INDIANAPOLIS – When it comes to overcoming physical pain, there are few individuals tougher than 88-year-old A.J. Foyt.
He’s suffered a broken back in a NASCAR crash at Riverside, California in 1965, a fracture left knee and left foot and dislocated right leg from a massive crash at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin on Sept. 23, 1990, and nearly had his right arm severed off from the Armco barrier at Michigan International Speedway in the 1981 Michigan 500. He was also badly burned at The Milwaukee Mile.
That’s just on the racetrack.
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Off the track, he survived over 200 stings from killer bees on his ranch in Del Rio, Texas in 2005 and again in 2018, and he survived an overturned bulldozer that left him upside down in a pond.
He’s had triple-bypass surgery and stem cell replacement in Mexico. He also had a pacemaker installed to regulate his heart earlier this year.
Each time, Foyt has endured and returned to living his life, AJ.’.s way.
The reason Foyt is so tough is because he was raised in Houston, Texas without air conditioning. For anyone who has ever been to that city with the heat and humidity, they know how difficult that can be.
None of that pain, however, comes close to the pain that Foyt has carried with him since April 5.
That’s the night the love of his life, his wife Lucy, unexpectedly died at the age of 84.
“The pain I had about my wife is more pain I have had from anything on the rest of my body,” Foyt told NBC Sports. “You got to sleep, and you don’t feel the physical pain.
“Now, I go to sleep, and I think about my wife.”
Foyt is the epitome of toughness. But he is also a man who just lost his wife, who was a real Texas beauty, the daughter of Dr. L. Lynn Zarr and Elizabeth Zarr who was raised in River Oaks, Texas, an affluent area of Houston (the nation’s fourth-largest city).
She was beautiful and gracious. The younger Foyt was a handsome lad, a true Texas hero on the race track, but also someone who was tough and often combative.
Lucy was enthralled with this man who faced fear and never flinched. There was something exciting about the danger that Foyt encountered.
As for Foyt, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight, even though Lucy was stunning.
“It was a funny deal,” Foyt told NBC Sports in an extended interview Monday inside his garage in Gasoline Alley at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I was driving stock cars and I would never date a blonde-haired person. She was a blonde and two or three times, I had a date, and I would break it because I told her I had to work on my race car. I was working on my stock cars at home.
“Afterwards, we started going together and that was it.
“It was love at first sight and it wasn’t. She was such a nice girl, and I really respected her, and one thing led to another.
“She was a Texas beauty and I’m from Texas and I’m still from Texas.”
The two were married in 1955, and Foyt was beginning his path to becoming a true American legend as one of the greatest racing drivers in history.
“Well, that’s quite true,” Foyt said. “She went to a lot of races – San Antonio, Austin, Corpus Christi. She would ride with my Mother and Daddy and I rode with my Mother and Daddy because I didn’t have no money to drive to the races. I drove my Daddy’s Midget.
“When I decided to go on my own in racing, her mother signed a $1,500 note for me when I wanted to buy a midget. That is when I left Houston in 1957 and came up to Indianapolis and ran the Midget races with my own race car and I did my own work.
“I finally paid it off and I teased her. The man at Citizen State Bank as Mr. Thomas.
“You can’t forget the people that helped you get your start.”
He arrived for his first Indianapolis 500 as a driver in 1958 and was immediately befriended by veteran driver Pat O’Connor.
He took time to teach the strapping Texan the ins and the outs of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and how risky it was to compete in the Indianapolis 500.
O’Connor never made it through Turn 3 of that year’s Indianapolis 500. He was part of the massive Turn 1 crash that sent Jerry Unser flying over the Turn 3 wall. O’Connor’s car flipped and landed upside-down, instantly killing the driver.
As Foyt drove by, the rookie’s heart sank when he saw the scene of O’Connor’s crash.
He once said he didn’t know if he was tough enough to compete in the Indianapolis 500 after that.
By 1961, however, Foyt was celebrating in Victory Lane after he defeated Eddie Sachs in a late race duel to score his first Indianapolis 500 win.
