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Victory Reinvigorates Foyt Just In Time For Indy

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, April 24 2013

A.J. Foyt has big plans for this year's Indianapolis 500. (File photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Open-wheel icon A.J. Foyt Jr. underwent successful back surgery Tuesday in an effort to rejoin new first-time IZOD IndyCar Series winner Takuma Sato and the No. 14 team for the only race that really matters to “Super Tex,” the Indianapolis 500.

While A.J. recuperates, Sato’s victory in Sunday’s 39th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach underscored the fact that the future of A.J. Foyt Racing rests with team director Larry Foyt, A.J.’s son.

A.J., 78, underwent successful back surgery Tuesday in a Houston hospital. Neurosurgeon Dr. David Cech performed the laminectomy procedure in the lumbar region of Foyt’s spine to relieve the sciatic nerve pain he had been experiencing. Foyt is expected to make a full recovery.

Surgery originally was scheduled for Wednesday, but Foyt asked to move the procedure up one day to hasten his recovery. Foyt – first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 – is planning to be at Indianapolis next month as his ABC Supply team works toward the 97th edition of the Indy 500 on May 26. Indianapolis Motor Speedway opens for practice on Saturday, May 11th.

Foyt Racing will field Honda-powered Dallaras for Sato and rookie Conor Daly under the direction of Larry Foyt, who put the brakes on his open-wheel and NASCAR careers in the fall of 2006 to run his father’s team. It was a position that carried duties the three-time Indianapolis 500 starter acknowledged he did not initially fully grasp.

“I always felt comfortable around Indy car racing because I grew up with it, but I had to get back into the Indy car

Larry Foyt of A.J. Foyt Racing.

mentality,” said Larry Foyt, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communications from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth in 2000. “They do some things differently from NASCAR and the (Indy) cars are more technologically advanced. I spent the first couple of years learning, watching a lot and listening, too.

“It was important see how things were done, analyze and see where we could improve and work to make changes in those areas. By making small changes, they can add up to big results on the track.”

Larry Foyt, 36, spent four years competing in NASCAR’s Nationwide (2001-02) and Sprint Cup series (2003-04). His best performance in Cup was recorded at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he started 12th and was running in the top-10 before a series of slow pit stops relegated him to a 16th-place finish. He also served as test driver for Evernham Motorsports’ Dodge-backed team for several years.

Results have been mixed for Foyt Racing with a roster that in recent years has included reigning series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, Brazilian Vitor Meira, Englishman Darren Manning, grandson A.J. Foyt IV and Larry Foyt. Results also have been mixed for Sato during his three-plus seasons in the series beginning with KV Racing Technology and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Sato posted a career-best finish of second last July 22 on the airport circuit in Edmonton. But Sato generated the biggest headlines of his 2012 season for an ill-fated attempt to overtake Dario Franchitti for the lead in Turn 1 on the final lap of the Indianapolis 500. Franchitti, a four-time series champion, survived that incident to win his third Indy 500.

Sato, a native of Tokyo, joined Foyt’s Houston-based team during the offseason as the replacement for Englishman Mike Conway. Sato qualified second and finished eighth in the season-opening street race at St. Petersburg, Fla., and followed with a 14th-place result on the Barber Motorsports Park road-course in Birmingham, Ala., before his historic victory in the crown jewel of American street racing in Southern California.

Sato, 36, became the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar race, and gave the team its first victory since July 7, 2002, at Kansas Speedway with Brazilian Airton Dare at the wheel. The team’s most recent win on a road/street course was scored by the elder Foyt on Oct. 1, 1978, at Silverstone, England.

“I’m just really proud of the day for A.J. Foyt Racing,” said Sato, whose win put him on the homepage of Yahoo Japan. “This is just a tremendous start for us.”

NHK, Japan’s largest TV Network, devoted a long segment early in its national news broadcast to Sato’s victory. He also was the main story on the front pages of the major Tokyo newspapers – a first for IndyCar since Danica Patrick scored her breakthrough victory at Twin Ring Motegi in 2008. “Likes” and Facebook comments on the main indycar.com story showed a 10-fold increase.

Following a visit on Monday to Honda Performance Development in Santa Clarita, Calif., by Honda team drivers, Sato returned to Tokyo for a brief vacation before beginning preparations for the Itaipava Sao Paulo Indy 300 presented by Nestle in Brazil on May 4-5.

“Hopefully, yes, this is just a start, and to bring more IndyCar excitement and enthusiasm to Japanese fans to know it,” said Sato, whose resume includes stints with two Formula One organizations. “Motor racing people already know IndyCar is special. Unfortunately, we don’t have Indy in Japan, but hopefully this is a little start to recover and not so long time I’d love to go back to Japan with the series.”

With key personnel in place, Larry Foyt believes Sunday’s win could mark the resurgence of a proud and longstanding INDYCAR team. In addition to A.J.’s Indy 500 wins in 1961, 1964, 1967 and 1977, Foyt Racing won “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in 1999 with Sweden’s Kenny Brack. Foyt Racing also won the IndyCar Series driver’s championship with Scott Sharp in 1996 and Brack in 1998.

Sato is the newest member of an international cast at Foyt Racing that includes engineer Don Halliday of New Zealand and assistant engineer Raul Prados of Spain.

“We knew Takuma was fast,” Larry Foyt said after the Victory Circle celebration. “Until you really know somebody, you don’t know how you’re going to work together and how it’s going to be. It was great our first working relationship was a seven-day Caribbean cruise. We’ve been good friends ever since.

“I really think between our chief engineer, Don Halliday, and Takuma, there was a lot of trust there, which you have to have. Like Takuma said, the speed has been there. Little issues can always bite you. Our junior engineer kept telling us, ‘We don’t have to be the biggest team to win. There can be positives to being a smaller team and a tight-knit group.’

“There was so much hard work over the winter. It’s a super group of guys with a super sponsor and it just all works. I’m glad we have another multi-year contract with ABC Supply, which has been awesome with us. I think that puts us in a good position with the future. What (Sato) did, hopefully that keeps us heading in that direction.”

Inside the numbers from the 39th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, third race of the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season:

1 _ Indy car race-winner from Japan, Takuma Sato, who joined Canadian James Hinchcliffe of Andretti Autosport as the second first-time winner in three 2013 events.

2 _ Consecutive fifth-place finishes at Long Beach for JR Hildebrand of Panther Racing.

3 _ Drivers who have finished in the top-10 in each of the first three IndyCar Series events: Marco Andretti of Andretti Autosport, Helio Castroneves of Team Penske and Justin Wilson of Dale Coyne Racing.

5 _ Different teams represented in the top-five in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

6 _ Points separating the top two drivers, Helio Castroneves and Takuma Sato, in the series standings.

12 _ Positions gained by Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in the point standings, the biggest jump among drivers who competed.

13 _ Drivers with at least one top-five finish in 2013.

18 _ Points separating the top-five drivers in the point standings.

20 _ Drivers with at least one top-10 finish in 2013.

21 _ Positions improved by Justin Wilson, the most gained by any driver. Wilson finished third.

27 _ Laps led by pole-sitter Dario Franchitti at Long Beach. Franchitti, of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, led 11 laps on road/street courses in 2012.

50 _ Laps-led by Takuma Sato at Long Beach, the most laps he has paced in any IndyCar race. Sato’s previous high was 31 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2012.

199 _ Consecutive Indy car starts for Tony Kanaan of KV Racing Technology, dating to the 2001 Championship Auto Racing Teams race in Portland, Ore. Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champion, is second to 1996 CART champion Jimmy Vasser’s 211 straight starts.

John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, April 24 2013
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