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. For today’s “Throwback Thursday,” we take a peek at when it all began for “Super Tex” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The first time A.J. Foyt came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he had to buy a ticket.
The Indianapolis 500 was just out of reach for the young Texan in 1956 and 1957 as his career was beginning, so he sat in the grandstands to watch stars negotiate the famed oval. His on-track action was confined to racing a midget car across the street at the West 16th Street Speedway.
Foyt’s big break in the race that would later define his remarkable career came in 1958, when a very good seat came open.
Jimmy Bryan, the reigning national champion from 1957 who had finished third at Indianapolis in the Dean Van Lines Special, moved to the Belond Exhaust team following the retirement of 1957 “500” winner Sam Hanks. The Dean Van Lines car needed a driver, and an up-and-coming star was given a shot.
The 23-year-old Foyt made an immediate impression, qualifying 12th – the highest in an eight-man rookie class – and was ready to show his mettle in the race.
Of course, Foyt would go on to race in the “500” a record 35 times, but at his first, the race’s unpredictability revealed itself on the very first lap in the form of a huge pileup at the front.
Polesitter Dick Rathmann and second-qualifying Ed Elisian battled into Turn 3 and got together, hitting the outside wall. Behind them, Jimmy Reece tapped his brake and was hit from behind by Bob Veith, who was then hit by Pat O’Connor, and more carnage developed behind them.
“I thought, ‘Oh s—, I’ve come this far and it’s all over. I didn’t even make a lap,” Foyt wrote in his 1983 autobiography, “A.J.”
Several cars pulled into the infield to avoid the melee. Jerry Unser sailed over the outside wall. O’Connor, a particular fan favorite at the time, was killed when he landed upside down on the track after running over the cars of Reece and Veith.
“I looked for a place to go,” Foyt wrote. “There were cars sideways in front of me, so I spun my car to keep from hitting them. There was a hole and I sort of pulled myself up straight in the seat, trying to make myself as thin as I could.”
Foyt managed to avoid it all. He continued through 148 laps, when a spin ended his day in 16th place.
He didn’t lead a lap that day, and in fact wouldn’t lead a lap in his next two “500” starts. But in 1961 he broke through with a win in the Bowes Seal Fast Special, and the legend began to take full flight.
You know the rest.