Foyt follows his healing heart back home to Indianapolis despite lingering health problems

It's May in Indianapolis and A.J. Foyt is sitting quietly inside his motor home.

He's balancing a checkbook, watching the news and talking about current events — not exactly the image race fans have of one of the world's top drivers on a warm, sunny afternoon at the track.

No, this is not Foyt's typical Indy hangout, but this has been no typical year for the 80-year-old who is recovering from heart surgery and post-surgery complications six months ago.

"It's embarrassing, kind of, to not have the same energy level I'm used to," Foyt told The Associated Press during a 40-minute interview. "I got so tired (Thursday) that I came back (to the mobile home). But this was my goal, to get here, and I did get here."

Foyt's health issues have gotten increasingly worse in recent years.

He had knee replacement surgery in 2006. Six years later, bone spurs were removed from the artificial knee and Foyt developed a staph infection that took roughly six months to fight off.

In 2013, it was back surgery and in November the burning sensation he felt on a bone near his throat led to a triple bypass.

The ensuing lung problem forced doctors to put the first four-time Indianapolis 500 winner into an induced coma. After eight days, the medical team and family members feared Foyt might not survive.

Yet Foyt, who survived so many injuries during a 36-year IndyCar career, has not succumbed. When he woke up in that Texas hospital, Foyt even argued with doctors that he was actually in Indianapolis — long before he made it back to town.

"This is the hardest thing I've ever seen him go through, and I think guys half his age would have a hard time going through it," said Larry Foyt, his son and the new team president. "He's still rebuilding his strength, but he's still the tough old A.J."

The feisty Texan isn't quite the same, though.

The fearless driver who refused to back down from a fight has a titanium plate protecting his chest. He lost his appetite, dropped 50 pounds, and went a whole year without eating a cheese omelet. The man who won more IndyCar races than any driver in series history says the lack of energy has already forced him to turn away some autograph seekers this month, and his weakened legs have made it difficult to get around.

"I had to learn to walk again on a walker and a cane and one day I said, 'I'm tired of this,' and threw them all away," he said. "Who'd have thought at 80 years old I'd be learning to walk again?"

While Foyt never sought empathy, he has been longing to get back to the track that made him a worldwide celebrity. He started coming to the famed Brickyard in 1957 when the garages were made of wood and four-time champions did not exist.

But after the surgery, nobody in the family, including Foyt himself, was sure it would happen this year.

He made a brief appearance in New Orleans during a March test then returned home to Houston. Foyt didn't show up at the track again until last Sunday's opening day festivities in Indy. He flew home that night, came back to Indy for Thursday's practices on the road course and plans to stay in his adopted hometown until after the Indianapolis 500.

The plan is for him to drive to Detroit for two races the final weekend of May. After that, it's unclear.

"I don't want him overdoing it, but he'd probably be overdoing it at home, too," Larry Foyt said. "We know he's not the best patient, but this has been such a tough ordeal for him."

Not just for A.J.

The near-death scare prompted Larry Foyt to start contemplating the cold, harsh reality of what it would be like if his father wasn't around. Some sponsors, such as ABC Supply, have stuck with the team through good times and bad in part because of the association with one of the biggest names in racing history.

What would it take to keep the team running in A.J's absence? More success.

Since 2003, A.J. Foyt Racing has one win and 12 top-five finishes. This year, with full-time drivers — Jack Hawksworth and Takuma Sato — and former Indy pole-winner Alex Tagliani joining the stable for the 500, hopes are high. But all three drivers will be using Honda engines, which have struggled to keep up with the stronger Chevrolets this season.

Still, Larry Foyt has to find a way to make things work.

"The goal is to get the level of our team up so we can keep sponsors if A.J.'s not around," the younger Foyt said.

For the record, Foyt doesn't intend to go anywhere just yet.

Later this month, speedway officials plan to name three of the roads inside the 2.5-mile oval after Foyt and the other two four-time 500 winners, Al Unser and Rick Mears.

And, of course, Foyt intends to be back in Indianapolis next year for the 100th race because, well, he's a fighter.

"I hope next year, I'm still looking down at the grass, not looking up at it," he said. "This year, I wasn't sure."