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Grand Legacy Has Some Burdens Too

Foyt IV aims to carry on tradition of his grandfather, a four-time Indy 500 winner, but not all is smooth. Bobby Unser questions teen's experience.

May 24, 2003|Mike Kupper | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — When A.J. Foyt, the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 and proclaimed by many as the greatest driver of all time, retired in 1993, racing folk took it as the end of an era.

"There'll never be another A.J. Foyt," they said.

A fat lot they knew.

Only 10 years later, there is, indeed, another A.J. Foyt.

He's A.J. Foyt IV, Super-Tex's grandson, and he's here to drive in Sunday's 87th Indy 500, which will be his first, on his 19th birthday.

And if you're wondering if this skinny teenager with the firm handshake and Texas twang is anything like the plain-talking old curmudgeon, who these days would have serious trouble trying to slide his considerable bulk into a race car, wonder no more.

The kid, winner of the title last year in the Infiniti Pro series, the Indy Racing League's development series, has been, for the most part, enthusiastically received here. But there are always naysayers.

The kid has had four incidents here, wrecking one car and raising some eyebrows, even though the old man has blamed crew mistakes for two of the misadventures. Three-time 500 winner Bobby Unser has been an especially harsh critic, saying in no uncertain terms that the kid is far too inexperienced and the only reason he is driving here is the old man's friendship with Tony George, speedway owner and IRL founder.

The responses?

The old man: "Bobby Unser? People know what Bobby Unser is."

The kid: "I never really liked him anyway."

*

A.J. Foyt. Always Jolly Foyt? Hardly.

The A.J. stands for Anthony Joseph, and the driver we knew for years as A.J. Foyt really was A.J. Foyt Jr. The thing is, nobody called A.J. Sr. that. He was Tony Foyt, he owned midget cars and when A.J., as a child, climbed in one, fired it up and tore up the backyard in Houston, Tony concluded that his precocious son might have a future in racing.

As we know now, father definitely knew best and A.J. Foyt Jr. became a racing icon -- and ranking loose cannon. He drove hard and skillfully -- he once put a dirt-track car on the pole when his sleek new rear-engine car failed to arrive for a race in Milwaukee, then drove the dirt-tracker to second place, ahead of all but one of those Lotus-Fords -- said what was on his mind ... and settled more than one argument with his fists.

He led a charmed racing life as well, in an era when racing fatalities were far more common than they are today. Foyt had his share of accidents but walked away from most of them. Then, late in his career, on the four-mile Road America course in Elkhart Lake, Wis., his car failed to negotiate a 90-degree turn and plowed into an earthen berm. Super-Tex didn't walk away from that one. He injured his feet and legs so badly that it was a long time before he walked again.

He still drove for two more seasons, then retired to the more sedate life of a car owner, which he had been for years anyway. At one point along the way, his shops were building his cars, Coyote chassis fitted with Foyt rebuilt Ford engines. Today, as a 69-year-old car owner, the old man approaches racing much as he did as a driver -- all out and with whatever pugnacity is required. He, of course, is the owner of the kid's car.

The racing genes skipped a generation when it came to A.J. III, or at least took a wide turn. If you've never heard of A.J. Foyt III, it's because nobody calls him that. He too is Tony, and when it comes to racing, you can find him at the track, all right -- Churchill Downs. Tony Foyt trains thoroughbreds, some of which are owned by his father.

A.J. IV was born in Louisville, Ky., on May 25, 1984, two days before the old man drove to sixth place in his 27th consecutive Indy 500. The old man was already seven years beyond his fourth victory but had eight more starts here ahead of him.

Like his grandfather, A.J. IV -- he's Anthony to the family -- discovered motor racing as a child. He was 10 when he started in junior dragsters, then moved up steadily through karts, sports cars, winning titles wherever he went. Then last year, he jumped to the Pro series, where he scored four victories on his way to the title. He was the only series driver who won more than once.

Late in the year, the old man announced that the kid would be driving this season in the IRL, which of course meant Indianapolis.

*

Anthony Foyt has not found instant stardom in big-time racing. In his three IRL races this season, he has finished 17th and 18th and crashed out of one. He qualified 23rd here, as the seventh-fastest rookie. Nobody sees him as a threat to win the race. But he is a Foyt, and that gets him noticed.

"He's OK," said Rick Mears, another four-time winner here. "From what I've seen, he's precise and consistent, but he's learning. He needs a little time. You don't get the time when you're a Junior, though. If you're a Junior, everybody's watching."

So, everybody has noticed everything the kid has done, especially the bobbles. Predictably, the Foyts have circled the wagons.

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