AUSTIN, Texas – It’s likely A.J. Foyt has never seen a tennis court in his life and if he has, it was as a spectator. But on June 7, 1997, Foyt delivered the greatest ‘backhand’ since Andre Agassi.
It came in Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway after the first IndyCar Series race in Texas since the days of the old Texas World Speedway in College Station, Texas. The 1.5-mile high-banked TMS oval opened earlier that year and had become the crown jewel of Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc empire.
It was a massive facility that gleamed and glistened under the lights that hot Saturday night that proved to be one of the pivotal moments in the history of the then-fledgling Indy Racing League.
At that time, the old IRL had the Indianapolis 500 as its cornerstone event and little else beyond that. Texas Motor Speedway had opened two months earlier to a problematic NASCAR weekend that included horrific traffic jams and acres and acres of mud after spring rains. Some NASCAR crew chiefs, such as Jeff Hammond, had to ditch their cars several miles from the racetrack and walk through mud to get to the TMS garage area.
The NASCAR field in that opening race never made it through Turn 1 without pile-driving into the wall in a massive crash that brought out the red flag.
Meanwhile, then-Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George’s Indy Racing League was faced with obstacle after obstacle in a civil war with CART. At that time, CART had the better teams, drivers, manufacturers and sponsors.
The IRL had the Indianapolis 500.
What it really needed was another track that would give it some relevance in the motorsports world and help ensure its survival.
It found it at Texas Motor Speedway, when the 1.5-mile oval welcomed IndyCar back to the state of Texas for the first time since the 1980 race at Texas World Speedway was canceled.
It would be the first IndyCar race at night and the first time the cars raced on high-banks of 24 degrees. Prior to that, the highest-banking for CART or the IRL was the 15-degree banking at Michigan International Speedway.
Because it was the first year for Texas Motor Speedway, it sold a season ticket for both the NASCAR and Indy Racing League contests. Even if the fans didn’t show up for the IndyCar race, they had to buy the ticket in order to watch the NASCAR contest.
It was marketing genius but what happened on Saturday night, June 7, 1997 was stunning.
More fans came out to watch that first IRL race at Texas Motor Speedway than any race other than the Indianapolis 500. Not since the days of Ontario Motor Speedway in California in 1970 (when 172,000 spectators showed up) had such a large crowd witnessed IndyCar than at Texas that evening.
The crowd was announced at 129,000, and many believe it was a legitimate figure in a sport that often inflates its crowd attendance.
What they witnessed was breathtaking as young IRL star Tony Stewart and 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Lazier locked into a side-by-side battle for five full laps around the 1.5-mile oval. This was a form of racing that had never been seen before in high-speed, open-wheel Indy cars.
The fans thought they were watching a battle between Stewart and one of Foyt’s drivers, Billy Boat, for the lead in the latter half of the race. When Stewart’s Oldsmobile Aurora engine blew up with two laps left in the race, the fans cheered Boat onto victory.
Not so fast.
As part of the IRL qualifications, Texas Motor Speedway officials used a three-lap attempt to set the starting lineup. On the third lap, each driver would make a pit stop and that would be factored into the three-lap average.
That required timing lines to be cut into pit lane. At that time, the United States Auto Club (USAC) was the sanctioning body of the Indy Racing League. When CART was formed in 1978 in the first IndyCar “Civil War”, USAC’s Timing and Scoring systems were used only for the Indianapolis 500.
When Arie Luyendyk made a pit stop around Lap 140, the timing and scoring system on pit lane never picked up his transponder. He went from leading the race, to two laps down. Several other drivers, including Scott Goodyear and Tyce Carlson, also had the same problem with the scoring system.
Luyendyk was furious inside the cockpit of his race car. He wanted an answer from USAC Chief Steward Keith Ward, but no explanation was given.
On Lap 190, Stewart was in the lead and – believing Luyendyk was two laps down – waved him past. Stewart had a one-lap lead over Boat. With two laps to go, Stewart’s Oldsmobile Aurora engine blew up, and he hit the Turn 1 wall.
Boat was scored as the leader and two laps later, took the checkered flag.
What followed has become Texas folklore and probably its most colorful contribution to IndyCar Series history.
Twenty-two years later, Luyendyk doesn’t like to talk about it.
“Hasn’t that story been written enough?” Luyendyk said when asked by NBC Sports.com to give his side of what happened in Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway.
Luyendyk is a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 with victories in 1990 and in 1997.
“It was such early days in the IRL with teams scrambling to get cars together,” Luyendyk said. “The side-by-side racing is what really did it for the IRL in that race and attracted a different kind of fan. The crowd at Texas was amazing, and then there was a lot of stuff going on in that race with the side-by-side racing.”
“But the IRL had a long way to go.”
Outside of Indianapolis and Texas, the IRL drew very small crowds at that time. Bolstered by corporate sponsorships, CART drew much better crowds and had better teams.
Luyendyk was one of the more well-known drivers that chose the IRL over CART when the series began in 1996.
“My days were numbered in CART and didn’t have much going on to sign up with a great team,” Luyendyk said. “The IRL came along and doing the Indianapolis 500 was very important to me. I switched my focus onto that.
“I got my second win at Indy in 1997 and was thinking really hard about retiring, but team owner Fred Treadway wanted me to stay on to continue his team and keep the sponsors that he already had.
