Keep An Eye On The Foyt Cars

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Let me say on the front-end that I am a little bit biased. I will also let it be known that I am usually very wrong when it comes to predicting the future. That being said, I think the cars from the AJ Foyt stable are going to make some noise this May. I’m not saying that either of them will win, but I think they are going to be consistently fast this week and will be impressive this coming weekend. Now, based on my history of predictions – AJ Foyt Racing should probably just pack up and head home, because I’ve just doomed their chances.

It’s a rare thing for a winning driver to be a successful car owner. Lou Moore and Joel Thorne accomplished it in the early days of racing. Michael Andretti is the most vivid example in today’s world. It seems that the drivers with the more modest careers make the best car owners. Take Chip Ganassi and Robbie Buhl, for instance. Neither name has gone into racing lore for their driving exploits, but I would say they have made pretty decent owners. Andy Granatelli failed in his one attempt to qualify at Indianapolis, but will be forever known as Mister 500 due to his career as an owner. Roger Penske was a better than average sports car driver in the late fifties and early sixties, having won several races. But I’d say he is known most for his accomplishments as a car owner.

AJ Foyt’s accomplishments as a driver are unequalled. He is, without question, my racing hero. But as an owner, his record has been sub-par, except for winning at Indianapolis in 1999 with Kenny Bräck competing against the likes of Dr. Jack Miller, John Hollansworth and Wim Eyckmans. Prior to the first few years of the split, Foyt’s team was generally a backmarker in CART. With mostly underfunded start-up teams making up the bulk of the IRL grid in the late nineties, Foyt’s team was on top. Once the Penske, Ganassi, Andretti and Rahal teams all came over from CART, Foyt’s team status quickly slid back down the proverbial totem pole.

The Houston based team has been a revolving door of drivers that rarely resurface after being banished by AJ. Since 2003, names such as Airton Dare, Jeff Bucknum, Felipe Giaffone, Shigeaki Hattori, Darren Manning all quickly faded into history after being dumped by Foyt. His own grandson and namesake was fortunate enough to get a one-time shot at AGR in 2006 and a full-time ride at Vision Racing in 2008, after his tumultuous time with Grandpa. AJ IV is now employed full-time by his father-in-law, Jim Irsay – owner of the Colts.

But there is a new tone at AJ Foyt Racing. His son, Larry Foyt, is making many of the important long-term decisions for the team. Make no mistake, AJ still calls a lot of the shots – especially at the track. But at 76, AJ has finally conceded to let Larry have many of the day-to-day duties.

Larry Foyt is his own man. He is actually the biological grandson of AJ, but his adoptive son. We’ll leave that at that. His driving career was insignificant, at best. It is probably best for all concerned that he never steps into a stock car or IndyCar again. His greatest talents are in running a team. He is level-headed and doesn’t come off as being one to let emotions rule his thinking. The passion and emotion is part of what led to AJ’s greatness as a driver and has led to his detriment as an owner. Larry seems to see the big picture and knows what steps to take to get this proud team headed in the right direction.

Part of that is realizing that the team needs stability with its drivers. Vitor Meira is a good driver that has been on the cusp of a race win for years. His best chances were with Rahal-Letterman in 2004 & 2005, when he had a series of second and third place finishes. He spent three years at Panther – his best being his first year in 2006, when the team was searching for sponsorship. Once they found it with the National Guard, his performance dropped; although he always seemed to flourish at Indianapolis. When Dan Wheldon became available for the 2009 season, Panther dropped Meira. As the dominos fell, Darren Manning was dropped at Foyt in order to grab Vitor Meira.

It seemed like an unlikely pairing – the tempestuous Texan and the mild-mannered Brazilian. Their season got off to a rough start, then Meira was sidelined with an injury after a frightening crash at Indianapolis. He returned in 2010, finishing third at the season opener in Brazil, but managed no better than sixth for the rest of the season. He has quietly put together a very solid season for 2011. Although he had a rough outing in the monsoon at Brazil a couple of weeks ago, he still sits twelfth in points with all of the ovals – his and the team’s strong suit – still to race.

For the Month of May, Larry didn’t wait until late in the game to announce a second driver. Over six weeks ago, he confirmed that Bruno Junqueira would be Meira’s teammate in the No. 41 car. The team narowly avoided disaster yesterday, when Bruno’s cowling flew off on the backstretch and headed right towards Meira’s car. He was lucky to not crash, but still ran over lots of debris. Needless to say, AJ wasn’t very happy with his crew.