Lucy was escorted to Victory Lane to celebrate with her husband. Back then, women weren’t allowed in the pits and the winning driver’s wife had to be taken to Victory Lane for the celebration.
“When I first came here, I rented a basement in Indianapolis, and she was with me here,” Foyt recalled. “After we started having kids, she stayed at home at the house.
“Every time I raced at Indianapolis; she was here. She went to a lot of races, but she was with me every year that we raced at Indianapolis.
“We met the Hulmans, and Mr. Hulman was so good to me. We stayed at one of their places.”
— AJ Foyt Racing (@AJFoytRacing) April 5, 2023
Lucy was there in 1964 when Foyt scored his second Indianapolis 500 win and again in 1967 when Foyt became a three-time 500 winner.
By then, Foyt was a huge fan favorite at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Thanks to the advent of television and ABC’s Wide World of Sports, Foyt’s conquests were often featured on the famed sports anthology show.
He joined Dan Gurney to win the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans for Ford in 1967, less than a month after he scored his third Indy 500 win.
He drove the Wood Brothers Mercury to victory in the 1972 Daytona 500.
Each year, the storyline entering the Indianapolis 500 was if Foyt would become the first four-time winner of the famed race.
It took 10 years, but finally in 1977, Foyt drove to victory after Gordon Johncock’s car broke a crankshaft while leading, just 17 laps from the checkered flag.
Lucy was in the Oldsmobile Delta 88 Pace Car when Foyt took the traditional winner’s lap around the Speedway. But Foyt was in the back seat next to Tony Hulman, the man who saved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from extinction when he purchased it from Eddie Rickenbacker in November 1945.
“It was always nice to be first,” Foyt said. “My wife sat in the front seat, and she said, ‘Mr. Hulman, you ride in the back with AJ.’
“They were such great people and I think he was glad to see me be the first four-time winner. He was close to Wilbur Shaw. He was a great race driver.
“With me knowing Mr. Hulman like we knew each other; he was glad to see me win.”
It was fitting the two could share this grand moment together on May 29, 1977.
On Oct. 27, 1977, Anton Hulman passed away at the age of 76.
Lucy and AJ were at the funeral in Terre Haute, Indiana.
“One thing I really loved about the Hulmans is he never asked me to do anything special and I never asked him for anything special,” Foyt recalled. “It was such a great, close relationship.
“At Daytona, I got hurt in a stock car race and he was one of the first ones to the hospital.
“Over the years, they asked Mr. Hulman who his favorite race driver was, and he would say, they are all his favorite.
“A few weeks later, he would come up and pat me on the back and say, ‘You know my favorite.’
“It was a personal friendship. We didn’t use each other; we were just friends.”
Earlier in 1977, Larry Foyt was born. A.J. and Lucy adopted Larry as their own and raised him as their son.
As the youngest of the Foyt children, Larry had a close relationship with Lucy. She loved her son, and he loved his mom.
Today, Larry Foyt is president of AJ Foyt Racing and has taken Lucy’s loss exceptionally hard.
Before last Saturday’s qualifications at the Indianapolis 500, Larry spoke with NBC Sports about how the emergence of Santino Ferrucci and rookie Benjamin Pedersen at the Indianapolis 500 has come at a great time for the family.
“In a way, it’s a nice distraction,” Larry Foyt told NBC Sports. “It’s good to be focused on something else for a little bit because it’s been tough for the whole family. She was such a centerpiece for the whole family.
“I had a sad moment this morning because I couldn’t talk to her,” he said as his voice was choked with emotion.
“I just want to do a good job.”
A.J. Foyt didn’t want to come to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year, but he knew it might be the best medicine to help him in this time of grief.
“I probably wouldn’t have come here if that hadn’t happened,” Foyt admitted. “But I wanted to be here for Larry. I wanted to be support for him. My wife raised him. He is our kid. I didn’t want him to come up here and fall apart. He hasn’t. He has worked very hard.
“Both of us are very sad because of the death we had in the family because that was the love of our life,” AJ said as his lip started to quiver, and his voice started to break.