“People back then didn’t realize the IRL was a bunch of cowboys brought together. They drove sprint cars and modifieds and drove really hard. They had no fear. They were not easy to beat. There were a lot of good drivers there, but the cars were not the safest.
“A lot of guys got hurt back then.
“I looked around and saw what was going on and said, ‘Shit, I don’t know if I want to do this,’ because I was getting up there in age. I was vocal about it then and was criticized by IRL management, who thought I was negative.
“To me, it was a very trying time.”
Luyendyk admits the 1997 True Value 500 was a pivotal race in the history of the IRL, which is now the IndyCar Series.
So, as Boat was celebrating the apparent victory with Foyt’s crew in victory lane, Luyendyk crashed the celebration.
“I was trying to find justice from USAC and went looking for chief steward Keith Ward,” Luyendyk told NBC Sports.com. “He was the guy I was looking for. I was on the radio the whole race bitching and swearing and complaining because every time I came into the pits, I would lose a lap.”
“I was swearing up a storm on the radio.”
Luyendyk was not venting his anger at Boat or Foyt but at USAC.
“I passed him two times,” Luyendyk yelled at USAC officials in Victory Lane. “You guys don’t know how to (bleeping) count.”
Foyt was standing nearby and thought Luyendyk was trying to create an issue with his team.
As soon as Luyendyk uttered the word “count” Foyt backhanded him with a hard slap to the head.
Foyt, a Texas hero who was the first driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times in his career, drug Luyendyk and pushed the driver from The Netherlands into the flowers in Victory Lane.
Those flowers just happened to be tulips.
“There was no way I was going to ever get into a fight with A.J. Foyt, I would have just walked away because I wasn’t going to lay a hand on him or anybody,” Luyendyk said. “I saw there was going to be trouble, so I walked away.
“That’s when I got hit by A.J.
“A.J. is still convinced he won the race, and we are convinced we won the race. That non-agreement will always remain between us. We apologized later that week and worked it out.”
Shortly after the scuffle ended, Luyendyk’s team owner, Fred Treadway, filed an appeal with USAC. Ward and USAC’s Director of Timing and Scoring, Art Graham, worked until 9 a.m. reviewing the scoring telemetry of the race.
They discovered the system had indeed failed, and Luyendyk was the rightful winner. In fact, Luyendyk had won by a full lap.
The revision meant the entire top 10 had to be reshuffled.
A hastily called media conference took place at Texas Motor Speedway later that morning. USAC admitted their error and gave Luyendyk the victory.
Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage publicly said USAC had ruined his race and slammed the door as he walked outside of the theater at TMS where the media conference had taken place.
Luyendyk was awarded the victory, but Foyt kept the trophy.
“A.J. has the trophy, but I won the race,” Luyendyk said. “You could write a book about that.
“It’s too bad because we put on a pretty good event that night, and it got overshadowed.”
It was the last time USAC sanctioned an IndyCar race. By the time the series arrived at Pike’s Peak International Raceway for the next contest, the IRL had created its own sanctioning body.
After unifying with the old Champ Car Series in 2008 to put an end to the 12-year civil war, that sanctioning body today is INDYCAR.
It was Tuesday morning, and 84-year-old A.J. Foyt decided to do what he typically does on his South Texas ranch: He climbed on his bulldozer to clear some brush.
It’s been more than 25 years since Foyt climbed out of an IndyCar, but in true Texas fashion, Foyt is his own man, and nothing beats a hard day’s work.
When Foyt called NBC Sports.com later in the day, he admitted, “My ass is dragging.”
Attacked twice by killer bees, having an artificial hip, quadruple bypass heart surgery and stem cell therapy in Mexico, nothing keeps Foyt down for long.
Mention his incident with Luyendyk in Victory Lane at Texas in 1997, and Foyt still gets riled up.
“We were two laps ahead and didn’t race Luyendyk because we didn’t have to,” Foyt told NBC Sports.com. “USAC was so screwed up on the scoring, and all of a sudden, they said we were one lap down. We actually won at Texas two years in a row with Billy Boat, including the one that Luyendyk thinks he won.
“I have that trophy in my office and told Luyendyk, ‘Come get it. If you want it; come, get it. I’m not going to give it to you.’
“He never did come get it.”
To this day, Foyt has no regrets for delivering the “backhand.”
“Not really,” Foyt told NBC Sports.com. “He got what he deserved.
“Even when I thought I was right; I never went into Victory Circle cussing people out. I thought, ‘What are you doing?’
“That’s when I decided to slap the sh– out of him.”
“You just don’t do that.”
Foyt was fined $20,000 and Luyendyk $10,000 for the incident.
The IRL should have paid them a bonus because the video of the incident was played for days on television stations in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and all parts in between that typically don’t pay attention to IndyCar racing, especially the IRL of that era.
On Sunday, a new chapter in Texas’ long and colorful history in IndyCar racing will take place as the beautiful Circuit of the Americas hosts the NTT IndyCar Series for the first time. The INDYCAR Classic will be televised on NBCSN and becomes the only track on the schedule and the first since the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from 2000-2007 to have both IndyCar and Formula One at its facility.
It will add to the deep connection for Texas and IndyCar.
But nothing will ever top Foyt’s ‘backhand’ for the impact it had on the series 22 years ago.
To a lesser degree, it was the IRL’s version of the famous fight in Turn 3 following the 1979 Daytona 500.