Vitor has had two respectable days in practice so far, turning the seventh fastest lap of the day on Saturday at 223.192 mph and was sixth quickest yesterday at 224.813. Bruno hasn’t been quite as impressive yet. In fact, he’s been slow.  Both days of practice saw him listed as only twenty-sixth quickest. Junqueira probably considers a full week of practice a luxury and is just feeling the car out. The last two years, he has hopped in a car with no seat time and put it in the field. I expect him to be up there by the end of the week. Being on-track on opening day is also a sign of change at AJ Foyt Racing. Rarely have we even seen one Foyt car out on the first day, not to mention two. To me this shows Larry is committed to being competitive.

Junqueira’s No 41 car is painted in the familiar coyote orange reminiscent of AJ’s 1967 & 1977 winners. Vitor Meira’s paint scheme for the No. 14 is supposed to conjure up memories of Foyt’s 1961 winner. Well, it doesn’t. Not at all. First of all, the 1961 Bowes Seal fast Special was trimmed in black, not blue. The markings look nothing like the ’61 car either. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very nice design, but it looks nothing like the ’61 winner.

With the tandem of fellow Brazilians Vitor Meira and Bruno Junqueira, along with some behind the scenes personnel moves – I think this team will continue the improvement they’ve already seen in 2011. Say what you will about AJ Foyt, but the man still knows a thing or two about getting around Indianapolis. The man still knows what he’s talking about.

This is a good setup. Let AJ worry about the cars on the track in May, but let Larry make all of the long-term decisions off the track and the engineers decide what to do with the car on road and street courses. Bruno is a fast driver and Meira’s ability is sometimes overlooked on the track. They have different strengths, which I think will complement each other this month.

So, while AJ was the great driver that may not have turned out to be the best owner in the IZOD IndyCar Series; Larry was the mediocre driver who will probably turn out to be a very fine owner in the series. It will be interesting to see what the Month of May 2011 holds for this team.

George Phillips

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7 Responses to “Keep An Eye On The Foyt Cars”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    I think that you are right in saying that Vitor and Bruno are both capable drivers. However, I think that the mistake that Foyt racing makes is, in fielding more than one car, particularly at Indy. I also think that Bruno being slow is indicative of poor setup rather than lack of ability as witnessed by the fact that Bruno was able to jump in a car last year and immediately put up good times. I think that the talent pool at Foyt Racing was spread somewhat thin to begin with. With two cars, even more so and leaving the cowl unfastened on BJ’s car is the first indication of that.

  2. Ron Ford Says:

    George, I don’t know how you find the time to put in the degree of research that is evident in your work here unless you have Donald Davidson on speed dial. I agree that the Foyt team seems to be on the upswing since Larry is more involved.

    In years past when I watched them at the Milwaukee Mile their pit crews just seemed to be a bit less organized than the top teams. If they can do good pit stops this year and avoid crashes I think they will have good results, although the incident yesterday with BJ’s cowling flying loose was disconcerting to say the least and could have been tragic.

  3. Ron Ford Says:

    I just wanted to add this George: I watched the recent press conference with AJ and a Chevrolet executive having to do with AJ driving the Chevy pace car this year. AJ was classic AJ, at once interesting, funny, classy, and down to earth. I thought then as I have many times since about how fortunate we are that the Trumpster was fired and AJ hired.

    Someone posted a very funny remark recently imagining that when the field comes around for the start, Dave Calabro says: “Oh wait! The pace car’s not pulling off! LOL Could happen

  4. HB Donnelly Says:

    I spent some time fence-clinging behind the Foyt pit box yesterday and, to Ron’s point, AJ Foyt Racing is full of typical big, middle-aged southern boys — but that’s what endears me and others to them. Your Penskes and Ganassis (heck, even KV Racing) have such bright. shiny, organized pit towers, and that’s just fine; AJ Foyt Racing is all about that sort of charm that comes from its owner that isn’t worried about appearances, just racing.

    By the way, I always used to just watch the cars roll by on practice days, but getting up-close with the teams is really cool and you get to see stuff you wouldn’t notice just watching the track. Example: yesterday, I watched EJ Viso parallel-park a golf cart and, predictably, run into a temporary fence behind his pit…I got a good laugh out of it.

  5. From my interactions with Larry, I can tell that he will do a great job of selling the team to sponsors. People are going to want to partner with him. Also, Larry may not have accomplished much as a driver, but he was a driver and he knows what it is like trying to get up to speed. One more point and that is if, as you say George, the drivers with the more modest careers make the best car owners, then Larry will be getting a Baby Borg one day. Being a Foyt guy, I will be pulling for him.

  6. Dax Cox Says:

    “Yesterday, I watched EJ Viso parallel-park a golf cart and, predictably, run into a temporary fence behind his pit…I got a good laugh out of it.”

    Might have been distracted by that long-legged blonde that was in the passenger seat.

    Foyt’s cars (at least Vitor’s) are right on pace. They are easy fast right now.

    Of course, they were plenty fast last year early in the month and were lost by the weekend. We’ll see.

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