Still-Feisty Foyt Thinks Indy Win Is Within Reach
To a generation of open-wheel fans who saw him race and win during his prime, A.J. Foyt Jr. is as much a tradition at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the Borg-Warner Trophy, the Pagoda tower and the Yard of Bricks.
Only don’t confuse Foyt with a potted plant. At age 78 and recovering from recent back surgery, a feisty A.J. and son Larry believe their driver, IZOD IndyCar Series point-leader Takuma Sato, is a bona fide contender to win Sunday’s 97th running of the Indianapolis 500.
“This race is a special race, a hard race to win,” said A.J., the first of three four-time Indy 500 champions. “It’s the greatest race, as far as I’m concerned, in the world. But everything has to fall your way. Just like when we was in California (Streets of Long Beach), there was nobody could beat our car. The pit stops were perfect, he (Sato) was perfect, the car was perfect. When you got something like that, normally you don’t win. Just like my wife (Lucy) said, ‘God, looks like he’s going to win, five laps (to go).’ I said, ‘On that track, five laps is still a long ways to go.’^”
Sato scored his breakthrough IndyCar Series victory, and first in the series for a Japanese driver, in America’s premier street race on April 21. He followed that with a second-place finish to James Hinchcliffe of Andretti Autosport on the Streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil, on May 5. Sato leads Marco Andretti of Andretti Autosport by 13 points heading into “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Sato and rookie teammate Conor Daly are part of a 33-car field that includes three-time Indy 500 winners Helio Castroneves of Team Penske and Dario Franchitti of Target Chip Ganassi Racing in what has evolved into a 200-lap sprint race around the 2.5-mile oval.
Foyt (1961, 1964, 1967, 1977), Al Unser (1970, 1971, 1978, 1987) and Rick Mears (1979, 1984, 1988, 1991) are the
event’s only four-time champions.
“You know the way I look at that? It wouldn’t surprise to see me a six-, seven-, eight-time winner with all the equipment you have,” A.J. said during a news conference at IMS. “You take our cars, back when we won it four times, our mechanics came back here, pulled the motors apart. Carburetion Day, we went out and put the motors on, then we tried to run 500 miles. It wouldn’t surprise me. Records are made to be broken. That’s what they’re there for. Like I said, with the equipment they have today, if a guy doesn’t win it six-, seven-times, it’s because he wasn’t trying.”
Asked what traits Franchitti and Castroneves shared with himself, “Big Al” and “Rapid Rick,” A.J. smirked: “I’d like to see one of them drive a (front-engine) Roadster and win a race, then we’ll see what we have in common. I doubt if they’d make five laps. They’re good race car drivers with the equipment they’re in. They need to get in a Roadster with cement tires and see how good they stick in a corner.”
Foyt, meanwhile, is convinced that Sato, who led 31 laps at IMS last year en route to a crash-marred 17th-place finish, will stick his No. 14 ABC Supply Co. Dallara/Honda into the corner on Sunday.
Driving last year for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Sato attempted to force a pass on the low side of Franchitti’s race-leading car while running-side-by-side on the final lap. Sato’s car made contact with the left side of Franchitti’s, sending the former up the track and into the Turn 1 SAFER Barrier. While Franchitti won his third Indy 500 under yellow, Sato stamped himself as a “driver, not a rider” in the eyes of “Super Tex.”
“I think we knew he was a good race driver,” A.J. said of Sato, a 36-year-old native of Tokyo. “He did a lot of testing for Honda way back yonder on road courses. Was kind of looking for a guy that could play both parts, ovals and road courses. I thought he run a hell of a race (in Brazil). Even though he run second, he didn’t give up till the checkered went out.”
A.J. said Larry, in his role as team director, handled the contract negotiations with Sato, whose reputation for crashing was widely scrutinized on racing’s biggest stage.
“I think Takuma would tell you he would have done things a little bit differently,” said Larry, 36, who joined the team in his current role at the end of the 2006 season. “I don’t think when he made his move, he just would have maybe not given Dario quite as much room and would have tried to protect himself a little bit. Takuma, he’s a thinking driver. He knew he had a lot of understeer in his car in Turn 3. That wasn’t the place he was going to be able to make the move. He had to go for it right then. We like that about him.
