Rolex 24 Flashback: The Year of the Foyt
AJ Foyt driving to victory in the Swap Shop Porsche at the 1983 Rolex 24 At Daytona.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A.J. Foyt recalls he had to be asked several times to take part in the 1983 Rolex 24 at Daytona. The four-time Indy 500 winner eventually said yes, at the behest of father Tony, setting in motion one of the more intriguing stories in the history of the 24 Hours.
Not only did the racing legend claim victory that year, but a sports car career that had included a win in the 1967 Le Mans 24 Hours was re-ignited. Foyt would be a regular at the Daytona International Speedway for the next six years, taking another victory in 1985 and notching up a brace of second places.
"The only reason I went down there was because of Bill France Sr.," recalls Foyt, who will be Grand Marshal for the 50th anniversary Rolex 24 at Daytona next January. "He called me three or four times, asking me to come to the 24-hour race. I was sitting in a hospital with my father, who was dying from cancer. It was my daddy who talked me into doing the race; he told me to go out and have some fun."
Foyt was to team up with NASCAR star Darrell Waltrip at the wheel of an Aston Martin-Nimrod backed by Pepsi-Cola, the event sponsor, though the plan quickly went off the rails. The design, which had placed seventh at Le Mans the previous year, didn't like the Daytona banking, the car blowing up after only 121 laps.
That might have been it for A.J. Foyt's sports car career but for the intervention of long-time sports car entrant Preston Henn. He went racing to promote his Swap Shop flea market in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and reckoned there was publicity to be had by putting Foyt in his Porsche 935.
This rather special 935L GTX contender, designed by Drino Miller and built at the workshops of famed Porsche tuner Andial in Southern California, had been qualified on the pole by another racing legend, Bob Wollek. It was arguably the car to win to win the 24 Hours that year, and crew chief Kevin Jeannette wasn't convinced about the wisdom of bringing in a lapsed sports car driver to join Wollek, French veteran Claude Ballot-Lena and Henn.
"Preston asked me about putting A.J. in the car," remembers Jeannette. "I told him that we had a chance of winning the thing and that A.J. had never driven a Porsche before. He looked at me as though I was from another planet. To him it didn't matter if we didn't win, because he'd still have had A.J. Foyt in his Swap Shop Porsche."
Foyt's preparation for taking the controls of the Swap Shop car stretched to sitting in another 935 that was already out of the race – "I sat in Bob Akin's car to familiarize myself with a lot of stuff" – and asking Jeannette a few pertinent questions.
"A.J. said, 'Can I ask a stupid question? What's the shift pattern?'" recalls the crew chief. "I said, 'It's just like a Volkswagen, except that reverse is over and forward. His reply was, 'First of all, do you think I've ever driven a Volkswagen? And second, why would I need reverse?' I thought, 'You've got a point there, Mr. Foyt."
When Foyt climbed aboard the Swap Shop Porsche on Sunday morning he was strapped in by Wollek. The only problem was that the driver who had retaken the lead after an early delay with turbocharger issues didn't realize what was happening.
"We all jumped back over the wall when the car left, and Wollek saw Preston and Ballot-Lena," explains Jeannette. "I don't exactly remember what happened, except saying Wollek saying, 'Who's in the car?' I said it was A.J. Foyt, and he looked at me as though I was kidding. You could tell he was livid.
"The cameras were all there because everyone but Bob knew that A.J. was getting in the car. We were leading the race; we were the big action."
At this point, a microphone was thrust under Wollek's nose. The question was obvious: "So Bob, what do you think of A.J. Foyt joining the team?" The response was less so: "Who the **** is A.J. Foyt?Foyt remembers the late Wollek's antipathy to his recruitment by Henn.
"I understand that Bob was very upset that Preston had put me in there," he says. "I knew nothing about it because he kept us separated until after the race. Maybe they thought I'd give him a slap if I found out what he'd said."
Wollek needn't have worried about Foyt. The IndyCar veteran may have been out of sports cars for the better part of 20 years, but he was immediately on the pace, and in the wet, too.
"He was the quickest of everyone in the wet," says Jeannette. "A.J. was a driver's driver, and in the days before adjustable shock absorbers, he knew exactly what a pound of air did for spring rates. I'd go as far as calling him a genius."
The Swap Shop 935 led through the rain and a late red flag on the way to claiming a four-lap victory. Wollek begrudgingly had to accept the part Foyt had played in the victory.
"Preston asked Bob, 'What do you think of A.J. now? Is he the champion everyone says he is?'" remembers Foyt. "Bob had to say that he guessed so.
"Bob and I actually became very good friends. He was one of the best co-drivers I ever shared a car with beside Dan Gurney at Le Mans. He was a super guy. I thought a lot of Bob after that, and I think he thought a lot of me."
Foyt and Wollek would go on to share more success in sports cars through the mid-1980s. They did an endurance sports car double in 1985, winning first at Daytona and then at the Sebring 12 Hours aboard Henn's Porsche 962 GTP car. Yet it is the '83 victory remains special to Foyt.
A few years later during the month of May at Indianapolis, he was asked on TV to name his favorite race victory. The man with the microphone was expecting him to plump for one of his four victories in the Indy 500, perhaps even his Le Mans triumph, but the A.J. came up with an unexpected answer: The 1983 24 Hours of Daytona in the Swap Shop Porsche.
"I wanted to win that race for my daddy," says Foyt, whose father lost his battle with cancer a few months after the race. "He talked me into doing it, so I never really cared if I won another race after that."