INDIANAPOLIS - Muscles tensed, nerves eating at the pit of his stomach, A.J. Foyt took the green flag at Indianapolis for the first time 50 years ago and soon wasn't sure he ever wanted to come back.
Within a few moments of the start of the 1958 Indianapolis 500, eight drivers were eliminated on a first-lap crash, veteran driver Pat O'Connor was dead in the flaming wreckage of his car and a young, skinny kid named Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. was so shaken he began thinking he was way out of his league.
"I ain't going to lie," Foyt recalled. "Every race I ever ran, at one time or another I scared myself to death. You hear these guys sayin' they never scared themself. Well, maybe they're a lot braver than A.J. Foyt, but there probably wasn't a race that went by that I didn't thrill myself."
Foyt had competed mostly in sprint, midget and stock cars through the early and mid-50s. He had to buy a ticket to watch the Indianapolis 500 from the grandstands in 1956 and 1957, but he got his break the next year after the abrupt retirement of 1957 Indy winner Sam Hanks. Jimmy Bryan, the reigning U.S. Auto Club champion, took Hanks' place with the Belond Exhaust team and recommended the 23-year-old Foyt for his spot with the Dean Van Lines Special.
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Foyt qualified 12th, one of eight rookies in the 33-car lineup.
"I'm going down there trying to be pretty cautious," he said of the first frightening moments of the 1958 race. "And all of a sudden you see cars spinning and end over end, going over the wall, and I started spinning, and I said, 'I don't know if this is for A.J. Foyt or not.' The next lap or two, we come by and I see all the fire and I see a good friend of mine, Pat O'Connor, with his head laying out of the car and the car's burning, and I know most likely he's lost his life.
"I got to thinking, I don't know if I want to do this or not. I'll just go back to my local tracks at home, the small tracks, and not even worry about Indy. I always dreamed of racing here, but it was a little bit too rough for me."
Of course, Foyt did come back, year after year, long after most of the other 32 drivers in the lineup a half-century ago had retired or died. Thirteen of them eventually died of racing-related injuries at Indianapolis and other tracks, including eight within the next four years.
That's when Foyt began establishing himself as one of the dominant drivers of his or any other generation.
"Every race driver's dream is first of all to qualify for this race," he said. "We went on the rest of the year (in 1958) and I seen I could run with some of the big boys. Then the following year, it was more of a challenge. Then the next year I seen some people that won races that I knew I could outrun every day of the week, but they were winning races and I wasn't. Then I come back in 1960 and we really started hitting it off.
"Then we won the championship and that's what kept bringing me back. ... That's when I said maybe I do like this place better than I thought."
At age 26, he got the first of his four Indy wins. He won again in 1964, one of 10 victories that season, and again in 1967. After a decade of frustration at Indianapolis but 24 more IndyCar victories at other tracks, Foyt won the big race for the fourth time in 1977, a record that was matched in 1987 by Al Unser Sr. and 1991 by Rick Mears. No one has won five at Indy.
Foyt's last full season of competition was 1978. He drove in seven races in 1979, winning five of them and finishing second in one, but won only once after that and closed his career with a record 67 wins and seven national championships. He retired just before the start of qualifications in 1993, but has returned each year since as the owner of his team.
"Do I miss it? About 300 percent every time I see my car go by," he said, admitting he'd still be driving - if he could. "I know how to do it, but I think I'd try to do things that I'm really not capable of doing (like) when I was back younger. Your eyesight and reflexes slow down. I'd try to do something that would be impossible for me to do at my age.
"But I loved every lap I ever took here," the 73-year-old Foyt said. "When I got out, I said I'd never set another foot in an Indy car again, which I've not done."
Foyt already had put off his inevitable retirement several years after a 1990 crash at Elkhart Lake, Wis., shattered his legs and feet, the most serious injuries of his career. But he was back at Indianapolis in 1991, qualified second and finished 28th after his car's suspension failed early in the race.
He said then he would retire at the end of that season, but changed his mind and returned to Indy in 1992 and finished ninth in his record 35th consecutive start.
He planned to drive again in 1993 before two crashes by Robby Gordon, whom Foyt had hired during the offseason, forced another change of heart. This time, he meant it.
He did drive at Indianapolis once more, though, in the inaugural Brickyard 400 NASCAR race in 1994, but since then, he's returned each May solely as a car owner, winning IRL series championships with Scott Sharp in 1996 and Kenny Brack in 1998. His drivers had three of the top-six places at Indy in 1999, with Brack first, Billy Boat third and Robbie Buhl sixth.
In late 2006, Foyt hired son Larry as team director and Englishman Darren Manning as driver. Larry Foyt, who drove in three Indy races for his father, finishing no better than 30th, was to have driven an entry this year, but the elder Foyt last week hired Jeff Simmons to take the spot.
Foyt is grooming his son to someday take over the team.
"I'd like to see him continue to race in the management part, because he's a very smart boy and I know he can do it," Foyt said. "He just needs a little bit more experience, and that's the reason I'm training him."
In the meantime, Ol' A.J. is still calling the shots, although he admits that seat-of-the-pants thrill isn't quite the same.
"Not the way we've been running the last three or four years, no, I don't enjoy it one bit," he said. "We've got a good crew, we've spent a lot of money. ... We're not going to give up.
"I've never been a quitter. Sometimes you just have to bite your teeth."