Will Vitor Drive For Foyt Next Year?
When I heard that Vitor Meira would not make his return to the cockpit of the AJ Foyt ABC Supply car at Homestead, I couldn’t help but think to myself; “Uh-oh”. The doctors don’t feel that a race weekend is the best time for him to step back into a car for the first time. I agree. Instead, Meira will test the Foyt car at IMS on Sep 30. No one has really talked about it, but I still think that one of the biggest mysteries of the upcoming offseason is — who will actually be driving the famous No. 14 at the beginning of the next season?
I recall in 1994, when Davy Jones started the season for Foyt. Through the first few races, the results were abysmal and Foyt gave Jones the boot before Indy. During the first week of practice at Indy, Bryan Herta got the call to drive Foyt’s primary car at Indy as teammate to John Andretti’s pre-planned one-off effort. The results were very promising as Herta finished ninth in his initial outing for Foyt while Andretti finished tenth. Herta backed up that impressive result the next week with a tenth place finish at Milwaukee. Following that was a ninth place finish at Belle Isle. After an eleventh place qualifying effort at Portland, his Ford-Cosworth engine let go and he finished twenty-seventh. At Cleveland, Herta finished a mediocre thirteenth.
Still, It seemed that Super Tex had finally found his driver – an eager young talent that seemed to be willing to listen and learn. Then disaster struck at Toronto. Herta spun and violently slapped the outside wall, destroying the right side of the car and crushing his pelvis in the process. This effectively ended his career with Foyt. While Herta was on the mend, Foyt replaced him in the cockpit with Eddie Cheever who did an admirable job. Foyt opted to keep Cheever in the cockpit for the following year.
Unlike football, it is common to lose your job to an injury in racing. Now fifteen years later, Foyt is faced with the same problem. After some forgettable races this past spring, Vitor Meira broke his back in what was an already gutsy performance at Indy. Prior to his crash, Meira had driven well and ran as high as sixth. To reward him for his effort, his crew set him ablaze on one of his pit stops. With burning fuel all over his firesuit, Meira calmly closed the visor and remained in the cockpit while his crew doused the blaze with water. With burns on his face, Vitor calmly exited his water-soaked pit and rejoined the race on the lead lap. Ultimately however, his day would end at Methodist Hospital with a fractured lower vertebrae – the result of a scary crash in which Raphael Matos put him head first into the wall in turn-one.
After a comical performance with Paul Tracy in the cockpit at Milwaukee and a poor showing by AJ Foyt IV at Texas, Ryan Hunter-Reay moved into the Foyt car in a rather unique arrangement through Vision Racing. The results have been mixed at best. Through ten races together for the 2009 season, the team has produced only two top-ten finishes – a seventh place finish at Toronto and a fourth place effort at Mid-Ohio. Other than that, it has been a series of bad finishes and DNF’s.
The question lingers heading into the offseason – who will be in the cockpit of the No. 14 in March? Will it be Vitor Meira, Ryan Hunter-Reay or a third unknown driver? While Hunter-Reay didn’t set the world on fire at Foyt, Meira did worse. Vitor’s best race was the season opener at St. Petersburg where he brought the Foyt car home in ninth. It was pretty much downhill from there heading into Indy.
I had made the comment last spring to a couple of friends that Vitor Meira wouldn’t make it into July before being booted by Foyt. I just couldn’t see them working together. I’ve been following AJ Foyt for a long, long time and I feel like I’ve got a pretty good idea of the type of driver that can work reasonable well with AJ – although they all end up getting fired – and Vitor Meira isn’t it. Don’t ask me to explain it because I can’t. It’s more of a gut feeling. Now that he has been injured, will Foyt be inclined to give Meira another shot?
As much as I like and respect AJ Foyt, I would really like to see Vitor Meira land somewhere with good equipment. I thought he was a pretty good fit at Panther, although their equipment was not top tier. Unfortunately, they became smitten with Dan Wheldon when he became available and they jettisoned Vitor. Meira landed about the only place he could last offseason. I’d like to see him somehow teamed up with Tony Kanaan and Danica Patrick at AGR. Meira and Danica were teammates in 2005 at Rahal-Letterman. I think their personalities mesh pretty well. Of course, there isn’t really a spot unless Hideki Mutoh and the Formula Dream sponsorship go elsewhere.
And what about Ryan Hunter-Reay? Currently, he is “on loan” to Foyt from Vision Racing. But taking a quote from Curt Cavin last week, he says that Vision is closer to running NO cars next season than two. Will Hunter-Reay return to Foyt if Vitor isn’t there? If given the choice, who would Foyt take? Ryan Hunter-Reay and Vitor Meira have earned the right to be in better cars next season. But Foyt’s team always makes strides about every two or three years. They are on schedule to have a decent season next season. Larry Foyt has shown that he has the potential to be a much better car owner than he was a driver.
While Danica’s whereabouts for 2010 garner all of the headlines, at least two dominos in the offseason puzzle have their fate tied to AJ Foyt. Who knows, there may be another up and coming American Sprint car sensation like Eliseo Salazar waiting in the wings to be the latest to fill the cockpit of the famous No. 14. There are a lot of questions surrounding Foyt’s team for next season. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. Stay tuned.