When the entire focus of an event is to push the boundaries of man and machine, it is inevitable that participants are bound to get hurt. Since the very first day the gates at 16th and Georgetown swung open to the public for motorized competition on August 14, 1909, the element of danger has permeated the grounds. As Paul Page once perfectly professed, “danger has always been a passenger… without that risk, the men are just ordinary.”
Yet with so many legends through the years of men giving their bodies and their lives in pursuit of glory that only comes from the presence of one’s face protruding from the Borg-Warner Trophy, there are a number of stories that stand out of men conquering adversity, overcoming injuries, and facing a challenge that we lesser types cannot remotely comprehend. Against the innumerable cadre of drivers who suffered career ending injuries in auto racing and never raced again, there are a handful of stories of courage and determination when a driver overcomes every long odd, every obstacle, and every rational mortal fear to triumphantly return once more to chase racing’s greatest glory.
The 75th Running of the Indianapolis saw two of these stories crossing paths at opposite ends of their journeys. On May 10, 1991, Mark Dismore suffered one of the most savage crashes in 500 history on the day before Pole Day when his car lightly tapped the outside of the Turn 4 wall, spun 270° to back into the inside retaining wall, careened back into the pit lane attenuator, and finally came to rest against the inside pit lane wall. Dismore suffered numerous injuries literally from head to toe, and while he would recover well enough to attempt to qualify a year later, it wouldn’t be until 1996 that Dismore would finally make the starting lineup for the Indianapolis 500.
The following day, on the other end of the spectrum, perhaps The Greatest IndyCar Story Ever Told was reaching its dramatic climax. At 56 years of age, AJ Foyt was 25 years past having anything left to prove to anyone regarding his elite status as one of the greatest drivers to ever sit in a race car. Though the founding member of the Four Time Indianapolis 500 Winners Club had not been truly competitive in IndyCar racing since his final win at Pocono in June 1981, AJ still did what AJ wanted to do. On September 23, 1990, at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, AJ Foyt’s luck, once again, ran out.
After ascending the hill and crossing the start finish line, AJ’s brake pedal broke heading into Turn 1, the fastest portion of the entire course. Rather than making the gentle right hand turn, Foyt continued straight off the track, skidded over the grass run off, and plowed into a dirt embankment at over 190 mph. The impact destroyed everything from AJ waist down, car and all. His legs and feet were shattered, and, having never lost consciousness, AJ begged paramedics to knock him out just to relieve the unbearable pain. AJ even began hallucianting, believing he was seeing and talking to his father who had passed away seven years prior.
Foyt was immediately airlifted to a Milwaukee hospital where he underwent emergency surgery to save his left leg. Afterwards he was transferred to Indianapolis to begin many months of grueling and exhausting rehabilitation. Though doctors weren’t even convinced AJ would ever actually walk again, it took a very short amount of time for AJ to come up with his new goal – qualify for the 1991 Indianapolis 500. Race Day was only eight months after the accident – 245 days to be exact.
As AJ’s legs and feet slowly started to repair themselves and AJ gained strength day-by-day, Foyt announced that his goal was indeed to qualify for the 75th Running of the Great Race and that it would be his last. Foyt would conquer Father Time one last time and then ride off into the sunset of his driving career on his own terms, not terms to be dictated by injury. When the IMS gates opened for practice on May 4, AJ was ready to go.
While AJ was indeed ready to get into the cockpit and go, the car and finding speed was another matter. Through the first week, AJ struggled to find the speed he desperately desired, failing to crack the Top 10 on the speed charts for any single day until the final day before Pole qualifying. Still, his top speed of the week of 223.925 mph wasn’t good enough for the Top 10 of the week, and while it appeared that AJ would be at least fast enough to make the field, there was no reason to suspect magic was about to unfold.
But, as the Old Gray Lady is sometimes wont to do, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had a trick up her sleeve that would see fate shine favorably upon one of her favorite sons.
