AJ Foyt Returns To Le Mans 50 Years After His Debut Victory
Photography by Florence Walker
Historical photos courtesy of Ford
A.J. Foyt is hobbling across Ford Performance’s hospitality area to come and sit next to me. His gait looks painful, moving across the room slowly, rocking back and forth between his feet like he’s a wooden clothes peg, devoid of joints. It’s a reminder that while he’s not pole on the track anymore, he’s still on location, fighting. I’ve been following whispers of his presence all day, waiting to get thirty minutes. Earlier in the morning, the other journalists had been asking what the matter was, why was I pacing the room and staring into the distance, face morose, arms crossed, tapping my finger on my arm, “AJ Foyt is here,” I’d said, pointedly. They returned blank stares: “He’s the reason why we’re all here.” Well, part of the reason we’re all here.
In the summer of 1967, the USA dominated Le Mans in a way that had never been seen before and has never been seen since: though the marque had won in ’66, the following year Carroll Shelby was providing a truly All-American team with a truly All-American car. The Ford GT40 Mark IV had a new chassis designed and built in the US, replacing the UK-crafted chassis and, of course, the bubble on the roof to accommodate all 6’3” of Dan Gurney, “And the biggest thing was that Dan was so much bigger than I was.” AJ tells me, “They had to put that bump on the roof so he could fit. And his arms were so much longer than mine—as the seats weren’t adjustable I had to make up the gap. It was a great race car but it wasn’t comfortable at all.”
A great race car it was. After the first 90 minutes, the red and white Mark IV gained and then stayed in pole position for the rest of the race, finishing almost four laps ahead of the Ferrari 330P4 piloted by Scarfiotti and Parkes. It was AJ’s first and last race at Le Mans. “I’d already won it. Why would I come back?” AJ asks, confused. If you want to know what it takes to win Le Mans at your first bash, you just need to speak to the guy for five minutes. The bravado that litters our conversation can only be delivered in that kind of sincerity by a Texan.
His likes and dislikes are unshakeable and simple, “I didn’t like the European racing because they made me wear a tie to dinner,” AJ says, looking disgusted, “They had crab meat on the salad. I said I was going to throw up. My wife would probably like it. I’m a chili and hotdog and cheeseburger kind of man.” His beliefs are unwavering: “I don’t believe in therapy.” His stubbornness is quite frankly inspiring: “I don’t give a damn what other people think.” And his approachable casualness is endearing: “Just call me AJ.” To an Englishwoman’s eye, you just can’t get more American than this.
AJ looks around the room, “I hate that Gurney couldn’t be over here.” He sighs, “It’s all changed so much.” The building we’re sitting in is certainly a far cry from what would have been on offer in 1967, whether you were a guest of honor or owned the whole place. As AJ says grimly, it was just a tent back in those days. He looks up at a blown-up photograph of himself, “Was I ever that young? How old was I there? 32?” AJ looks over my shoulder, someone is coming to join us, “Why didn’t you tell me fifty years ago it was going to be like this? It used to be just a tent!” Lo and behold, he’s speaking to Chip Ganassi. Within seconds they’re hashing things out over a crash that happened the previous Saturday.
“All he had to do was turn right or back off! That to me was pretty damn stupid driving.” Chip, or maybe it’s AJ that’s said that. It doesn’t matter. They exchange analyses, agreeing with each other exchanging vigorous nodding and clamped-shut eyes, talking like old friends who’ve seen everything together. If a life of racing sets you up with relationships like this, sign me up. Chip says he’ll catch us later and heads downstairs.
I venture that AJ had been rather disparaging of Le Mans, having been quoted as saying that Le Mans was “Nothin’ more than a little country road.”
“That’s not my language.” Foyt says, shaking his head, “It’s like when I won [the] California 500. They said I’d said, ‘Now I’ve beaten those hillbillies, I’m gonna go take on those European fags.’ That ain’t my words at all, so I called the journalist and said ‘take that out.’ They said I was just bullshittin’ them.”
So he took them to Federal court, and fought them for a year, “I don’t like people lying about me. I don’t care if you say I’m a no-good blankety blank, but I don’t like people lying about me. I just didn’t want them to think I’d said something like that. I don’t use that word.”
Who exactly “they” are never becomes clear—I can’t work out whether it’s Sports Illustrated or Time Life or whomever—but it doesn’t matter. Whomever they were, they were messing with the wrong sportsman. No one puts words in the mouth of AJ Foyt.
Eventually, the case came to Houston to appear in the Federal court, “They got this girl and they were making up all this stuff. They asked her how well she knew me, ‘Oh I know him quite well at the parties.’ And I shouted out, ‘You lying son of a bitch! I don’t even know the girl!’ The judge tells me, ‘You’ll remember Mr Foyt, we will have no more outbursts like that.’” After a 45-minute recess, the girl was questioned but it turned out that she had only ever attended functions that AJ had and didn’t actually know him at all, “They made her look stupid. Well, I won.” Unfortunately for the accused, they were ordered to pay out more than just AJ’s legal fees, “All I wanted was my lawyers fees. Because I was just determined to prove they were lying.”
The interview is over and AJ shifts himself up slowly. We shake hands and I say I’m looking forward to seeing him at the circuit’s museum to get some shots of him standing with the GT40. “You want to know why I’m really here?” I say I do. He gestures towards his handler, Ann, “She convinced me. She’s done so much for me over the years.”
AJ Foyt is a good man.