Why All The Hate For AJ Foyt?

Last week, I made the mistake of engaging in a hypothetical discussion on social media. The hypothetical situation was (paraphrasing) that AJ Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears are all in the field of thirty-three in the same Indianapolis 500 and all three are in their prime. Who wins?

Hypothetical discussions are no-win situations. There are too many assumptions to be made. First of all, I guess there were no other drivers in the remaining thirty starting positions that had a chance in winning in this make-believe situation. Plus, there was no mention of what type of track – short oval, super-speedway, road course, street course? Later in the discussion, the person that had originally posed the question threw out the qualifier that everyone was in rear-engine cars.

I played along and gave my opinion that AJ Foyt would win. I gave no reason. I didn’t feel I had to. But not long afterward, someone replied to my answer saying that Foyt never won a single CART race in fifteen years of trying. I couldn’t leave that alone. I engaged. I reminded him that the question said all three were in their prime and that Foyt was forty-four when CART began running races in 1979 – well past his prime.

Not to be outdone with logic and facts, the self-appointed authority informed me that he knew how to read and reminded me that Mario won well past his prime in CART. He then said that he “didn’t believe Foyt would have been as successful as Unser or Mears in rear engines cars, or on pavement for that matter. A big chunk of Foyt’s wins were on dirt.”

As our friend Pressdog has always said…”Never engage the crazies”. I should have remembered that as I reminded this guy that two of Foyt’s four “500” wins were in rear-engine cars and that from 1965 through the sixties, Foyt did very well for himself.

Later that night, someone else jumped in with the tired old argument from Foyt haters that three of his four “500” wins were at the expense of others misfortunes. He pointed out the Sachs-Foyt duel in 1961, the Jones turbine failure in 1967 and Johncock breaking down in 1977.

My response was “…and in ‘64, Clark broke down. So what is your point? Do his wins need an asterisk? Foyt also won ten of thirteen races in 1964. Did he luck into those too? Most race wins are at the expense of others.” That was met with this idiotic response; “Winning by luck doesn’t mean you’ve won outright. But I still acknowledge it’s a win.”

This was where I disengaged completely. There is no reasoning with some people.

But it got me to wondering…why are the Foyt haters so vocal? It’s almost as if they are on some insane mission.

Is it not possible to appreciate greatness without hating? All three were great drivers, along with the aforementioned Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford and several others. Each had their own driving style and strengths.

I’ve made it very clear on this site that I think AJ Foyt is the greatest driver to ever climb behind a wheel. But does that mean I hate Rick Mears and all of his supporters? Absolutely not.

The key is that I said I think that Foyt is the greatest. It’s my opinion. But I certainly don’t think that Big Al or Mears are not worthy of being in the discussion. They are all great drivers and I have great respect for each one of them, but if I had to pick one and only one – it would be Foyt.

I’ve said many times here that growing up an IndyCar fan in the sixties as I did, you pulled for either Mario Andretti or AJ Foyt. You couldn’t pull for both. That would be like being a fan of Michigan AND Ohio State. It would just be too complicated. But now that they have both been out of the cockpit for almost a quarter-century – you can look at things more objectively and appreciate the greatness that both men brought to the sport.

If we are limiting our discussion only to the three four-time Indianapolis 500 winners as the hypothetical discussion did – some might think it’s easy to set Foyt apart from the other two, but they would be wrong. Al Unser and Rick Mears were a lot alike in their driving style and personalities. Both would tend to sit back and let the race come to them in the latter stages as they took care of their equipment. They were both quiet and reserved out of the cockpit.

Foyt is perceived today as a hot-tempered Texan that was a hard charger. That’s really not quite true (Foyt fans will see what I did there). While Foyt was feisty out of the cockpit, he was smooth and in-control in the car and on the track. He took care of his equipment every bit as much as Big Al and Mears.

But what one of my adversaries was sighting as a deficit for Foyt, I consider an asset. He said that Unser and Mears were more successful in rear-engine cars than Foyt. I think the fact that Foyt made the drastic change from front-engine cars to rear-engine cars in the middle of his prime (he was thirty in 1965) and succeeded in both; points to his talent, versatility and adaptability as a driver.

Neither Rick Mears nor Al Unser ever raced front-engine cars at Indianapolis. To say either would have been successful or unsuccessful is pure speculation. We just don’t know. But we do know that Foyt was successful in both – very successful.

My friend also mentioned that many of Foyt’s wins came on dirt – as if that somehow lessened his accomplishments. Big Al drove many races on dirt and Rick Mears cut his teeth racing off-road dune buggies in the California desert. I think all three benefited from their respective backgrounds off of pavement. That’s where the art of car control is mastered. So to infer Foyt’s wins on dirt was a negative, just shows how little this person knows what he’s talking about.

Do the Foyt haters really hate Foyt or do they not remember him in his prime? It’s likely that many of today’s fans never saw Foyt win a race. They may have heard that he won ten of fourteen races in 1964, but they only remember seeing an older overweight driver running at the back of the field as Foyt did for the late eighties and early nineties.