“Dad always told me that it’s a lot easier to calm a hard-charger down than prod a guy that doesn’t want to charge. I think the obvious thing is, if you keep wrecking A.J.’s race cars, you have to tell him, it’s a pretty calming effect on you. No, really, Takuma, of course everyone had seen that, that was kind of his reputation. Once you get to know him, really working with him this year, that’s not the case at all. I think he’s in a good place right now. It’s a super fit with our team, the way he gets along with A.J., with (chief engineer) Don Halliday. I think he feels like the team is really behind him.
“Our cars are setup ‘in the ballpark.’ We definitely have fast racecars right now, a good group putting them together. It’s been a good fit, and he doesn’t have to go out there and overextend himself.”
A.J. said he has been impressed by Sato’s ability or provide feedback. “That helps the engineers a lot,” A.J. said. “You have a four-car team, say, they got four engineers, four drivers, four times as much feedback. But he does give you good feedback. Him and the engineers work very close. I think that’s really been successful for us.”
The only downer of Sato’s victory in Southern California was that A.J. was not on-site to celebrate. He was preparing to undergo surgery later that week to correct a sciatic nerve problem.
“I’m glad I wasn’t there because they’re the ones really been working hard,” A.J. said of the personnel assembled by Larry. “I’ve been up and down like a yo-yo. I’ve been on top, I’ve been zero-zero. It’s great to see it’s all been pulled together.”
Larry Foyt, who competed in three Indy 500s (2004-06) in cars fielded by his father, abandoned his NASCAR career to lead the management of A.J. Foyt Racing. Larry logged four years competing in NASCAR’s Nationwide (2001-02) and Sprint Cup series (2003-04). He also served as test driver for Evernham Motorsports’ Dodge-backed team for several years.
“The best part of it all is that dad supported me all the way,” Larry said. “It was really bittersweet at Long Beach because we all wanted him to be there. I think you saw the pure emotion of our whole team. With us being a smaller team, we put in a lot of hours. We really have a dedicated group of guys that give the extra effort and focus on the details. For it all to come together, we were super happy.
“Everybody kind of looked around, ‘Where is A.J.? It’s just not right without him here.’ It was great to hear him say he was proud. When he told us he was proud of us, it meant a lot. I hated he wasn’t in Victory Lane with us. So now I think we can make up for that on Sunday because now we got him back. This would be a good one to do that together.”
With Sunday’s race, A.J. will have competed in 55 straight Indy 500s – including driving in a record 35 consecutive races (1958-1992). He holds IndyCar Series records for most career victories (67), most national championships (seven) and most wins in one season (10). He is the only driver to win the crown jewel of motorsports _ the Indy 500, NASCAR’s Daytona 500 (1972) and the 24 Hours of Le Mans (1967).
Foyt Racing captured the 1999 Indy 500 title with Kenny Brack of Sweden at the wheel of the No. 14. Brack (1998) and Scott Sharp (1996) also won INDYCAR championships for the resident of Houston.
“Actually, believe it or not, I hardly make a decision that we don’t go over,” said Larry, who graduated from TCU in Fort Worth with a degree in communications in 2000. “Our working relationship has really been awesome. When I first came in, when he made the announcement that I was going to be team director, I didn’t want to just jump in and be the boss’ kid _ come in and change everything. I really had to get back into IndyCar mentality. I wanted to analyze the team, see what we were working with.
“As I’ve learned over the years, every year he’s given me a little bit more leeway to do things the way I’ve wanted. I think we’ve become a more engineering-based team, kind of what modern IndyCar racing is. It has changed a lot over the years. I love the way we work together. Like I said, there’s hardly a decision that him and I don’t go over.”
“And he’s younger,” A.J. quickly added. “He can tolerate more of that crap than I can nowadays. I’m still enthused; you just slow down when you get older. I’m sure some of y’all have slowed down yourselves. I’m not telling you something you don’t know. If you fall down now, if you fell down when you were 20, you bounce up bigger. Last year they took my knee out three times. ‘Damn, Doc, you’re supposed to be our friend. I’d hate to be your enemy.’ I had that staph infection. They put that PIC line in me. Got over that, that back deal come up. That’s due to some of the racing injuries through the years that’s developed.
“Like I said, I wasn’t supposed to live this long. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I got mixed emotions. Some said I wouldn’t live to be 22. I guess I made liars out of them, but I’m paying for it now.”
– John Sturbin can be reached at email@example.comNo Comment