Better Days Ahead For Foyt
Those that know me or have been following this site for a while, know what a fan I am of AJ Foyt. I was there to watch him race in his prime in the sixties and early seventies. I followed him throughout the eighties as his skills diminished with age and the winning stopped. I was back at Indianapolis as an adult to watch his final race in 1992, when he finished an unspectacular ninth – a result that looked good on paper until you realize it was earned mostly through attrition. I was also at the Speedway on Pole Day morning in 1993, when Foyt gave his tearful goodbye on the PA, moments after taking one final lap around the historic oval in the famous No.14.
Throughout his entire career, fans learned to either love him or hate him. His fiery temper alienated some, but endeared him to others – including me and my family. We all grew up Foyt fans and it carries on to this day. But even to his detractors, there was no denying his talent when he got behind the wheel of a race car. As tempestuous and unpredictable as he was off the track, he was smooth, cool and clean on it. The TV catch phrase “car control” had not been popularized when AJ was in his prime, but had it been – he would be have been the epitome of the cliché. He rarely put a wheel wrong and could put a car in places on the track that no one thought possible.
Unfortunately, the crusty Texan was not as meticulous when it came to running his team. As good as Foyt was even into his forties, his team was also aging and it showed. Foyt’s skill as a driver had already dropped by the eighties. His last win came at Pocono in 1981. But his skills had not dropped to the level of his crew. It is highly conceivable that Foyt could have added to his record win total of 67, had it not been for the ragtag level of his team. It was comprised of cronies from the fifties and sixties. As the sport became more engineer dependent in the eighties and beyond, Foyt’s team did not respond.
Foyt’s loyalty to the crew members that had been with him from his glory days was his downfall. Someone that ran their team like a business like Roger Penske or Chip Ganassi, would have purged the team of these aging cronies long before they would have been allowed to bring the level of the team down. Foyt apparently considered a position on his team as some sort of a lifetime achievement award. They could still be halfway competitive at Indianapolis, but for the remainder of the season, they pretty well went through the motions. For someone that had grown up idolizing this man and hoping he could somehow squeeze out a fifth Indianapolis 500 victory before hanging it up – this was painful to watch.
Once AJ stepped out of the cockpit for good, it got worse. Most of the aging crew remained. As the Foyt team closed out their time in CART before moving over to the new Indy Racing League in 1996, he went through a list of drivers that featured some promising rookies, some has-beens and some never would-be’s. Robby Gordon, Bryan Herta and Scott Sharp were lucky enough to have careers after their tenure on Foyt’s team. Although Eddie Cheever was on his last legs in CART, he extended his career against weak fields in the early days of the IRL and even added a 500 win to his resume – although most hardcore fans stick an imaginary asterisk next to that win. Mike Groff went on to have a decent career as well. The same cannot be said for forgettable drivers like Gregor Foitek, Brian Bonner and Fredrick Eckblom.
For the first few years of the Indy Racing League, AJ Foyt Enterprises was the big fish in a little pond. In a convoluted split-year schedule, Scott Sharp won the co-championship in the inaugural IRL season for Foyt. In 1998, Kenny Bräck won the championship outright driving for Foyt and then gave the Texan another Indianapolis 500 victory as an owner in1999, along with second place in the points.
The dawn of the new millennium did not bode well for AJ Foyt Enterprises. In fact, it signaled the beginning of more than a decade of futility for the team. Eliseo Salazar did not win a race and finished fourth in 200. It got worse. Airton Daré brought Foyt his last win in 2002 at Kansas. Since then it has been pretty much downhill for the team based in Houston.
A parade of no-names and old names came and went and rarely saw another opportunity afforded to them in the IZOD IndyCar Series., after their stint at Foyt. Names like Shigeaki Hattori, Felipe Giaffone, Jeff Bucknum, Darren Manning and Vitor Meira all saw their careers end at Foyt’s team. Even the great Al Unser, Jr. closed out his storied career with a whimper in the 2007 Indianapolis 500, while driving for Foyt. Then there was the reluctant grandson – AJ Foyt IV, who struggled in the shadow of his famous grandfather and buckled under the weight of the name he carried. He eventually moved on to Vision Racing and had some fairly unspectacular runs there before one final run at Indianapolis with Foyt’s team in 2009, when he finished sixteenth.
Last year, Mike Conway had a couple of decent runs and a podium finish at Toronto for Foyt’s team, before stepping out of the car just before the season finale at Fontana. Conway said he was uncomfortable on the high-speed ovals, and would only run non-ovals in the future. I’m not sure which took more courage – racing at a high-speed track like Fontana or telling AJ Foyt that you’re scared in the car. Either way, it opened the door for a new driver at Fontana.
Enter Takuma Sato. Japan has not produced legendary IndyCar drivers. (‘king) Hiro Matsushita did not set a very high standard as a trailblazer. Neither did the aforementioned Hattori, Kosuke Matsuura, Shinji Nakano, Hideshi Matsuda, Hideki Mutoh or even Japanese-American Roger Yasukowa. Up until recently, probably the most noteworthy Japanese driver was Tora Takagi; who turned in a couple of respectable fourth place finishes in CART, while driving for Derrick Walker. He also had a third and a fourth place finish in the IRL for Mo Nunn along with finishing fifth in the 2003 Indianapolis 500. What I remember most about Takagi was that he was a decent qualifier.
Takuma Sato has raised the bar for future drivers from Japan. He spent five full seasons in Formula One, along with two other partial seasons before joining the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2010. His first season with KV Racing Technology was a disaster as he finished twenty-first in the standings, with a best finish of ninth at Edmonton. He improved considerably the following year, with three Top-Five finishes and ending up thirteenth in the final standings. Last year, he moved over to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. While he made some questionable and aggressive moves, he was very fast. Sato was in a position to win the Indianapolis 500 last year, before crashing out while going for the lead in Turn One on the last lap. Some “experts” contend that had he waited until Turn Three to make his move, he would have been in a better position to pull it off. Whatever the case – a near-certain second place finish turned into a seventeenth place finish in the record books.
Although he finished fourteenth in points last season, Sato proved he was fast and not afraid to take chances. When it was announced this past winter that Takuma Sato would be joining AJ Foyt, more than a few eyebrows were raised. Many tired old clichés like The odd Couple, East meets West and Opposites Attract were dragged out to describe the curious new relationship.
What the skeptics didn’t see was that the traits that Sato showed last year – fast and aggressive – are what AJ Foyt covets most in a driver.
Credit Larry Foyt, AJ’s son, with making the necessary personnel changes the last couple of years to make this team competitive. Not only has he gotten rid of a lot of the aging dead weight, he revamped the engineering staff last season by adding Don Halliday, one of the more respected engineers in the paddock. Based on what we saw in pre-season testing and the first race of the season, adding Takuma Sato may be the final ingredient to bringing this proud name back to respectability.
Keep in mind, although Larry Foyt is making more key decsions behind the scenes, AJ Foyt still has a significant presence on race weekend. You can bet that Sato will continue to make a few moves that will backfire this year. You can also count on a couple of memorable explosions from AJ as a result. But the combination of Sato, Larry and AJ Foyt and Don Halliday has so far produced a very quick car on the track.
For once, I don’t feel like it is just wishful thinking when I say to keep an eye on this team this year. The occasional podium finish may not be enough to keep them satisfied anymore. For the first time in years, I think they are a bona fide contender to produce a victory this season. With Conor Daly rumored to be in the second Foyt car at indianapolis this May, the team that once was a career-ending destination for most drivers is suddenly building some credibility. It certainly looks like better days are ahead for AJ Foyt Enterprises.