Another Parting Of The Ways At AJ Foyt Racing
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.
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