A.J. Foyt turns 80 on Friday and we’re celebrating his career all week here on The Blog, plus on IndyCar.com and the IndyCar app. Today, Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson shares a classic on-track tale.
Of all the colorful anecdotes there are circulating out there about A.J. Foyt, I would have to say that my personal favorite concerns the time he qualified a dirt car on the pole at Milwaukee!
It was the weekend of Aug. 21-22, 1965, during the period when the Illinois State Fair and the Wisconsin State Fair were both running at the same time and there would be a 100-mile USAC National Championship race on the dirt at Springfield on Saturday and the 200-miler on the paved Milwaukee Mile the following day. By the time 1965 rolled around, the rear-engine cars were coming more and more into vogue and a race like Milwaukee would see a growing number of rear-engine cars mixed in with some “roadsters” and even a few dirt cars, some of which had raced at Springfield the day before.
It was a fairly standard procedure in those days for leading drivers like Foyt, who were participating in both, to tow the Springfield car up to Milwaukee after the race and rendezvous with other members of the team who would have gone directly up there with the “pavement” car, the entire entourage then towing back to Indianapolis in caravan-style on Sunday evening. At some point on either Saturday evening or Sunday morning, Foyt, who had won at Springfield, received word that there had been some problems with the rear-engine car in Indianapolis and that it was not going to be ready to make the trip.
To the disbelief of many, Foyt proceeded to hose the dirt off the Springfield winner and begin setting it up for a paved track.
In spite of really stiff competition from Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, Parnelli Jones, Lloyd Ruby, Roger McCluskey and others in rear-engine cars, Foyt absolutely electrified the huge crowd by qualifying the high-sitting dirt car for the pole! He even led the first three laps of the race, not to mention another 15 laps later on, sitting almost bolt upright in the cockpit save for leaning slightly over to the right, the front left wheel “hiking” through the turns and Foyt’s elbows positioned approximately at the level of the tops of the helmets of his rear-engine-driving colleagues.
While it would be great to report that he won, in reality he came home in the runner-up spot, but completely overshadowed newcomer Gordon Johncock, who should have received considerably more credit than he did for a driving a rear-engine car for the very first time in his life. Because the fuel tank capacity of the dirt car was only designed for 100-mile races, Foyt had to make at least one stop. In the hurry to get him back out, the spring-loaded fuel cap did not engage properly and for the next few laps, the cap skewed skyward. With this still being years away from the days of two-way radios and spotters, the only communication between driver and pit crew was through a pit board, hand signals and mime. With USAC officials suggesting a possible black flag for safety reasons, the crew scrawled a chalked message on the pit board, “FUEL CAP!” It took about three laps of animated hand gesturing for a slightly confused Foyt to understand the message, whereupon he proceeded to steer with his left hand and reach behind his head with right to press the spring loaded cap back into place!
It must have required super-human strength for him to do that, and yet, in recent years he has only chuckled when this particular incident has come up in conversation, claiming to have no recollection of it having occurred. Nevertheless, he was in great spirits after the race was over and he appeared in the victory enclosure, cowboy hat squarely placed on his head and grinning from ear to ear as he congratulated an almost embarrassed Johncock. The crowd went nuts. So, “all in all,” as The Man himself would say, we feel this was the iconic Foyt at his very best.