A.J. Foyt, one of the most legendary racecar drivers, achieved success in both NASCAR and open-wheel racing throughout his life. In recent years, he has been the team owner of A.J. Foyt Enterprises in the Verizon IndyCar Series and has dealt with health issues, which has forced him to spend time away from the racetrack.
Foyt, 81, holds the record of 67 career USAC wins and had seven career NASCAR wins, including four Indianapolis 500s and a Daytona 500. He and Mario Andretti are the only drivers in history to have won both races, but Foyt’s fondest memory from his racing career was merely qualifying for his first Indy 500 in 1958.
“My happiest moment in my life was just making the race,” Foyt told POPULAR SPEED. “It was my goal, and I was fortunate enough to qualify for the race. Back then, there would be 75 or 100 cars [trying to qualify] and only 33 of them made it.”
In 1963, the seven-time USAC champion qualified for his first Daytona 500, which was only his third career NASCAR start. Foyt never competed in more than seven Cup Series races in a season but attested to the difference between driving a bulkier stock car versus driving a smaller open-wheel car.
“It’s two different types of cars,” Foyt said. “It’s like a little car against a big Greyhound bus, and they drive different altogether, but the name of the game is always trying to win.”
Foyt won the 1972 Daytona 500 in the No. 21 Mercury for Wood Brothers Racing. He started on the front row alongside Bobby Isaac, led 167 laps, and lapped the entire field by the race’s end.
“It was a great race and we kind of ran away with it all day after sitting on the pole and all,” Foyt said. “Anytime you win, it’s great — I don’t care if it’s a little race or a big race.”
Recently, the Texas native has struggled with multiple health problems. He spent a lot of 2015 recovering from surgeries on his heart and his right knee.
“The last three of four years, I’ve spent so much time in the hospital,” Foyt said. “I had both knees [replaced] and then I had a staph infection, which was terrible.”
In 2015, Foyt had a PICC Line inside his body leading to his heart because of the infection, which lasted about six months. Along with the infection, he has undergone three operations on his left knee, two on his right, a hip replacement, and triple bypass heart surgery, which occurred in late 2014.
The heart surgery forced him to miss the first five races of the 2015 IndyCar season. He had an operation on his right knee done later that year and missed the last two races of the season.
“It’s been kind of rough, but I’m getting better,” Foyt said. “Every day, I’m getting stronger and stronger, and I finally got rid of the wheelchair and the cane. It’s been a great career, and I’ve been very fortunate throughout the years.”