Most fans remember seeing Al Unser win Indianapolis in 1987 and Rick Mears in 1991. By that time, Foyt was a shadow of his former self. For four emotional laps in qualifying in 1991, Foyt reclaimed his former glory by putting his Lola in the middle of the front row at Indianapolis – flanked by Mears on the pole and Mario Andretti on the outside. This was after a near-fatal and crippling crash at Road America in 1990 that sidelined Foyt until the following May.

But by that time, Foyt was fifty-six years old – an age unheard of for IndyCar drivers today. He drove one more race in 1992 and was planning to qualify as a fifty-eight year-old, when he decided to call it a career on the morning of Pole Day in 1993. It was an emotional day for those of us in the stands that were my age and older. But many of those that grew up in the eighties wondered what the big deal was.

Last week at work, I was talking to someone more than twenty years my junior. He is more of a Formula One fan, but he was questioning all of the hype that Dan Gurney was getting after his passing. He said he never won Indianapolis and rarely won anything else as a driver. I did my best to explain how Gurney excelled in so many different areas. But he never saw it with his own eyes and I could tell I was wasting my breath.

I don’t understand that way of thinking. Bill Vukovich was fatally injured before I was born, but I fully understand his greatness as a driver. In fact, if there was anyone who might give Foyt a run for his money in my mind – it would be Vukovich. I also appreciate what great a drivers Wilbur Shaw and Billy Arnold were. But their careers were over long before my parents even married.

Why do fans only appreciate what they’ve seen with their own eyes?

Many will (begrudgingly) say that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time. He may very well be. But I also think Peyton Manning, Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas need to be part of that conversation too. I’ve seen all of them play and may put Unitas ahead of many if not all of them. But there are QB’s named Baugh, Tittle and Graham that a generation before me might argue about.

So is it strictly generational that some people don’t like Foyt? Are today’s fans not as familiar with his accomplishments as they are the others? Is it his personality? Rick Mears and Al Unser are very approachable by fans and will almost always sign autographs. AJ? Not so much.

But is that any reason to go on a crusade to smear a reputation and minimize the man’s accomplishments?

I’m just a little perplexed as to why there always seems to be a vocal group ready to tear down the legend of Foyt at a moment’s notice. You never see people willing to slander the reputation of Mario Andretti, Rick Mears or Al Unser.

I know there are a lot of people like me that think Foyt is the greatest of all time without any question. There are also a good many that have another opinion on who should wear that title. I don’t spew venom toward their favorite, so why do they sling mud at mine? Why are there so many Foyt haters out there? I’ll never understand it.

George Phillips

25 Responses to “Why All The Hate For AJ Foyt?”

  1. “You never see people willing to slander the reputation of Mario Andretti, Rick Mears or Al Unser.”

    I see people willing to smear the reputation of these drivers all the time. Maybe you just don’t pay attention to it because you’re not a fan of theirs like you are of Foyt.

  2. Engaging with those social media twits was a mistake indeed. Then you compound the mistake by giving those mental midgets 29 paragraphs of your time. Needless to say I did not read beyond the first paragraph.

    • Ron, you need to stop judging a book by its cover. This wasn’t about social media. Instead it was about a prevailing attitude that I don’t understand. I know you’re busy, so use the time to read the post; rather than going to the trouble to count paragraphs and telling me why you didn’t read it. – GP

      • There are lots of other stories out there this week to write about other than that social media fluff. For example, Newgarden and Castroneves going to Norway and Sweden to race on ice in Penske sponsored RallyCross cars.

        • Oh BOY! Now THERE’S a big story!

          You’re grasping for straws on that one, Ronnie, ol’ boy!

          If you all really want to see something fun, go to my Race Chasers of Indiana site on Facebook. We were mentioned in the Al Unser Jr. story Monday on RACER.com, as he spoke to our organization in interview style with Bob Jenkins doing the interviewing. I have posted a very funny moment with Al describing the last lap in the 1992 “500,” which is only two and a half minutes in length. Check it out, it’ll warm you up on a cold Winter’s day.


      • I’m not aware of any prevailing attitude that folks “hate” A.J. Foyt, but then again my race fan friends and my racing news sources are knowledgeable about racing.

  3. As a kid growing up in the 60s and early 70s in the UK, US auto racing WAS AJ Foyt for me. Period. Along with the paucity of any coverage [all we had were copies of Hot Rod and Car Craft] his name stuck out above all the others for me with perhaps Richard Petty and Mickey Thompson. Lucky enough to have a cup of breakfast coffee with AJ when we came over for the 100th. Great guy and accommodated us politely.

  4. Bruce Waine Says:

    Put down your iphones ………………..

    Pick up a book (not magazines) , or two, or three books and become educated/learn about motorsport drivers.

    One then has the opportunity, most of the time, to be in their shoes so to speak and be appreciative of drivers.

  5. One comment on Bill Zahren talking about engaging the “crazies:” Do we all remember the stuff Pressdog actually wrote? And HE’S not crazy? Hahahahahahaaaaaaaa! I loved his stuff a lot, but there was certainly something a bit “crazy” about his take on things for sure!

