Will Hunter-Reay Click With Foyt?
When I first heard that Ryan Hunter-Reay was joining AJ Foyt Racing for the remainder of the season, I felt sympathy…but I’m not quite sure for whom. I grew up as a fan of AJ Foyt. In my opinion, he is the greatest driver that ever lived. Period. Some may argue against that stance, but I’ll never be swayed. His body of work is just too impressive. I was there when he was in his prime, I saw him race his last race in 1992 and I was present on Pole Day of 1993 when he retired.
But my admiration of Foyt the legendary driver does not cloud my realization that Foyt’s team has been a perennial bottom-dweller for most of the past twenty-five years. The reasons for this are many and I will one day devote an entire column to the subject. But to sum it up, AJ Foyt Racing has been a victim of cronyism, blind loyalty and general incompetence – not what you would expect from the man in charge. And have no doubt…AJ Foyt is still very much in charge.
Over the last few years, AJ has tried to delegate some responsibilities to others. He finally gave in and hired a full-time engineer and relinquished most of the day-to-day duties to his son, Larry. The dominating traits that made AJ Foyt so successful in the cockpit of a racecar have hindered his performance as a car owner.
Larry Foyt, by all accounts was a terrible driver – both in IndyCars and NASCAR; but he seems to really have a handle on the details of re-building a race team. Unfortunately, when push comes to shove – AJ has the final word on most subjects, and it’s not always the right one.
The team seemed to be making strides for the last couple of years when Darren Manning was the driver. Manning, however, seemed to deal himself a deathblow when he chose to park the car a couple of times due to tired arms. That would not set well with ANY car owner, much less AJ Foyt.
When Vitor Meira became available last fall, Foyt dumped Manning and snatched up Meira. I always considered it a curious hire. It looked good on paper, but Foyt and Vitor Meira don’t seem to have personalities that mesh well. I privately mentioned to a few friends that I didn’t think the partnership would last into July. Once Meira was seriously injured at Indy, it became a moot point.
When the team embarrassed themselves and AJ by providing Paul Tracy with one of the worst handling cars ever, it served as a wakeup call. After AJ IV ran (and crashed) the car at Texas, it was announced last week that Ryan Hunter-Reay would move into the seat for the remainder of the season.
Last year, I had a lot of admiration for Ryan Hunter-Reay. He had pumped new energy into a struggling Rahal-Letterman team. RHR had replaced Jeff Simmons in the Ethanol car and seemingly brought it to life. He ran to a solid sixth place at the 2008 Indianapolis 500 while garnering rookie of the year honors. RHR appeared poised to take his first IRL victory at Texas, before he tangled with Marco Andretti. He finally broke through into the win column with an impressive run at Watkins-Glen. Things certainly appeared on the rise for Ryan Hunter-Reay. He was an impressive and likeable, young American driver with movie star looks. He seemed to be on the cusp of becoming the next star of the league.
Over the off-season, things started to turn. Whatever the timing of events, Rahal-Letterman lost the Ethanol sponsorship and could not replace it. RHR was told he could look elsewhere. In the meantime, Hunter-Reay had signed a personal contract with Izod – the same company that had invested in a new alliance with the league. It would be an embarrassing situation having a driver who didn’t even have a ride, to serve as a spokesperson for their new partnership with the IRL. He tested at HVM Racing, in a possible second car, as teammate to EJ Viso but it never came to be. Finally, at the eleventh hour – RHR was signed by Tony George to pilot a second car at Vision Racing, as teammate to Ed Carpenter.
At the season-opening race at St. Petersburg, everything came together. RHR drove to a very impressive second-place finish with almost no time in the car. Things weren’t quite as great at Long Beach where RHR started twelfth and finished eleventh. Still, he headed to Kansas sitting fourth in total points. That’s when disaster struck.
His car was incredibly off the pace all weekend in Kansas. It was the slowest car on the grid, yet he managed to soldier it home for a fifteenth place finish. Then at Indianapolis, things went from bad to worse. His car was horrible. The same team that had set Foyt IV on fire twice at Indy the previous year, seemed clueless. RHR put it into the wall once on the exit of turn two in practice. The car seemed slower as the month wore on.
Hunter-Reay did himself no favors, while not so subtly hinting that his teammate was getting better equipment than he was. His million-dollar smile morphed into a child-like pouty face. He scowled his way through the rest of the month. In interviews, the dark cloud inside him came through in every word he said. He literally made it into the field at the last minute, bumping Alex Tagliani after the gun went off on the last day. RHR started thirty-second and finished thirty-second, clouting the inside wall hard coming out of turn four, and mercifully ended his Month of May.
After starting eighteenth at Milwaukee, he managed a respectable twelfth. That was followed by a chronically slow car at Texas where he managed to bring it home in an unremarkable sixteenth place. His season that had started so well at St. Pete had quickly unraveled to where he was a definite non-factor. Surprisingly, he still sits in tenth place in points.
At that point, something happened to make Tony George approach AJ Foyt about taking on Hunter-Reay for the season. I think RHR may have had a voice in it. I mentioned that I HAD a lot of admiration for Ryan Hunter-Reay. That quickly dissipated when he started the glum, sourpuss mode at Indy. I am of the thought that regardless of what is happening on the track with a car, a driver should take the high road and not blame the team publicly. No matter how incompetent the team may be – and I do think that the second Vision team IS incompetent – this should be discussed behind closed garage doors, not aired out to the media. That usually accomplishes nothing, as was the case here.
Woe be unto Ryan Hunter-Reay if he begins to disparage AJ’s crew to the media. He might find himself in the same position that Arie Luyendyk did that night in Texas – face down in the bushes from the wrong end of a backhanded slap. I don’t think he would look good in his next Izod commercial with a black eye.
The mark of a true champion is not only in how they handle success, but also in how they deal with adversity. Ryan Hunter-Reay seems like he needs to grow up a little bit more in that department, because I can tell you now…there will be adversity with Foyt’s team. He’d better learn to deal with it.