Race Day Notes: A.J. Returns To 500’s Starting Grid

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 29 2016
Race day has dawned for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

Race day has dawned for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

INDIANAPOLIS – Hide the computers and wrenches along pit road. Open-wheel icon A.J. Foyt Jr. is returning to the grid for the start of Sunday’s 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.

bugindynotesFoyt, 81, began the Month of May with this lament: “Wish I was still driving, but I don’t know if I could pass the physical.”

Not a problem. “Super Tex” has agreed to participate in a special tribute to the starting field of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” The race’s first four-time winner, Foyt will be stationed at the front of the grid at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and instruct honorary pace car driver and rival team-owner Roger Penske and Row 1’s three starters to pull away for the Parade Laps. As those drivers roll off followed by 30 more, Foyt will salute each one.

“If A.J. Foyt wasn’t born, we would have to invent him,” said 1998 Indy 500 champion Eddie Cheever Jr., one of many drivers to have worked with Foyt during the Month of May at IMS.

“A.J. Foyt has always been my favorite driver and I know so many of our fans hold him in the same regard,” said Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles. “The 100th running is all about

A.J. Foyt makes a return to the Indy 500 starting grid for the 100th running of the race. (File photo courtesy INDYCAR)

A.J. Foyt makes a return to the Indy 500 starting grid for the 100th running of the race. (File photo courtesy INDYCAR)

honoring our history and A.J. is such a significant part of that, we couldn’t have this race without him being part of it for our fans and for each of our drivers. We’re excited to have him salute the men and woman who will write our next chapter.”

A native of Houston, Foyt started his professional racing career in U.S. Auto Club Midget Car competition before racing in the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in 1958. In 1961, he won his first Indy 500 in the No. 1 Bowes Seal Fast/Bignotti Trevis/Offy. Three years later, in 1964, he was a champion again in the No. 1 Sheraton-Thompson Watson/Offy.

In 1967, Foyt won in the rear-engine No. 14 Sheraton-Thompson Coyote/Ford, becoming the first and only man to win at Indy in both front- and rear-engine race cars. A decade later, in 1977, he became the first four-time winner, driving the “Poppy Red” No. 14 Gilmore Racing Team Coyote/Foyt that he owned.

During his varied career, Foyt also won NASCAR’s Daytona 500, the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 24 Hours of Le Mans _ a resume claimed by no other driver. He was named Co-Driver of the 20th

Down goes Arie Luyendyk, courtesy of a Victory Lane shot by A.J. Foyt in 1997.

Down goes Arie Luyendyk, courtesy of a Victory Lane shot by A.J. Foyt in 1997.

Century by The Associated Press, one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers and has been inducted into every major motorsports hall of fame. Additionally, Foyt’s race-day temper remains central to his legend.   

Following his retirement from the cockpit in 1993 after a record 35 consecutive Indy 500 starts, Foyt won the race as a car-owner in 1999 with Kenny Brack. This year, A.J. Foyt Enterprises has Takuma Sato, Jack Hawksworth and Alex Tagliani entered in Honda-powered cars.


Roger Penske, winningest car-owner in Indy car and Indianapolis 500 history, said he has received plenty of unsolicited advice from his four drivers on how to handle his honorary pace car driving duties for Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500.

Seems three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves, two-time/reigning champion Juan Pablo Montoya, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud all have offered inside tips on how to navigate Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.5-mile oval with right foot planted.

“I get a lot of advice from those guys, as you would expect,” Penske joked Saturday morning. “No, I told them that I’m just going to try to do my best, keep it off the wall for four laps. They have to do it for 200 laps. They shouldn’t be worried about me. I’ll try to do my best. They need to worry about the race.”

Penske, who is celebrating his team’s 50th anniversary season in motorsports, will be at the wheel of a unique version of the 2017 Chevrolet Camaro SS 50th Anniversary Edition. Team Penske has won a record 16 Indy 500s dating to 1972. “The Captain” notched his  181st Indy car win here in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis on May 14, with Pagenaud driving  Chevrolet’s 2.2-liter, twin-turbocharged V-6 engine and aero kit.

