Another Parting Of The Ways At AJ Foyt Racing

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With all the focus on what happened at Las Vegas, a lot of storylines have been justifiably overlooked during the last couple of weeks. It’s almost an afterthought that Dario Franchitti earned his fourth IZOD IndyCar Series title in four seasons of competition. If a story like that has been an oversight, then you can imagine a story involving an opening at a third tier team has been shuffled to the backburner during these trying times. But I do think it is a topic that is worth examining.

Prior to the Las Vegas race, we learned that driver Vitor Meira and AJ Foyt Racing have decided to part ways. Quite honestly, I never thought this was a good pairing ever since the quiet Brazilian signed with the tempestuous Texan in 2009.

Most know that AJ is my all-time favorite driver, so I’ve always hoped for good things for his team – even though it has been pretty painful to watch his team struggle for results over the years. I’ve also been a big fan of Vitor Meira, ever since he came upon the IndyCar scene driving for John Menard for the last four races of the 2002 season – winning a pole in only his fourth career race at the season finale at Texas, where he eventually finished third.

Meira drove a second car at Team Menard in 2003 before moving to Rahal-Letterman Racing in 2004 and 2005. In hindsight, these years represented Meira’s best opportunity to win a race, as RLR was one of the few teams to have the coveted powerful Honda engine. Meira had four second place finishes and nine other top-five finishes at RLR, but never was able to snag that elusive first win as he finished seventh and eighth in points both years.

Meira moved on to Panther Racing for the 2006 season. That year, Panther struggled with little or no sponsorship, yet Meira put together what many considered his best season. As Panther flirted with folding altogether as a cloud of uncertainty hovered over the team, Meira strung together seven top-five finishes in a fourteen-race schedule and finished fifth.

Panther got back on solid footing when they secured a solid sponsorship program with the National Guard beginning in 2007. Curiously enough, Meira’s results tapered off dramatically over the next two seasons, finishing twelfth and thirteenth respectively. Meira was released after the 2008 season, when Dan Wheldon became available after his stint at Ganassi ended. Meira wasn’t on the market for long, as AJ Foyt Racing dumped Darren Manning in order to sign Vitor.

As most drivers do at Foyt’s team, Vitor Meira struggled. Things started off with an unremarkable ninth place finish at St. Petersburg and went down from there with a fourteenth at Long Beach and a twenty-second at Kansas. After a broken back in a frightening crash at Indianapolis, Meira was done for the 2009 season. I always maintained that may have prolonged his stay with Foyt. Had he not been injured and continued the terrible results, I really don’t think Meira would have survived the 2009 season with Foyt.

Instead, he got a do-over in 2009 and started the next season on the podium in his home country of Brazil. That was as good as it got in 2010, but there were some decent finishes sprinkled in with many bad ones. The same could be said for 2011, but I thought that they were doing about as good as expected. So even though I thought it was an unusual pairing initially, I was caught off guard when it was announced they were parting ways.

I’m not sure where either party goes from here. Generally speaking, most drivers’ careers don’t recover after a full-time stint at Foyt’s team. Some will point to Ryan Hunter-Reay, but remember – he was on loan from Vision Racing in 2009 as a substitute for the injured Vitor Meira. He was never considered anything other than a fill-in. In fact, the last driver I can think of that went to another team as a full-timer was, ironically enough – AJ Foyt IV.

The list of drivers that have driven for Foyt is long and unimpressive. Just in the past ten years, It is littered with names like Shigeaki Hattori, Donnie Beechler, Jeff Bucknum, Airton Daré, Felipe Giaffone, Darren Manning and Meira. What is the common thread among all of the drivers listed other than Meira? They never drove in IndyCars again after their stint with Foyt. Whether or not Vitor Meira suffers the same fate remains to be seen.

Probably the biggest perceived knock against Vitor Meira is that he lacks the killer instinct. He’s just too nice of a guy. Detractors point to that as why he was a second place bridesmaid so many times, but could never close the deal. I don’t know if that’s the problem, but even when he had a significant horsepower advantage with Honda in 2004 –05, he couldn’t put the car in the winner’s circle.

