Great Rivalries: Racing's Best Rivalries

Getty Images The Cahier Archive
Sean McCabe

A. J. Foyt and Mario Andretti

The great fault line in Indy car racing opened up in the early 1960s, when mid-engine chassis based on contemporary grand prix designs rendered front-engine roadsters obsolete. Nearly a half century later, we're still feeling the effects of this revolution, which created a disconnect between the midget and sprint cars that had traditionally served as the training wheels for Indy, which led to a schedule dominated by road courses and street races, which prompted the creation of the IRL, which engendered The Split that gutted interest in open-wheel racing, which cleared the road for the ascendance of NASCAR Nation.

A. J. Foyt was the last, and arguably the greatest, of the strapping, swaggering heroes of the roadster era and a circle-track tradition dating back to Barney Oldfield barnstorming around the fairgrounds of turn-of-the-century America. Born near Houston and often wrenching on his own cars, Foyt fought his way up - sometimes literally - from the dusty minor leagues of midget and sprint cars before becoming the first four-time winner of the Indy 500. He won more Indy car races (sixty-seven) and championships (seven) than anybody in history. In 1964, the last year that roadsters were competitive, he won ten of thirteen races - run on both pavement and dirt. And yet one year later, he finished second in the title hunt to a newcomer who looked to be not only half his age but half his size.

Mario Andretti has been such an articulate spokesman for American racing for so long that it's hard to believe he was born in Italy and didn't move to the United States until he was fifteen. Like Foyt, Andretti survived a dangerous bullring apprenticeship in modifieds and sprint cars. But unlike the hopefuls he was racing against, he'd grown up idolizing not Bill Vukovich but Alberto Ascari. When he went to Indy for the first time in 1965, it was in a mid-engine knockoff of a Brabham grand prix car, and when he won his first Indy car race, it was on a road course.

The battle lines between Foyt and Andretti formed the axis around which Indy car racing revolved. Their personalities, too, couldn't have been more dissimilar, Andretti sunny and quotable, Foyt profane and forbidding. Who was better? Well, Andretti didn't win quite as many races or championships, but he led more laps and earned more poles. He won his second consecutive USAC title in 1966, when Foyt went winless for the first time since 1959. But 1967 was a dogfight. Between them, they won eleven of the last twelve races on the schedule before the season-ender at Riverside, where Foyt had nearly been killed in a stock car two years before. Andretti ran out of fuel while leading. Foyt scraped by to win the championship by arranging to jump in Roger McCluskey's car after Foyt crashed his own earlier in the race.

During the '70s, Andretti concentrated his attention on Europe, winning the Formula 1 world championship in 1978 while Foyt claimed two more USAC titles and his fourth Indy. But both of them continued to race against each other at the Speedway into the '90s, and their impact on the sport would be felt even after they retired from the cockpit. Foyt, by then a team owner, was the biggest name to throw his support behind Tony George when the IRL split from CART in 1996, and Andretti, as an éminence grise, was the behind-the-scenes broker who got the warring factions together to reunify open-wheel racing in 2008. So now Andretti and Foyt are together again - but still on opposite ends of the compound.

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