This marks the ninth time Camaro has paced the field and the 27th time for Chevrolet since 1948.

“Well, obviously it was a real honor and thrill when I received the communication, would I be interested in driving it,” said Penske, 79. “I guess I could have given that answer before they even sent me anything. But Camaro goes back when I think about racing _ our first car was a Corvette that we raced at Daytona in ’66 but the real success we had in our team was in ’67 and ’68 when we raced the Camaros in the Trans Am and won that series. So it’s a special car for us.”

With 455 horsepower, the Camaro SS requires no performance modifications to lead the field. “Driving the car around the track _ it’s a vehicle that came off the assembly line,” Penske said. “It’s not a special car that was made just strictly for the pacing of the race.”

Penske recalled that he was offered the chance to test an Indy car in the mid-1960s in a class including one Mario Andretti. “But I had a job and my boss wouldn’t let me off for a couple of weeks in those days,” Penske said. “And ironically, in February ’65 I became a Chevrolet dealer. And part of the deal with Chevrolet was that I wouldn’t race because they didn’t want to have a dealer being a racer.

“Of course, Andretti took his test _ you’ve seen it and probably read about it. He’s been very successful as a driver. Both of us on that decision, I think, went in the right direction.”

Once he passed his physical here, Penske went to work with three-time Indy 500 champion Johnny Rutherford, the series’ official pace car driver.

“It’s interesting to think about going around here at 100 or 110 miles an hour in a production car and think that the drivers are competing and qualifying at 130 miles an hour faster than that is amazing,” Penske said. “As you come down the straightaway, it’s narrow. It’s a narrow track and it’s flat. If you drive fast in Michigan, you get a ticket. But in Indianapolis, you can go as fast as you want. It was a lot of fun and Johnny Rutherford took me around and gave me the parameters of what I have to do.

“What I will do is we’ll pace the race. I’ll come in the pits as they take the green flag and I’ll stop at the garage opening, jump out. Johnny will jump in and I’ll go down to the pit box and hopefully work with Helio to get his fourth win. So we’ve got a little work to do.”

Penske noted that he first visited IMS in 1951, when he was 14-years-old. “So for me, it’s a long history,” Penske said. “It’s been a circuitous route for me to get here. But my success here is not my own, it’s because of everybody else who’s been involved in the team. As we go into the race, we’ll have over 600 years of experience around those four cars. So if we can compete, we want a fair, clean race.

“Someone will be the winner, I hope it’s us. But I would say thisThat to say you competed here, one of the teams to beat on the 100th, goes down in history for our company.”


It was 20 years ago this May that Buddy Lazier won the 80th edition of the Indy 500, in the debut season of Tony George’s Indy Racing League. Driving for team-owner Ron Hemelgarn, Lazier and his No. 91 Reynard/Ford Cosworth XB led 43 of 200 laps en route to a margin of victory of 0.695-seconds over Davy Jones.

Now 49, Lazier will make his 19th start at Indianapolis Motor Speedway from the 32nd of 33 spots in the field in the No. 4 Lazier/Burns Racing Chevrolet.

“I don’t know where all the time went,” said Lazier, whose small team failed to qualify for last year’s Indy 500. “My wife (Kara) and I think we were having so much fun it flew by, you know? We had kids right after we won. Within a few years we had little kids _ and these little kids look me in the eye now, and they’re driving race cars. You just can’t stop it, I guess. You can’t throw an anchor out and slow down time. It’s definitely gone by fast.

“It’s a wonderful thing to have in the trophy case. My face is on that trophy, I have a winner’s ring.  But you know, one of the things that haunts me, honestly, is in those 20 years I really thought that I could be able to get back to that Victory Lane. I thought the opportunity was there.” Lazier finished second to Eddie Cheever Jr. by 3.191-seconds in 1998 and to Juan Pablo Montoya by 7.184-seconds in 2000.