I have a hard time seeing where Vitor might fit in next season. There aren’t that many open seats. For a variety of reasons, I don’t see him in Michael Andretti’s No.7 Go-Daddy car that had been tabbed for Dan Wheldon. There may or may not be open seats at Dreyer & Reinbold or Dale Coyne Racing. I have to assume there will be no movement at Chip Ganassi’s satellite team between Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball. Things are a little up in the air at Sam Schmidt Motorsports, but I’ve got to think that Josef Newgarden figures in somewhere with SSM. Newman/Haas seems set with Oriol Servia and James Hinchcliffe.

Could he be paired with friend and countryman Tony Kanaan at KV Racing Technology? If so, EJ Viso and his sponsorship dollars would have to move on to make room. I don’t see Takuma Sato going anywhere, but he is a Honda man deep down; as KV moves to Chevy in 2012.

That may be the best bet for Meira unless Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan returns for a full season. I could see him reuniting with his former team of his glory days. I’d still like to think that Pippa Mann will figure into RLL’s plans somehow, but after the past three months that Pippa had – I wouldn’t blame her if she hung up her helmet for good. I hope not, but it’s possible. I’d love to see a Vitor-Pippa pairing at RLL, but I don’t think that’s likely.

As curious as I am if Vitor will land on his feet, I’m equally curious about who Foyt may sign for the famous No.14. AJ Foyt Racing has been signed at one of the Honda teams for 2012. Conventional wisdom has Honda ahead of Chevy and especially Lotus – but you never know. That uncertainty is what makes multiple manufacturer involvement so intriguing in the off-season. Quite honestly, unless a driver had nowhere else to turn – it’s be a tough sell to convince a driver to go with Foyt, based on past results.

There are several recent Firestone Indy Lights graduates out there starving for rides, but it isn’t like Foyt to put too many rookies in his car. Other than AJ IV, the only other rookies I can think of that Foyt has put in his primary car are Mike Groff in 1991, Robby Gordon in 1993 and Bryan Herta in 1994. Since then, Foyt has leaned towards hiring journeyman veterans. I tend to think he may go that route again, but I have no idea who it might be. It probably won’t happen until the other dominos fall among the top-tier teams.

As predictable as it was that Vitor Meira and AJ Foyt would part ways, it’s a shame it didn’t work out. Now, they are both trying to figure out if they can go to a situation that was as good as the one they had.

George Phillips

Please note: There will be no post here on Monday. I have a full weekend that includes my being a glutton for punishment. I will be attending “The Futility Bowl” between the Colts & Titans. Although the Colts are winless and the Titans are 3-3, the Titans have been playing like a winless team also. It should be underwhelming. I will return here on Wednesday Nov 2. Have a nice weekend. – GP

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14 Responses to “Another Parting Of The Ways At AJ Foyt Racing”

  1. I think other teams may try to capture the same results Newmann Haas had this year by pairing a solid veteran with a promising young driver and with that said, solid veterans with Vitor’s pedigree are few. With Wilson all but gone at DRR, Vitor makes good sense as a mentor for Bia at DRR. With Jay Howard/Pippa Mann likely being a tryout between the two, RLLR could be looking for a vet to pair with either of them.
    Vitor’s chances will be helped dramatically if he can find some support from a Brazillian sponsor. But with the second race down there falling off the map for 2012 and drivers like Raphael Matos having more lead time to beat the bushes, Vitor may be in the situation that Tony Kanaan was last year. Which is too bad.

    • Brian McKay Says:

      If Kanaan couldn’t get sponsorship for deFerran/Dragon Racing, I don’t see how Meira can get a sponsor after failing to win a race 2002-2011. Even Whanica won a race.

  2. Going to see the Colts/Titans? You are a brave man, George!

    I’ve also been trying to figure out where Vitor goes. I wonder if it’s just not back to Brazil for stocks or something. He’s a nice guy, and however it goes, I hope it works out for him.

    As for Foyt, really hoping the Baguette rumors pan out. I’d really like to see Baguette in a funded ride, because it doesn’t seem like he’s got a full budget to secure a seat otherwise. I could be wrong.

