The front row for the 1991 Indianapolis 500 featured Rick Mears (inside), A.J. Foyt (middle) and Mario Andretti (outside). (IMS Archives Photo)
The front row for the 1991 Indianapolis 500 featured Rick Mears (inside), A.J. Foyt (middle) and Mario Andretti (outside). (IMS Archives Photo)

A.J. Foyt’s Best Medicine

It wasn’t often in his career that A.J. Foyt had played the underdog, if he ever had. That all changed on Sept. 23, 1990, the instant the ESPN broadcast of CART’s Havoline 200 at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., cut suddenly to the smoking remains of a black car sitting just beyond a gap in an earthen embankment.

“Car well off the course,” snapped lead commentator Paul Page. “We don’t have an identity yet. We can see just the tip of the helmet …”

That helmet was warm poppy red, a color associated with just one race driver. Now you saw a hand wave, looking for help.

“That’s A.J. Foyt!” said Page.

Taking it all in, you realized with horror that the gap in that embankment was a hole freshly punched through a thick wall of dirt, past a gravel trap at the end of the long front straightaway. The hole was about the width of the Lola that had created it. Later, Foyt would say that it was a broken brake pedal that sent the car skipping across the gravel trap, its speed unchecked and spearing through that embankment.

Now there were safety workers running toward the scene, scampering through that gap. What they found was a driver whose lower extremities were such a mess — legs and feet pointing in odd directions — that it was not clear whether they were still attached to Foyt. 

Terry Trammell, the orthopedic surgeon whose work with CART’s medical team made him a wizard at piecing together broken drivers, pawed at the dirt around A.J.’s limbs. Said Trammell, “I couldn’t figure out how his knee could be where it was, and his foot be where it was, and (they could) still be connected.”

Foyt was in agony. While rescuers cut away at the tub of the mangled Lola, he writhed in the cockpit.

“They had an IV in my arm and were giving me morphine,” he recalled, “but it didn’t do any good. I asked a guy to pick up a hammer and hit me on the head to knock me out. I meant it.”

It took 45 minutes to remove him from the car and carry him by stretcher to a helicopter bound for Milwaukee.

“I was conscious all the way to the hospital,” A.J. said.

On his left side, Foyt had a crushed heel, a dislocated tibia and a broken knee; on his right, a “severely dislocated” heel.

He spent a long night in surgery, as doctors repaired fractures, reestablished circulation and tended to tissue shredded by jagged bones. More surgeries followed, most at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. But that was all down the road. Right now, in that Milwaukee trauma ward, A.J. Foyt was an old race car driver hurting like hell.

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