“When you win a race you put it on a shelf. This is such a special place to win,” said Lazier, a native and resident of Vail, Colo. “I can tell you there’s been probably four or five, even more, times that we were just a hair away from winning it again. And had it all gone well, I’d be a four-plus-type winner. It’s frustrating but at the same time you realize I’m so lucky that I did get it done.”

Lazier, who was last on Friday’s Carb Day speed chart at 209.981 mph, said it would be “an amazing race” if he could finish in the top-15. “I’m not finished,” Lazier said. “I still feel like I’m very much at the top of my game and so given a good race car, anything is possible.”

Long-term, Lazier said his 18-man team has a Verizon IndyCar Series plan in place led by veteran team manager/engineer/strategist Larry Curry.

“I think the team has legs,” Lazier said. “One of our frustrations was we weren’t building from year-to-year. At the end of Indianapolis everything dispersed and then came back together and we spent so much time just getting back to where it was. So we’ve taken a lot of steps to get things organized.

“I can tell you since Larry has become a part of this we’ve taken huge steps that we are now building from day-to-day. And we will continue to build when this event is over. And hopefully it’s a matter of time. When the series is able to take one more step and it’s just a little bit better for team-owner involvement we hope to be in line at that point.

“We have many plans that we would like to build this team around. So hopefully it’s the beginning of something. Certainly, we are building now…basically effective since last October we’ve started to really build and it’s good.”


Visions of his razor-thin loss to Sam Hornish Jr. in the 2006 Indy 500 follow Marco Andretti around Indianapolis Motor Speedway every Month of May. Hornish, of Team Penske, out-dragged Marco down the IMS frontstretch in the final few hundred yards to the checkered flag to win by 0.0635-seconds.

Marco did win Rookie of the Year honors, and the right to re-live the moment on tape for the rest of his life. “I have a different perspective,” said Marco, who will start his 11th Indy 500 from the 14th spot on the grid. “Back then I thought I would have had five of ‘em won by now. But it makes you respect the place, it makes you work hard, it makes you look at it from a different perspective and appreciate it.”

Marco logged 35 laps in the No. 27 Honda fielded by Andretti Autosport during Friday’s annual Carb Day practice, with a top speed of 222.821 mph. “I’ve had a helluva month,” Marco said. “I’ve had downforce problems, engine problems, wrong gear (no fifth) in qualifying. We haven’t had a lot go our way and I’m still confident. I ran Monday and the car is pretty close to where I need it to be. It’s going to be fun.”

Marco’s near-miss here in 2006 stoked rumors of a quick exit from domestic open-wheel racing and directly into Formula One. Grandfather Mario Andretti, the 1969 Indy 500 champion, was crowned F1 World Driving Champion in 1978 driving for Lotus. Marco’s father/team-owner, Michael, struggled through an aborted F1 season in 1993 at McLaren teamed with triple world champion Ayrton Senna.

“I love the (F1) idea,” said Marco, 29. “That’s the cream of the crop, absolutely. But I have so much unfinished business here. I feel that there’s been a lot of race wins that escaped me and I feel there’s a lot to do here. If I’m able to win Indianapolis and we need to win some road-course races to make them look at me as well. We just need to win some races, and from there, who knows?”

Meanwhile, there’s the “Andretti Curse” at IMS. Mario, Michael, John, Jeff and Marco Andretti have made a combined 68 Indy 500 starts since 1965. Mario’s victory in 1969 remains the lone Borg-Warner Trophy moment, and Marco said winning the historic 100th edition would be borderline cathartic.

“It would be huge, man,” Marco said. “I think you wouldn’t be able to stop the three of us from crying if that happened because all we would do is think of all the past years and all the wins that have escaped us as a family. So it would make up for a lot of it.  I have to stop myself from thinking how cool it would be.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 29 2016
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