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A.J. Foyt is still the towering presence at any Indianapolis 500
AJ Foyt/Mario Andretti
AP Photo/HamiltonA.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti have not always seen eye-to-eye.
A.J. Foyt is raising ever-lovin' hell at his team managers, just like always (but this is just the other day, mind you, on his cell phone), ordering them to change the electronic combination locks on his equipment trucks. Otherwise, "them Andrettis and Penskes, they'll just go up there and take what they need, and I'm tired of that crap."

After all these decades, you reckon you can razz him a little without getting decked. That wasn't always the case.

"Foyt's Soup Kitchen, huh?" you say. "Just stand in line for your handout from A.J."

"The motherf---ers," he says of teams that for years hardly gave old A.J. the time of day but come to him for help now that he's running competitive cars again.

Invited -- you'd damn well better be invited or you're out of here on your ass -- you sit down across the table from him in his million-dollar motor coach, parked on the same hallowed ground where in 1958 he waited for days, sleeping in a '57 Chevrolet, because nobody knew who he was and wouldn't let him through the gates of Gasoline Alley.

You tell him all the various polls and pundits have him ranked No. 1 among all drivers in the Indianapolis 500's century as an American institution.

In response, he sits there giving you a look that asks just what the hell that's supposed to mean.

Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. never has given a damn about opinions, and he isn't going to start now, at age 76, here hiding out from strolling bands of fans on Community Day at the track.

For 50 years now, since his Indianapolis 500 win in 1961, the first of his four, nobody around Indianapolis Motor Speedway has doubted who A.J. Foyt is, or dared to stop his bull-like lumbering (some years limping) through any gates he pleases.

In that time, he nearly died of a broken back and crushed sternum, nearly suffocated, at Riverside, Calif., in 1965 … nearly burned to death at Milwaukee in '66, … got his feet and legs splintered and shattered at Elkhart Lake, Wis., in '91 … and yet he has kept on coming.

Even now, he keeps on. Even this week, as a team owner, he has stirred up a storm of controversy by renting out one of his cars, already qualified for Sunday's race, to his bitterest rival family of the past 46 years, the Andrettis.

Should that car, to be driven by Ryan Hunter-Reay, win on Sunday, might Foyt actually hug the Andrettis in Victory Circle?

He smiles, just a little, sort of.

"I'll be there," he says. "To Mario, I'll say, 'Keep your ass out.' 'Cause Mario ain't got nothing to do with this deal. This is all me and Michael."

As a team owner, Michael Andretti had landed a major sponsor for Hunter-Reay's car for the IndyCar season, but it failed to qualify for the 500. Knowing making the 500 is critical to sponsorship, Foyt rented Michael a car that was already in the field to carry the colors of the sponsor.

"Way I look at it, everybody needs major sponsors," Foyt says. "We don't need to run 'em off. Big major sponsors, I don't care if it's NASCAR, are hard to bring into the game. I had a chance to help them out. Help to save a big sponsor over there."

Most of all, "Let's face it: Michael is a lot different from his daddy."

Michael has always been duly reverent in the presence of A.J. Foyt. As for the old man, Mario, well …

In 1965, an immigrant kid from Italy started to challenge the badass young Texan on the heartland dirt tracks of America. This, even after a tough old chief mechanic leaned into the cockpit before the start of a race and said, "'Kid, forget about beating Foyt today,'" as Mario tells the story. "'The only guy who could stop Foyt from winning today would be a jealous husband in the grandstands with a deer rifle.'"

But Mario showed no reverence, no fear, no concession to Foyt, and they've been "at heads," as Foyt puts it now, ever since, even deep into both their retirements from driving.

Foyt talks about the good of the 500, the good of keeping sponsors at a time when IndyCar is wounded, struggling in the shadows of NASCAR. So, with all that in mind, would he have given a car to the Andretti team even if Mario were the owner?

His chief publicist interrupts.

"He'd have to think about it," she says. Now, he's trying to cooperate with her sense of diplomacy, really trying. But he can do that only to a point.

"Pretty damn serious thinking," he says. More at ESPN.com

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