ON MAY 30, 1958, 23-year-old Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. made his Indianapolis 500 debut. He started on the outside of row 4, and after spinning out on the 148th lap, he finished 16th, a result that didn't merit mention in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
In the intervening six decades, though, A.J. Foyt's exploits—often larger-than-life, occasionally to the point of beggaring belief—have been well documented in these pages. There was the time Foyt beat an accusation that he had punched another driver on the grounds that if he had hit the guy, "he would've torn his head off." And the time Foyt dressed down a waiter at a Michelin-rated restaurant outside Le Mans for serving him a traditional trout meunière. "I mean, this here fish has still got its head on, and I ain't going to eat no fish laying there looking so damn sorrowful at me every time I take a bite of him," Foyt said.
A recurring theme in Foyt's career—and SI's coverage of it—was his frequent flirtation with death. In 1965, Bob Ottum reported on a crash during practice at Indy. One of Foyt's rear tires snapped off the axle and rolled up over his shoulder and across the crown of his helmet. Oil was everywhere. "I thought to myself, Well, this car is going to catch on fire for sure, but one thing it ain't going to burn up is old A.J." He bailed out of the still-spinning car, threw a bandanna around his jaw and proceeded to put his car on the pole two weeks later.
A 1981 story by Ottum recounted a wreck from a NASCAR race in the 1960s, when Foyt lost his brakes and went over an embankment. Asked how badly he was hurt, Foyt responded, "So bad that I couldn't enjoy the nurses."
Since that first Indy run, Foyt, 83, has hardly changed, at least not as much as many men after 60 years. His forearms are still the size of canned hams, he's still the toughest s.o.b. you'll come across, and he's still defying death regularly. In March, Foyt survived a killer-bee attack. For the second time. He's also been trapped under a bulldozer, set upon by a water moccasin and survived heart surgery. Journalist Robin Miller recently made up shirts that depicted Foyt gripping Death in a headlock with the caption FOYT 83, GRIM REAPER 0.
What has changed is racing—especially open-wheel. When Foyt won the second of his four Indy 500s, in 1964, half a million fans paid around four bucks each to watch the race on closed-circuit TV. Last year ratings for the race, once appointment viewing, hit an all-time low.
There has been much self-examination about what racing needs, and just about everything has been tried. (See: NASCAR's continual, infuriating tinkering with its playoff system.) But there is one place to start: the driver's seat.
Six decades ago a sponsor pleaded with Foyt to grant SI an interview, saying it would make him famous. Foyt's response: "Aw, bulls---. You want to know what will make me famous?" And then he pointed to his right foot.