“We raised Larry, so he is our son. It’s like when your Mother passes, it’s different. Our family has always been very, very close.”
There are two sides of A.J. Foyt. There is the public side, the legend who is remembered for his red-faced temper, his quick-trigger rage and fixing his race car with a hammer.
To see Foyt at the Indianapolis 500 is like watching Babe Ruth return to Yankee Stadium.
There is also the private Foyt, the caring side that makes this larger-than-life hero a giant Teddy Bear.
Last week, Foyt was complimented on being in such a good mood.
“Don’t let it rub off on you.”
Much of the reason for Foyt’s good spirits are two fast race cars in the Indianapolis 500.
Ferrucci will start fourth, the inside of Row 2, after running a four-lap average of 233.661 miles per hour in Sunday’s “Fast Six” qualifications. Pedersen starts 11th, the middle of Row 4, with a four-lap average of 232.671 mph.
“I’m glad the cars are fast,” Larry said. “That certainly makes him happier than when they are not. This is home away from home for AJ. It’s his favorite place in the world. He lives for this race. I know he is happy to be here.
“He misses Mom a lot. It’s hard. Just seeing his friends here. George Snider coming in is great. Having Marlene Sexton (sponsor and friend) here, just seeing his friends, it’s a nice getaway from him.”
When asked if Larry worries about AJ, he replied, “Oh yeah. Sure. He’s actually doing better than I thought. We all have our moments, and he does as well. With everything he has been through, his will to live never falters with him. It’s amazing.
“With 68 years of marriage, she was certainly his rock. It’s not easy, but he is doing the best he can.”
This will be Larry Foyt’s 45th Indianapolis 500. He’s only 46.
“I have vivid memories,” Larry Foyt said of coming to the Indianapolis 500. “We had the same suite in Turn 2. I remember waking up at the Speedway Motel and waiting for dad to get ready and go over to the track. I loved coming over here with him and hearing the people cheering for him and saying, ‘Give ‘em hell, A.J.’ and all of that.
“Sitting up in Turn 2, he would wear those red golf gloves and would always wave at us before the race.
“Those were the things I remember being young. I don’t remember 1977 because I was just born, a couple months old.
“When I was really young, I didn’t come in until race weekend. But I remember running up the stairs in the Turn 2 Suites and running into the suites to watch the cars. It’s still my favorite view.
“Even when we quit practicing and were done for the day, I run over to Turn 2 and watch the guys run through there. It’s the coolest place on the race track. You really feel the speed.
“I gave Anne Fornoro a small heart attack when I was young and showed up with my Copenhagen gear. I was underage and she didn’t want me to wear that stuff.
“I spent the month of May around here quite a bit, so it’s been a home away from home for me, as well.”
The Foyts returned home to Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier this month.
Home is certainly where the heart is.
“It’s a tough start, but we’re trying to spend as much time and enjoy the time with A.J. because at 88, it’s unfortunate that we are all getting older and it’s just part of life,” Larry said. “My daughter was 4 months old today and her name is Lucy.
“Mom’s last outing was with her before she died.”
Larry confided that the longtime family maid named Ernie remains in the house to take care of A.J. Foyt.
But make no mistake, A.J. Foyt is still his own man.
“He drives out to the shop every day and motors all around and stays busy,” Larry said. “He is still super active, on us, what we are doing and wants us to win.
“There is still a lot of fight in him.”
There was one person who knew how to control Foyt, and it was Lucy.
“She knew how to handle him,” Larry said. “A lot of times in front of everybody he was the boss, but behind closed doors, she was the boss.
“She always nursed him back to health when he was hurt. She was great with all the kids. She lived for the kids and grandkids.
“She was one of a kind, for sure.
“I wish she could see that we are having a good month.
“She would be happy.”
Throughout his racing career, Foyt’s biggest rival was Mario Andretti. These two names created a split in fans that attended the Indianapolis 500 every year.
Back in the day, fans were divided into two groups – Foyt fans and Andretti fans.
They rooted for one and rooted against the other.
