing four times.

Lucy, his beloved wife for nearly 68 years, died last month. For Foyt, now 88, the prospect of mortality has finally become inescapable. And few have had so many escapes.

Foyt was retired when he suffered two near-fatal attacks by killer bees, one sending him into shock. He once flipped a bulldozer into a pond on one of his Texas properties, emerging to shout: “I ain’t no Houdini! I needed some air!” He has had several staph infections, one leading to a concrete spacer in his leg that eventually led to an artificial knee.

When Foyt had triple bypass surgery a decade ago, he was left comatose; Lucy was told his organs were beginning to fail. Yet his high school sweetheart had seen him defy death so many times that she refused to turn off his respirator. Naturally, he recovered.

And then there are the wrecks, so many of those. Like his 1965 flip in a stock car at Riverside, when doctors on site pronounced him dead. Parnelli Jones stepped in, scooped dirt from Foyt’s mouth and that was all it took to revive him.

Or the crash in 1972, when Foyt had to leap from a burning dirt champ car. It ran over his ankle and broke it as Foyt, engulfed in flames, ran toward a pond. His father grabbed a fire extinguisher to save his son.

That brings his story to March 7 of this year, when Foyt went to a Houston hospital to have a pacemaker installed. He was deeply opposed to the procedure, mostly because he believes a pacemaker killed his mother in 1981. He asked the doctors what would happen if he didn’t get it.

“I think they were scared my heart was slowing down too much,” said Foyt, who has never slowed down a day in his life. “(The doctor) said the bad thing was you can pass out or have a stroke. Well, I didn’t want to be driving from Houston out here to the shop and pass out and kill somebody. So that’s the reason I did it, because I still like to drive my own car.”

The Associated Press recently spent a day with Foyt at his race shop in Waller, reminiscing about a career that made him famous far beyond the track. He was same ol’ A.J. that day, cracking jokes, talking about his ranches and his career milestones.

The tough-as-boot-leather Texan was irreverent about death that day, too. Foyt drove during one of the deadliest eras in motorsports, and far too many of his racing contemporaries pulled off pit lane never to pull back in. The number of those who survived is dwindling with time, of course; two good friends not only died on the same day earlier this year but had funerals on the same day, too.

“What do you do when your friends die? You get new friends,” Foyt said with a shrug.

It’s not so easy to replace Lucy, who died unexpectedly just seven days after AP visited Foyt.

“Super Tex” had just spent the first weekend in April at Texas Motor Speedway, attending his first IndyCar race of the season to watch his two drivers compete. He and Lucy have what he called “sugar diabetes,” and when Foyt called her over the weekend, she mentioned that she wasn’t feeling well.

By the time Foyt arrived home Sunday night, she was far worse. Foyt on Tuesday got to the hospital, but Lucy suffered a massive heart attack and died the following morning.

In a blink-or-you’ll miss it moment, Foyt’s eyes welled with tears and his voice choked as he discussed their final goodbye.

“Me and my oldest son sat there next to the bed with her,” Foyt said, taking a long pause, “and it was hard.”

The couple shared four children, eight grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren. They owned several properties across Texas, many of them working cattle ranches that Foyt tends to to this day. He now has to handle her affairs, too.

Foyt didn’t want to go to Indianapolis this month, worrying about what could happen at home without Lucy to oversee things. But he figured Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he had spent many of his best days, was the right place to help process his grief.

From the garages of Gasoline Alley to the yard of bricks on the front stretch, Foyt is surrounded by old friends and foes, racers everywhere — his kind of people — along with adoring fans who believe Foyt is the best to walk the hallowed grounds.

“I still consider him the greatest driver to ever pull on a helmet,” three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford said.

Foyt won his first Indy 500 in 1961, then again in 1964 and 1967, while his 1977 victory made him the first four-time winner, a club that has grown to include Al Unser Sr., Rick Mears and Helio Castroneves. Foyt qualified for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” for 35 consecutive years, and he is the only driver to win in both front- and rear-engined cars.

His legacy extends well beyond the Indy 500. In 1967, Foyt became the only driver to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans and Indy 500 in the same year, and he’s the only driver to have won Indy, the Daytona 500, Le Mans and the 12 Hours of Sebring. He has 12 major racing championships – his seven IndyCar titles are a record – and his 67 IndyCar victories are most in series history.

His eponymous race team has gone through some lean years, split between Waller and Indianapolis. The Waller facility has only eight full-time employees, but it is where Foyt said his flagship No. 14 will remain “until the day I die.”

Santino Ferrucci is driving it this year and he will start Sunday’s race fourth — the same position Foyt started when he won his final two Indy 500s — while rookie teammate Benjamin Pedersen will roll off 11th.

Team morale is soaring and fans each day have shown their adoration for Foyt and his drivers. The qualifying crowd last Sunday roared for Ferrucci each time he took to the track, including his run for the pole. By that point, a superstitious Foyt was watching from one of the garages, the door pulled shut.

In the afternoon sun, a crowd was building outside his garage, waiting for Super Tex to emerge so they could cheer his team’s encouraging start to the Indy 500. The lowest-ranked, full-time team in IndyCar had out-qualified mighty Team Penske, and most of the cars from heavyweights Chip Ganassi Racing and Arrow McLaren Racing.

The fans were bursting with pride for Foyt, who simply wanted to move on with his day.

“I don’t care how anyone else feels,” he said. “I only give a (expletive) how A.J. Foyt feels.”

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