  3. carburetor Says:

    In my opinion, if there is a future for Meira, it would be wholly dependent on his ability to bring sponsorship. He’s always seemed like a competent driver, but not necessarily a true contender for victory. It seems as though he is easy on equipment though–which would make him attractive for low-budget teams.

    As a kid, Foyt was my hero, but let’s face it–his team is truly a non-factor in this series. Even Dale Coyne and his shoestring operation have been more competitive the past few years with the Wilson victory, and Bourdais’ efforts this year. I have often wondered why Foyt still bothers. I realize that when Tony George was starting the new league, Foyt gave credibility to that effort, but his team hasn’t been much beyond a parade participant since the early days of the IRL. With his legendary status, I surmise nobody relishes the thought of actually driving for him, so to me it is no wonder he gets journeymen drivers. I would look for another “no-name” driver to be in his car in ’12–unless Honda insists on someone better….

  4. I thought Rick Mears was you all time favorite.

  5. Pretty much everyone will be at square one for 2012 and it is as good to get a new driver. I am looking forward to what Larry will be doing. I have all the confidence in the world in AJ’s son and with what the team achieves.

  6. Savage Henry Says:

    It has to be hard to drive for a living legend. Even if Foyt is wrong, what are you going to say?

    It is a shame that the Foyt team has been unable to put together a competitive program. I don’t really see that changing anytime soon, though.

    I’d love to see Baguette get a full-time ride next year, but I’m afraid that he is going to get steamrolled by AJ’s persona like so many others have. I don’t see a quiet European working out there.

    I’d like to see somebody in that seat that came up the way AJ did through the dirt track sprint/midget circuit. A foul-mouthed beer-drinking country boy to butt heads with AJ might be what the doctor ordered. They would fight all the time but AJ might develop respect for a guy like that. They not be competitive on the road courses, but the Foyt team isn’t competitive on road courses anyway, right? I know that there aren’t any of those kind of guys going into Indycar racing. Is Bryan Claussen like that? Does Tony Stewart have a little brother or a cousin?

    If nothing else it would be entertaining to have someone with that kind of personality in the series.

    • Bryan Clauson is a very nice kid (off-track) with a LOT of talent on track. He might be the perfect fit for ovals with A.J. He could do the job at the Speedway. While it may be (driving for A.J.) a dead-end road in the IICS, at least he would bring an outstanding USAC dirt-track background to Indy again. He didn’t drive at all on the road courses last year in the FIL series, and it is understood why. I’d rather not see drivers be “ringers” for ovals vs. road courses, but perhaps it would open owner’s eyes (again) to the fact that there’s a LOT of talent in the USAC Midget and Sprint car series’ and give some young talent the opportunity to stay in the open-wheel family as they seek to move up. For Foyt that may make the most sense – just as it did for Coyne with Seabass in the car for the twisty tracks and Lloyd on the ovals.

  7. I was about to write that Vitor’s too good to not get a ride. Problem is, so was Wheldon. So I’m forced to bite my tongue; yeah, it’s possible that he’ll get stranded. It would be terribly unfortunate, but it’s possible.

    Re: AJ Foyt’s team – I don’t understand what’s going wrong there. Foyt knows what’s needed; I’m just wondering if he’s having trouble lining up the right folks to help him out. Or if there’s something else wrong. I figured he’d be one of the top teams there, not one of the bottom. That bugs me. I just wish I knew what was wrong.

  8. Brian McKay Says:

    George has mentioned previously that Mr. Foyt is loyal to a fault. I think Mr. Foyt should’ve drafted an Indy Lights race winner, even championship winner, such as Cunningham, Lloyd, Hildebrand, Hinchcliffe, … and thus have a better chance of winning a race.

  9. I miss the days of Scott Sharp, Kenny Brack and Davey Hamilton running and winning in some cases for Foyt! That is the “IRL” that I miss!

  10. [...] Another Parting Of The Ways At AJ Foyt Racing [Oilpressure]There’s a point in this blog from George where he lists all of the drivers who never turned another lap in IndyCars after parting ways with A.J. Foyt. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking that intimating even INDIRECTLY that A.J. is a career-killer could earn George a bulldozer up the wazoo. BE VIGILANT, GEORGE. EVER VIGILANT! [...]

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