Top 10 Indy 500s, No. 4: A.J. Foyt goes ‘fourth’ in historic 1977 race
(Editor’s note: NBC Sports has selected the Top 10 Indy 500s of All-Time through an esteemed panel of former drivers, broadcasters, journalists and historians. The countdown will run through the 107th Indianapolis 500.)
A.J. Foyt began one of sports’ most exclusive clubs when he became the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 in 1977, 10 years after he’d won his third ‘500’ in 1967.
Only three other drivers since have joined Foyt in the four-time winners club: The late Al Unser, Rick Mears, and Helio Castroneves, who became the most recent addition in 2021.
Foyt didn’t earn his fourth Indy victory with a dominant drive. In fact, he had to overcome his car running out of fuel early in the race just to be in contention toward the end.
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Gordon Johncock was instead the pace-setter for much of the afternoon. Johncock led five times for a race-high 129 laps, which included an uninterrupted stretch of 83 laps at the front (Lap 97-179).
Johncock was leading Foyt after they both made their final pit stops with around 20 laps to go. But on Lap 184 of 200, Johncock’s car suddenly went up in smoke on the front stretch.
A mechanical failure – specifically, a broken crankshaft – had ended the hopes of Johncock, who pulled his car off track in Turn 1. Johncock then climbed out, walked to an infield creek, and jumped in to cool off on the hot, humid day.
Foyt, who inherited the lead after Johncock’s misfortune, went on to a comfortable win.
Along with Foyt’s victory, the 1977 race also has multiple surrounding stories that help make it one of the most historically significant races at Indy.
Pole Day saw Tom Sneva become the first driver to officially break the 200 miles per hour speed barrier at Indy. The first two laps in his four-lap qualifying run were both north of 200 mph, and though his final two laps were slower, he still managed to win the pole position (four-lap average: 198.884 mph).
On the final day of time trials for the 1977 Indy 500, Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the ‘500’ (four-lap average: 188.403 mph). Guthrie also set a women’s closed-course speed record during her run, but per the Associated Press’ report, she preferred to focus on “ultimate” records, saying: “My folks brought me up not to think women can’t do things because they are women.” Race Day was not as good for Guthrie, who finished 29th and only ran 27 laps due to recurring mechanical problems with her car.
The Speedway’s venerable radio network was without its longtime chief announcer, Sid Collins, who took his life just weeks before the race after he was diagnosed with ALS. His colleague and friend, Paul Page, inherited Collins’ mantle as the ‘Voice of the 500.’
Finally, Speedway owner Tony Hulman made what proved to be his final appearance at the “500.” After Foyt had won the race, Hulman joined him in the pace car for a ride around the track to salute the fans. That October, Hulman passed away at the age of 76.
NBC Sports has ranked the Top 10 Indy 500s through a panel that judged through scores of 1-20 in five categories: quality of racing, memorable moments, strength of competition, historical impact and spectacle.
Here’s a look at No. 4 on the list:
Winner: A.J. Foyt
Margin of victory: 28.63 seconds
Lead changes: 13 among seven drivers
Cautions: Five for 22 laps
Other contenders: While not as strong as Johncock and Foyt were, Tom Sneva (finished second) and Al Unser (finished third) were among their closest pursuers during the race. Unser led the race’s first 17 laps.
Winning move: Foyt passed Johncock for the lead and the win when Johncock’s car suffered its terminal issue on Lap 184.
How the voters saw it: Of the voters who had the 1977 Indy 500 in their top 10, 77 percent scored it at 80 or higher (out of a possible 100).