  6. For me, being in my mid 30’s, it’s hard to see AJ as anything but a morbidly obese man with an attitude. So I am sure it’s hard for people to picture him winning and doing well, we can see more footage of Mears or Unser doing it than Foyt. I don’t really care for AJ but can’t doubt his efforts and ability at one time or another. Just remember though we live in a time when everything that happened recently is more important. The ESPN effect has created the mentality that we have to be watching something historic at the time. It’s also the reason why anyone doing anything good at a single moment is debated as a GOAT instead of letting things settle and look back in 20 years (ESPN did an article on Cody Bellinger being the all time HR leader some day because he was the fastest to some arbitrary number, 25 maybe).

    It’s also the same group who has debated whether Danica Patrick could beat Richard Petty in a race (I am sure she could right now, Richard Petty is 80 years old). And the same group who counts Kyle Busch winning races against teenagers as him getting 200 wins to match Petty.

  7. They’re too afraid to say such things to A.J.’s face, and they should be.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    Age and memories (or lack thereof), the limited availability of racing video prior to the late 70s, and such are certainly factors as to why some may not respect Foyt as much as Mears or Unser, but I think the largest reason is that Foyt is simply a more polarizing figure.

    Mears and Unser were and are, as you mentioned George, quite reserved personalities. Mears has been a friendly presence at the track for decades, and has rarely rocked the boat. Unser may be nearly as famous as Calvin Coolidge for his brevity, didn’t really seek the spotlight while driving and has largely avoided it his retirement (cameo in that Peak commercial with Danica Patrick notwithstanding).

    Foyt is different. He not only has a more boisterous personality than Mears and Unser, he has had far more opportunity to demonstrate it post-career as he has stayed involved in the sport through team ownership. There is more to digest with Foyt, and thus, more to make him a polarizing figure.

    His driving success in his prime and his undeniable popularity have kept in the spotlight, even as he slowed as a driver and even as his racing team continues to spend far more time near the back of the grid than the front. Much as there is distaste for Danica Patrick due to “undeserved” attention, I can certainly see why some may not have cared to see Foyt or his team generate more copy and appear in more Craftsman TV ads than the average 17th place finisher.

    I can also see where Foyt’s boisterous personality may rub some the wrong way. From “Coogan”, to swatting Arie Luyendyk upside the head, to breaking the laptop computer, to his well-known use of salty language, Foyt’s behavior (though celebrated by some) does not endear him to some folks.

    Additionally, Foyt is viewed by many as a significant player on the IRL side of the Split. To describe anything involving the Split as “polarizing” is an understatement.

    Personally, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Foyt and nothing ill to say about him, but I can certainly understand why there are folks who don’t care for him. That there are those who would get particularly nasty about it on the internet isn’t surprising, there are people who get nasty on the internet over yesterday’s Hi and Lois comic strip.

  9. Mark J Wick Says:

    George, if you are going to talk about NFL quarterbacks, Fran Tarkenton has to be in that discussion.

  10. ed emmitt Says:

    First I saw everyone of these greats in action. My 1st taste of A.J. was at the Milwaukee Mile and nobody could wheel a car around that track like him.He showed up at Milwaukee with a dirt car in 1965 and put that car on the pole next to Dan Gurney rear engine racer and nearly won the race.That’s not luck but skill.
    A.J. 4th win at Indy came in a car that him and his dad built. Non of the other’s did that. If he and George Bignotti would have stayed together I believe Foyt would have won more than 4 500’s.
    As a big A.J. Foyt fan we have gotten to know each other over the years. At Road American last year we gave each other a big hug. The man may come off as gruff but he has a heart of gold.Lastly, the last interview that Robin Miller did with A. J. and Dan Gurney for the 50th anniversary of the LeMans win the genius Gurney made a point at the end of the interview to talk about how great Foyt was at engineering and that was self taught.Look up the interview on YouTube it was a classic. Once A.J. is gone the garage at Indy will never be the same.Hell it still draws one of the biggest crowds after all these years.

    • In the 50s Ed, there were some memorable duels on dirt between A.J. and Tony Bettenhausen Sr. I can’t recall if Rex Mays was still racing then, but he was damn good also.

  11. voting for the Gurney/Tittle ticket

  12. This dog don’t tweet so I don’t really know where you’re coming from.

    But I DO object to the use of the term ‘hater’. In the past
    if I didn’t think Danica walked on water and wasn’t the greatest driver ever to all the bloggers I was a ‘hater’ . I couldn’t just be someone who said ‘yeah, whatever’.

    So if I’m not a super over the top zealous fan of AJ. I’m NOT a hater. Really.

    Again, I don’t know what on twitter got your shorts in a knot but real haters are in the extreme (TGBB excepted).

  13. Why All The Hate For AJ Foyt? | Oilpressure

    […]For now let’s give attention to the “A” (accountability) component of the ACO – we are going to look on the “O” (group) later.[…]

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