As if the racing gods had pre-ordained it, Foyt drew qualifying pill #1 on the night before Pole Day. His #14 Copenhagen Chevrolet/Lola would be first in line and would open the qualifying festivities when Tom Carnegie pronounced the track open for qualifications the next morning. Simply climbing the car and putting four flawless laps on the board after months of agonizing recovery and rehabilitation would have been good enough for mere mortal men. But a little luck set up one of the greatest stories in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
AJ Foyt’s posted speed of 222.443 mph was certainly respectable but was well off the fastest times of the week set by the likes of Marlboro Team Penske, Newman-Haas Racing, Galles-Kraco Racing, and Team Menard. However, the warm temperatures and relentless sunshine quickly rose the track temperatures and made track conditions tricky. Driver after driver either called off their runs and accepted speeds much slower than they knew they were capable of running in better conditions.
The first clue for the day came when Mario Andretti, who had been over 225 mph earlier in the week, was only able to qualify at 221.818 mph. Before long, Bobby Rahal, Al Unser, Jr., and Michael Andretti tried but failed to knock AJ off the provisional pole. At 12:51, nearly two hours after AJ’s run, Rick Mears was finally able to eclipse Foyt’s posted speed.
Shortly thereafter, the qualifying line ran through and all cars had exhausted their one guaranteed presentation as a Pole Day qualifier. As many of the fastest drivers waited out the afternoon heat to wait for cooler temperatures near Happy Hour, a surprise rain shower moved across the Speedway shortly after 4:00, gaining in intensity before the track was officially closed for the day at 5:45 pm, leaving many drivers on the sidelines and forcing them to accept second-day qualification attempts. (Four of those drivers would indeed ultimately post faster speeds than AJ on Day 2, including the entire fifth row. However, as second day qualifiers, they could start no better than 13th.) In a shocking turn of events, AJ Foyt had managed to not only qualify but to put his car in the middle of the front row between Rick Mears and Mario Andretti. Together, they would form the greatest front row in the history of the Indianapolis 500 and quite possibly in the entire history of auto racing.
As Sam Posey so perfectly described, ”It was a race against time, and he won. For four laps, he made time stand still. He reached into the past for the greatness that had been his but that he had lost.”
Unfortunately, race day did not go as well as hoped for AJ. Following two weeks of media blitz, AJ struggled early on in the race. While he maintained a spot in the Top 5 during the first ten laps, Foyt had fallen to eighth by Lap 20. When he stalled his car in the pits, that put him further back in the field. On the 28th lap, Foyt would ultimately fall victim to crash damage through no fault of his own when a wheel hub from a crash involving Roberto Guerrero and Kevin Cogan damaged Foyt’s right front suspension too badly to continue. The fairy tale story for AJ had come to an end. But AJ had done what AJ had wanted to do – leave racing on terms that he dictated.
(Spoiler alert… AJ would end up changing his mind and run in the 500 again in 1992, finishing a respectable ninth when only 12 of 33 cars finished the race. AJ had entered to run again in 1993 but abruptly retired for good on the morning of Pole qualifying after Robby Gordon crashed in AJ’s second team car.)
There has never been and there never will be another AJ Foyt. Times have greatly changed and drivers simply don’t diversify in the way drivers like AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti used to do. But even without that willingness, desire, and ability to drive any vehicle with four wheels in competition, AJ stood out. He was hard headed and stubborn. He would probably never thrive in today’s sponsor-focused racing environment. He was slow to adapt to change and he never cared if he rubbed you the wrong way. AJ was AJ, and whether you were Tony Hulman, or Tom Sneva, or Roger Penske, or Arie Luyendyk, Foyt was going to tell you what you thought you needed to know. The fans loved him for it. And he loved them.
AJ has on many occasions said “AJ Foyt didn’t make the Ind’in’ap’lis 500; the Ind’in’ap’lis 500 made AJ Foyt.” I think he’s being just a bit disingenuous. It’s exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to separate the two. Neither the Indianapolis 500 nor AJ Foyt would be truly what they are today without the other. And AJ’s legendary comeback from his devastating injuries in 1990 to simply make the starting field for the 1991 Indianapolis 500 was merely icing on his cake. But it is certainly one of the greatest stories in the entire 113-year history of the World’s Greatest Racecourse.