July 8, 2020
|5/21/2012 2:10:00 PM|
'That's my girl!'
Granddaughter of NV racing great helps her father meet A.J. Foyt
|In 1958, A.J. Foyt was a rookie in the Indianapolis 500. Many race fans in the Jennings County area know that Pat O'Connor of North Vernon took Foyt under his wing that year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.|
O'Connor was killed in a horrific first lap 15-car wreck that May, one of those indelible days in the memories of many in this area and numerous motorsports fans everywhere. Foyt, of course, went on to become one of the top drivers in Indy 500 history.
Fifteen years ago or so, Pat O'Connor's son, Jeff, 56, got to meet Foyt fleetingly - thanks to the persistence of his wife, Lori. Until a week ago, Jeff "OC" O'Connor never really had an up close-and-personal meeting with Foyt.
Jeff, a North Vernon-based insurance agent, can thank his daughter for that - and, in a way, his wife.
"I'm glad I have my mother's stubbornness," Kristen O'Connor chuckled.
Kristen, 20, was with her father at the Speedway for opening day of practice on May 13. They often go to the track during the days leading up to the big race and on Indy 500 day itself.
Foyt no longer drives, but he owns and manages an Indy racing team and is a fixture during May at the Speedway's Gasoline Alley - though he rarely comes out into public view from his garage and office.
Kristen and her father were outside the Foyt garage that day, hoping for a glimpse of the legendary driver. After a while, Jeff wanted to leave.
"But I want to see A.J.," Kristen protested to her father. "I've been wanting to talk to him for years."
"Don't get your hopes up," Jeff replied. "He never comes out of the garage."
Kristen persisted and another fan talking to the O'Connors spotted Larry Foyt, A.J.'s son and a crew member, outside the garage. The fan, Gary Houston, knew Larry Foyt enough to talk to him, telling him to relay to A.J. that Pat O'Connor's son and granddaughter wanted to meet him.
Larry Foyt went inside, came back out and signaled to the O'Connors to enter.
"I said, 'Oh God' and was thinking, 'Does my hair look OK? Do I have anything in my teeth?'" Kristen said. "Dad said, 'Oh boy,' and was excited, too."
Foyt, who has won four 500s as a driver, was on the phone when the O'Connors entered his office, but quickly turned his head to the pair, ended the call and started talking."
"A.J. was as down to earth as anyone could be," Jeff said. "He told us he wanted to quit racing the day my dad died. I've read that before, but it really meant a lot to hear it directly from him. He said he knew my dad wouldn't have wanted him to quit. I told A.J. it was a good thing he kept racing because he is Mr. 500."
The conversation lasted around 20 minutes with A.J. telling the O'Connors about his recent surgeries, how he plans to have Larry take over the business and other topics that enthralled the O'Connors. They also had pictures taken with Foyt.
"I knew A.J. was busy and we were taking up his valuable time," Jeff said. "I finally told him that and we left. A.J. said to come back anytime and to bring my mom (Analice Steining) next time."
The two were on Cloud 9 - and still are.
"I told Dad, 'Happy Father's Day and birthday for the next three years,'" Kristen said. "We were both laughing and smiling."
John Bright, another Indy 500 fan from North Vernon, spotted the O'Connors at the track a short time later.
"OC and his daughter were ecstatic," Bright said. "You could tell they had a fabulous time with A.J. Who wouldn't? He's probably the greatest driver of all time."
Jeff returned to the Speedway three days later with the printed photos of himself and his daughter with Foyt.
"I try not to use my name to get special treatment at the Speedway, but I had to get A.J. to autograph those pictures," Jeff said.
After another long wait outside Foyt's garage, O'Connor was invited inside where the racing legend signed the pictures, one of which is published here.
"What a fantastic experience," said Jeff, who promised his mother he would never race automobiles but has been a diehard fan all his life.
Around 15 years ago, Lori O'Connor was with her husband at the Speedway and she, too, overrode Jeff's reluctance to try to see A.J. Lori wrote on a napkin and passed it on to a Foyt crew member to give to A.J.
"He won't sign it," the crew member said.
"I don't want him to sign it, I just want him to read it," Lori told him.
Within moments, Foyt came out, talking briefly to Jeff and Lori O'Connor and autographing a photograph Jeff had of his father with A.J. from 1958. That photo is also included here.
"A.J. first signed it 'to Pat' and when he realized his mistake he added my dad's name," Kristen said proudly.
"What just happened?" said a stunned Jeff O'Connor in disbelief after Foyt hurriedly went back inside the garage that day.
Kristen, a student at Marian University in Indianapolis now home for the summer, goes to the Speedway nearly as much as her father.
"I'll go there when they're testing tires or whatever," she said. "The track is only five minutes away and it's a relaxing break from school."
She is a fan of current drivers Marco Andretti, Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves. Like her father, Kristen is also a longtime fan of Foyt.
"My mom didn't believe me at first when I told her about meeting A.J. with Dad," she said. "I told her, 'It's a good thing I have your stubbornness.'"
Lori couldn't have been more proud of her daughter.
"That's my girl!" she said.
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