Mario Andretti married a girl from Nazareth, Pennsylvania named Dee Ann and the two were married for nearly 57 years before she passed away on July 2, 2018.
Andretti can relate to Foyt’s loss of Lucy.
“I just know what he is going through,” Andretti told NBC Sports. “That’s part of life that is going to happen, but why does it have to happen to them first. Looking at my wife, there is no way in the world I would have ever thought she would go before me.
“You have to move on, but the loss is there every day.
“I sleep in my bed, and she is not next to me anymore.”
Foyt and Andretti have spoken several times since Lucy passed away.
“Every time A.J. sees me, he says, ‘I can’t believe we are still standing,’” Andretti said. “Well, we are still standing.”
Johnny Rutherford is a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and lives in Fort Worth, Texas. He was married to the love of his life, Betty, for 55 years.
She died on January 20, 2019.
“We all went through that,” Rutherford told NBC Sports. “We were all married to our wives for a long time. A.J. for 68 years and Mario and Dee Ann were married longer than Betty and I. Betty and I were married for 55 years.
“I talked to AJ about Lucy that it was after Betty passed, I realized how much she had done for me and the family in those 55 years to keep us happy and on the right track. AJ agreed, it was the same thing with Lucy.
“It’s just not easy.
“I haven’t changed a thing in my home in Texas. Everywhere I look, it’s Betty. She decorated the house. It has not been easy. She has been gone for five years.
“Time marches on.
“AJ truly knows what I’m saying, and I know what he is saying. Everything I’ve said about Betty and me, he nods his heads, yes, that he and Lucy were that way.
“It has not been easy. You realize after they passed what all they did for you so you could go racing. I agree with that, it was the same way with Betty and me. It’s not easy to get around, but that is what it is.
“God love their soul.”
Foyt has appreciated the friendship and comfort from Andretti and Rutherford, two men that know what Foyt is enduring.
“Well, that’s quite true,” Foyt said. “We go way back, Johnny, Mario and myself. We were all competitive against each other, but we are very close friends. I know Mario lost his wife and I called him, and he also called me. Johnny also lost his wife.”
With the team’s recent resurgence, it’s been like old times inside Foyt’s Gasoline Alley garage this month.
Old friends and well-wishers have stopped by to visit with the living legend.
But in quiet times, Foyt feels the pain of his loss.
“This month is a very sad month for me,” he said. “I didn’t want to come up here, but I felt like if I didn’t come up here, I was probably going to kill somebody back home because of all the stuff that is going on. I had to get away for two or three weeks. That’s the reason I’m here.
“It’s something you go through in life. I didn’t know I was going to lose my wife. She was my right arm. Everything I needed on doctor’s appointments and medicine and medicine, she made sure I was taken care and made sure every time I was hurt, she was right there with me, 100 percent.
“The best thing I loved about her, I told her in all the years I was racing, I never wanted to be on a breathing machine. When I was operated on and unconscious for 10 days, they wanted to run a brain scan, and they did.
“She said, ‘All I can tell you is I’m going to carry out his wish. He don’t want to be on a ventilator if his brain is not getting enough oxygen.’
“When I found out about that later on, maybe a couple of weeks later after she said that I was coming back around pretty good, I told her I was very proud of her.
“She said, ‘I was going to carry out your wish.’
“That gave me a lot of respect for her.”
A.J. at 88 is still living on his terms, defying doctor’s orders and doing what he wants.
“I’m going to do what I want to do and when I die, I’ll die,” Foyt said. “I asked one of them, ‘Can you tell me when I’m going to die?’ He said, ‘No, we make more money trying to keep you alive.’
“I said, ‘Well, you didn’t lie to me.’
“They said I should take life easy and enjoy the rest of my life. I said, I’m not changing a damn thing. If I need to get on the bulldozer, I will crawl on them. I still own them. I’m damn sure not going to sell them.
“A.J. will be back in the seat.
“I’ve had a great life. If I fell dead talking to you, I wouldn’t change my life.
“Life’s been wonderful.”