At 77 AJ Foyt happy to be alive

AJ Foyt

The driver many consider to be the greatest of all time — and I apologize here to Mario Andretti, who could be the best ever — sat in his hauler in the IndyCar paddock Friday afternoon at Belle Isle and fought off drowsiness.

This bull of a man who has danced with death virtually all of his life admitted he could sleep for an hour, though his old wounds usually wake him when he does.

"I'm glad to be back here (in Detroit)," A.J. Foyt said. "I've always enjoyed it here."

Foyt is lucky to be at Belle Isle. He could have died from a staph infection he caught this year after an operation on a banged-up knee.

The 77-year-old Texan virtually broke everything in his once stocky and powerful body during a career that saw him win races in midgets, sprint cars, stock cars, sports cars and Indy cars in 1957-93.

"I've been in the hospital most of the year," Foyt said in his No. 14 A.J. Foyt Racing truck about a year that almost claimed his life. "I'm getting stronger every day. I'm glad I've had my son Larry look after the operation, because we would have been in worst shape than we are — he's done a good job."

Foyt is here with his driver, Mike Conway, for today's Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix. Conway, a hard-charging Brit prone to mistakes but blindingly fast, is Foyt's lone driver this season in a Honda.

Conway crashed hard at last weekend's Indianapolis 500, which Foyt won a record four times. (Conway qualified 16th on Saturday for today's Grand Prix.)

Conway also destroyed the car at Indy in 2010.

"It really don't make me mad if he's up front or running to the front if something happens," said Foyt, famous for berating drivers, crew and writers over the years when problems arose. "It just makes you mad if he's at the back and something happens."

Foyt was in a reflective mood Friday.

"I lost a lot of weight, but I've gained about 10 of them back," he said. "I lost about 41 pounds — and that's not a diet I recommend to anybody. I had about three operations on my knee and wound up with a staph infection. I was on antibiotics — 2,700 milligrams a day for about six weeks. I'm now on pills, for about 35-40 days, and I just took my last pill on race day (at Indianapolis). I haven't been back to the doctor yet. He (the doctor) has kept weaning me off more and more, so I'm in pretty good shape."

Although Foyt is still broad-shouldered and barrel-chested and looks as if he could still rope one of the steers he has on his ranch in Texas, he says his mobility and stamina are not what they were a few years ago.

"I get real tired," said Foyt, who, as a younger man, could drive a sprint car or midget around a half-mile dirt track and then race an Indy car the next day for 3 hours at more than 200 m.p.h. "Like, right now I could fall asleep."

Foyt resisted taking a nap, wanting to talk more about his health, racing and the legacy he would like to leave behind.

"I don't sleep that well and my leg still aches quite a bit. Most nights it throbs," he said. "I used to be strong, but right now it seems I'm weak as anything. But a lot of them I came up with aren't here today. I guess I'm one of the lucky ones."

Foyt's legs and feet were shattered in a huge wreck in 1990 at Road America in Wisconsin in a CART race. It's one of many wrecks Foyt could have died in or lost limbs in. He also has been stung by swarms of killer bees and nearly drowned in the pond on his ranch property when the tractor he was riding toppled into the water.

"Two or three times I should have been dead and I wasn't," Foyt said. "One time they pronounced me dead and I came back."

Death on the track is something Foyt saw much too often.

"It was nothing to lose two and three guys a month," Foyt said. "So what is mean is you go back and look through the years and I guess I was one who kind of broke the deal. I won Indy and still went on racing and I didn't get killed.

"After I won everything, someone said, A.J., you ought to retire, because it was kind of a bad luck omen if you tried to race the next year, you got killed. But, I've always said, when your time is up, it's up. I feel like that today."

Foyt knows he beat the odds again early this year. He says he is lucky to still be around but is not afraid of death, either.

"If I had my life to live, I'd do it all over again — the same," Foyt said. "I mean, I came from nothing — not that I'm anyone now — but I've had a lot of fun."

His legacy — how would Foyt like to be remembered?

"I'm glad I've been among some of the great race drivers," he said. "There are so many great, great drivers — I'd just like people to say I was one of the best ever. I don't feel like I've been better than anyone else. I'm just A.J. being A.J."

A movie about him — could someone play him?

"They'd have to work hard," Foyt said. Detroit News

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