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Friday, May 27, 2011
It just has to be Foyt up front

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

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Our Indianapolis 500 Field of the Century is set.

Today, with our front row, we make it clear what we meant when we told you this grid wouldn't be based solely on statistics. Significant weight was given to how much the drivers typify what Indy has been all about, all these 100 years.

Bill Vukovich, who sits on the outside of the first row, had mastered the venerable 2.5-mile rectangle so thoroughly by 1955 that it seemed obvious that nothing -- short of disaster -- could stop him from winning his third consecutive 500.

Disaster struck. Vukovich was leading the '55 race when he was caught up in a multicar crash and killed.

And he would have been going for his fourth in a row, except for a steering failure right near the end of the 1952 race, which he had dominated.

Think about that. Four in a row. It took Al Unser a span of 18 races from his first win to his fourth, A.J. Foyt a span of 17 and Rick Mears 13.

Even with the '52 failure, Vuky could have gone on to four in a row in '56, and then on to … we will never know.

Nor will we ever know about the most remarkable prodigy -- at driving and engineering -- ever to set foot on the hallowed ground of Indy, Frank Lockhart.

He showed up out of nowhere -- actually off the California dirt tracks -- in 1926, got a ride on a quirk of fate, started 20th, roared quickly up through the field and won. He had never before even raced on a paved track.

The next day's headlines were the first time America heard of him. He was 23.

He was a mathematical prodigy who'd been accepted to Caltech but couldn't afford to go, but Lockhart was no geek. He was a charmer, instantly liked by virtually everyone he met.

Had he stuck with Harry Miller, Indy's unmatched horsepower wizard of the time, Lockhart might easily have become the 500's first four-time winner and beyond. But Lockhart's intellect wouldn't rest. When he one-upped Miller's innovations, Miller wouldn't have it. So, Lockhart bought the car from Miller.

In '27, Lockhart started on the pole and dominated the race until his customized Miller engine broke a connecting rod. He would never return to Indy. In 1928, diversifying, going for a land speed record at Daytona in a car he designed and built himself, Lockhart was ejected from the cockpit at more than 225 mph and killed instantly. He was 25.

But unfulfilled potential never was an issue for our pole sitter. You never have to think about what might have been with A.J. Foyt, Indy's first four-time winner who has walked and stomped the hallowed ground for more than 50 years and is still around to tell about it.

We considered Vukovich and Lockhart for our pole position. But we can't ignore the fire, ire, hard-knuckled hard work and unprecedented success that have made Foyt the embodiment of Indy when all those elements hit us right smack in the face -- which we feared Foyt was going to do, from time to time, as we covered his career.

Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. vastly surpassed the very first impression of him when he arrived at the Brickyard in 1958.

"What do you want, boy?" asked a Gasoline Alley gate guard.

"I'm a driver," said the tough but bashful youth from Houston.

"What's your name?"

"A.J. Foyt Jr."

"Who do you drive for?"

"Al Dean."

"You got a letter or anything to prove it?"

"Nossir."

"Well, Dean's car isn't here yet. You'll have to come back in a couple of days."

So the kid wandered around outside the fence, sitting for hours at a time on a curb, for two days before they would let him in. Foyt has told that story, with variations here and there, for decades.

"I think they'd let me in now," Foyt deadpanned in 1977 on the afternoon of his fourth Indy win.

They still do.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.