Long Live Super Tex

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Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, strangers had a gut reaction when I introduced myself. “Hello, I’m A.J.” So often, they’d answer, “Like A.J. Foyt!” Yep, like A.J. Foyt. That’s how famous the guy was. He was not just a champion race car driver, he was one of the most well-known sports figures of those decades, period. Back then, if you talked sports rivalries, you’d talk Yankees versus Red Sox, Lakers versus Celtics, Cowboys versus Steelers, and A.J. Foyt versus Mario Andretti. Those last two were my heroes, but only one of them shared my name.

At the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this past weekend, A.J. Foyt Racing was once again out on track competing, this time with new faces. For the first time in its 55-year history, the team debuted a female pilot—Tatiana Calderon of Colombia (who finished 24th). The 2021 Indy Lights champ Kyle Kirkwood kicked off his rookie season with A.J. Foyt Racing, finishing 18th but qualifying a respectable 12th, and many pontificators are calling him the next big thing. But the newsiest story that no one is talking about amounts to one of the great miracles of the motoring world. After so many brushes with death—including numerous in recent years—A.J. Foyt is still the face of the team, still doing it, in the premier open-wheel series in North America. (He was at home in Houston with a non-Covid cold, according to his team, but he watched every lap on TV and will be in the pits at the next race.)

His accomplishments will never be matched. He was the first four-time Indy 500 winner (1961, 1964, 1967, 1977); the only driver to win the Indy 500, the Daytona 500, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans; and the winningest driver in IndyCar to this day, with 67 wins and seven championships. As a team owner, he’s won five national championships and three Indy 500s. Race fans know this stuff. Here’s some things you probably don’t know.

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In 2005, at the age of 70, Foyt went into systemic shock following an attack of killer bees. In 2006, he had a knee replacement. A year later, he crashed a bulldozer into a pond and nearly drowned. In 2011, he survived a complicated heart surgery, then came down with a staph infection a year later. In 2013, he had another knee replaced, plus back surgery, and a hip replacement. The year after that, a triple bypass. The next year, a second knee replacement and another staph infection. In 2018, another surgery, and another case of shock following another attack of killer bees. Bees really don’t like this man.

All of that comes after a driving career that spanned a horrifically violent period of motorsport. Consider this: In his rookie year at the Indy 500 (1958), the popular driver Pat O’Connor (a friend of Foyt’s) was killed in a pileup. The next year, two drivers were killed during practice. A year later, two spectators were killed. At his fourth Indy 500, one driver was killed and Foyt won for the first time, taking home a winning check of $17,975. “That was a million bucks back then,” he told me in an interview a few years ago. “I ate at the White Castle afterwards. Eight-cent hamburgers.”

He claims he was once pronounced dead following a shunt at Riverside. In 1966, his car caught on fire and he had to put his hands into it to free himself from the car, receiving third degree burns. In 1990, he shattered a leg in a crash at Road America, then refused to retire. “I knew people wanted me to retire, heck my own family wanted me to,” he said of that crash. “But I didn’t want to go out on crutches. I was determined to walk to my race car without crutches.” The list of narrow escapes seems endless. But he’s still with us.

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Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. was born in Houston in 1935, and unlike so many drivers today, he started out penniless. Today, he’s 87 and half of him has been replaced with new parts. Younger generations of race fans don’t comprehend the amazing story of Super Tex, and maybe this article can do something about that. His nickname is befitting because anyone who could survive all that he has must, somehow, have actual super powers.

More than once in my career writing about motorsports, I’ve been called “the other A.J.” As in, the one that’ll never be remotely as cool. I’m fine with that. I was lucky enough to meet the man in 2015. I flew to Houston and went to his race shop, where mechanics had IndyCars spread out all over the floor. We went for lunch (he had chicken fried steak with fries and gravy, while I had a whimpy salad). He took me to his home, showed me volumes of memorabilia, and introduced me to his horses. There are rare times when a kid grows up with a hero who then gets to spend time with that hero, as an adult. It was an unforgettable day and I’m grateful for his generosity.

His team gave me a signed box of A.J. Foyt Wheaties from back in the seventies, and I still have it (pictured here). They warned me not to eat it; the cereal is nearly a half-century old and would probably kill me. I’m guessing Super Tex could eat the whole thing and laugh at the docs in the ER.

Who knows how long A.J. will continue to be the face of his IndyCar team? Here’s a better question: What race fan wouldn’t love to see Super Tex win again?

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