1972 Daytona 500: A.J. Foyt vs Stock Car Nation
By the beginning of the 1972 racing season Anthony Joseph Foyt, Jr had already won five USAC (Indy Cars) National Championships. He had also already been named USAC Stock Car Champion in 1968. He, along with Richard Petty, were considered the premier drivers of the era. Petty was seen as the best in Stock Cars and Foyt in Indy Cars. Foyt was a 3-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 (1961, 1964, 1967) the most important automobile race in the world. But he had also been crossing over to NASCAR occasionally since 1963, even though the USAC circuit was the more prestigious series of the two.
While competing on the NASCAR Series, Foyt had a near death experience in 1965 at the Motor Trend 500 in Riverside, California. He, Parnelli Jones, and Dan Gurney were battling for the lead for most of the race. Jones was forced out with mechanical problems late in the race, but Gurney and Foyt continued to battle, when A.J. breaks failed entering turn nine. Foyt turned the car into the infield, attempting to slow down, but at more than 100 MPH he flew over an embankment, flipped his car and somersaulted several times. When the track doctor got to him he pronounce A.J. Foyt dead at the scene. Fortunately for Foyt (and the racing community) Foyt’s close friend, and biggest rival, Parnelli Jones, saw some movement and successfully revived him.
Two years later, Foyt would benefit unexpectedly when his friend Jones’ innovative turbo engine malfunctioned with him comfortably in front in the final three laps, allowing Foyt to blow by him for his third victory at Indianapolis. This would be one of Foyt’s 43 wins on the USAC Series (along with five victories on the NASCAR Circuit) A.J. Foyt would have entering the 1972 Daytona 500.
1972 would again, as was 1967, be a battle of big names from different racing disciplines. Foyt, like Mario Andretti before him, came from the Indy Cars series. The top dogs in the CUP series were determined to stop him. A.J. was still stinging from his loss to Richard Petty in the 1971 race. Foyt was in the lead when he ran out of gas with 40 laps to go, eventually finishing third.
Before the race Foyt made a promise: “I’ll win it.” Bold words from the big Texan. Foyt qualified second, so he would start outside of pole sitter Bobby Isaac. The other main threats to Foyt were Bobby Allison, who started in the second row, Buddy Baker who qualified a disappointing 31st, with the defending champion and 3-times former champion, “The King”, Richard Petty outside Baker on row 16.
At the start Foyt got an early jump on Isaac, streaking to the lead. Isaac recovered to retake the lead on the backstretch, but Foyt slingshot off the last turn and led after the first lap. Bobby Allison was the next to challenge Super Tex, passing him on lap four. Allison held the lead for only two laps when Foyt again showed his dominance, regaining the lead. Allison would fall off the pace, unable to match Foyt’s speed, eventually finishing 16th.
Behind Foyt and Allison, Baker and Petty were going all out, rapidly passing slower cars, charging to the front. Unfortunately for Baker, on lap 18 he got tangled up with Walter Ballard and crashed, ending his day. Bobby Isaac’s dreams ended one lap later when he lost his engine.
That left only Petty with the speed to challenge Foyt. He had the fastest car on the track. He caught and passed Foyt on lap 21. The two greatest American drivers ever began a two man duel that saw the lead change 10 times in the next 60 laps. Between laps 75 and 80 Petty seized the momentum, and for the first time started stretching out his lead. Suddenly Petty blew an engine, allowing Foyt to blow by him on lap 81. “King Richard” was done after 80 laps. There was nobody left who could contend with Foyt. He cruised to victory, never again relinquishing the lead. In a dominating performance he would win by nearly two laps over Charlie Glotzbach, who finished second, with the third place finisher Jim Vandiver six laps down. A.J.’s Average speed was 161.5 MPH, breaking the previous record by four MPH.
A.J. Foyt would return to the Indy Car Series, winning three more championships and more USAC sanctioned events than any other driver. He would win the Indianapolis 500 for a 4th and final time in 1977, the first person to win the event four times (Al Unser and Rick Mears would match that number later). This would be A.J. Foyt’s only Daytona 500 win, but he joined Mario Andretti as the only person to win both the Indianapolis and Daytona 500s. A feat not accomplished since.
Richard Petty would remain “The King” of stock car racing, winning the “Great American Race” four more times, finishing his career with seven Daytona 500 wins and an incredible 200 NASCAR victories. To put that in perspective, the late David Pearson is 2nd with 105. Jeff Gordon just retired from his illustrious with 93.
But 1972 was not a good year for the NASCAR Regular drivers. A.J. Foyt had come over from the USAC Series and had dominated NASCAR’s premier event. It took NASCAR’s best driver to sum up the event when asked about the winner: “He fit right in,” admitted Richard Petty.