The Annual Giant Step Forward

For the past several years, it has almost seemed like a rite of spring to proclaim that this is the year that AJ Foyt Enterprises takes a giant step forward. More times than not, however, the optimism is transformed into reality at about the halfway point in the season. Then the next spring, after a disappointing second half of each season, the optimism returns and the whole cycle repeats itself.

Being a lifetime Foyt fan, I’m guilty of buying into the optimism myself – even though common sense tells me not to.

But this season, I really sense something different. The presence of a full-time second car is one reason I think things will be different. Another reason is the driver of that car – second-year driver, Jack Hawksworth.

Hawksworth’s stats from last year were certainly not eye-popping. In fact, they were quite pedestrian and about what you’d expect from a rookie driving for a single-car, low-budget team such as Bryan Herta Autosport. He finished seventeenth in points, which wasn’t too bad considering he did not start at Pocono. He managed only three Top-Ten finishes with one podium. Just by looking at the score sheet from each race, one might conclude that Hawksworth was a very ordinary driver.

But if you watched him drive any last year, you know that Jack Hawksworth was anything but ordinary. He drove the wheels off of his car in several races. He missed Pocono due to a heavy practice crash in Turn One of the Tricky Triangle. He was on the edge and got a little too close. It happens. Those drivers that never get too close to the edge, seldom succeed in the long term.

Now he has moved to a team where he has an experienced teammate, and a much more stable financial situation. Although Foyt’s team hasn’t had much in the way of results lately, it is one of the few teams in the series that provides fully-funded rides.

Most know that I grew up an AJ Foyt fan. I was there as a kid in the sixties to watch him race in his prime. I was also present when he drove in his last Indianapolis 500 in 1992 and also when he drove his ceremonial last lap on Pole Day in 1993. Year after year, I pulled for Foyt over anyone else. In the latter years, I usually ended up being disappointed.

It’s rare that a great driver makes for a great owner. Michael Andretti is the rare exception; while Bobby Rahal comes closer to the norm. Average to below average drivers tend to make much better owners – such as Roger Penske & Chip Ganassi. AJ Foyt, in my opinion, is the greatest driver ever. But it would be more than just a stretch to say that he is one of the greatest car-owners ever.

Foyt’s problem as an owner was that he operated on emotion. Passion and emotion can be a good thing in the cockpit of a car; but not so much when making long-term personnel and business decisions. That’s when patience is needed and that’s not a word that usually applies to AJ Foyt.

But things are different now. Slowly but surely, AJ has been giving his son Larry more say so in the day to day running of the team. Nowadays, this is pretty much Larry’s team. AJ is still around the team and is far more than a figurehead, but Larry is calling most of the shots now – notice I said “most”. Larry has indicated that the team is not opposed to running a third car, but he has also said that AJ will have the final say on that matter.

To be blunt, Larry Foyt was not a good driver. He tried stock cars and Indy Cars without success. Obviously, his talents lie elsewhere. I’m thinking his talents lie in his ability to run a race team. Listen to him talk – he is very matter-of-fact and no-nonsense, yet has enough tact and presence of mind to be pleasant. AJ could get away with being surly. Larry can’t.

I’m thinking that Larry Foyt, Takuma Sato and Jack Hawksworth will make a good team and will have just enough AJ mixed in – especially in May – to make it interesting. You can laugh all you want about AJ being stuck in a time warp and doing things the old-fashioned way; but every driver that has driven for him says that he still knows a ton of tricks on how to get around Indianapolis the quick way. If I were a young driver, I’d sure pay attention to anything that man said about Indianapolis – computer or not.

Credit ABC Supply for stepping up and allowing a second car to happen the right way and not just winging it. I know Larry was hoping it would happen last year, but he has now grown the team into a full two-car program; which is vital if you want to succeed in today’s world. The successful one-car team is going the way of the powdered wig.

It’s good that they have secured proper funding for the year. Hawksworth is still young, still learning and doesn’t mind taking chances. Sato is an experienced veteran, but he still doesn’t mind taking chances either. I’m probably not going out on a limb when I say that the two may tear up a lot of equipment this season – especially since they are driving Hondas, which are apparently more injury-prone than the Chevrolets.

But if they tear up too many cars, AJ may enforce his will. He won’t stay silent forever, and even Larry’s patience may wear thin. Something tells me that both Foyts may tend to be more patient with Hawksworth than Sato. This will be Sato’s third year with Foyt. Two years ago, he won the first race for the team in more than a decade. He was also the points leader going into the Month of May. But he spun at Indianapolis and finished thirteenth and consequently lost his momentum on his way to finishing seventeenth in points.

I don’t wish Sato any misfortune, but it would not totally surprise me if Jack Hawksworth is driving the famous No.14 next year and Takuma Sato is elsewhere. I think the results in the opening race at St. Petersburg was indicative of the competition that will develop between the two drivers – Hawksworth finished eighth, while Sato finished thirteenth. I think Hawksworth will outperform Sato at most tracks. When Sato feels pressure, he presses and tries to force the issue. Historically, that is where he has found trouble. That could lead to problems if Sato’s repair bills are too high and makes his crew work overtime building his car back each week.

Will either Foyt driver win the Verizon IndyCar Series championship this year? No. But they won’t be backmarkers either. I think that Foyt is now up to a solid second tier team – pretty much on the same level with KVSH Racing, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and CFH Racing. They’re not up with Penske, Ganassi and Andretti; but I would rank then higher than Dale Coyne racing, Bryan Herta Autosport and even Rahal Letterman Lanigan. Some will disagree with my assessment, but that’s my opinion.

So the big question now is; if AJ Foyt Enterprises gets off to a good start in the first third of the season – will they fade as they did in 2013, or have they grown and developed enough that they can sustain it through the entire season? It would be nice to see at least one of the Foyt cars battling near the front in most of the races. If they are, we’ll know that they have finally taken that step and fulfilled the promise that they’ve shown every spring for the past several years. Personally, I hope they do it.

George Phillips


10 Responses to “The Annual Giant Step Forward”

  1. Brian McKay in Florida Says:

    Good blog post, George. I’m almost amazed that you repeatedly find topics to write of. Kudos to you.

  2. Always liked Hawksworth. He is just one of those drivers that is easy to cheer for. He has got a ton of talent. So does Sato, he just makes so many mistakes that it makes one think “WTH was he thinking?” I too think the team will evolve this year. It would be good to see each driver each win a race.

  3. One issue, Penske was not an average or worse driver. He was arguably one of the top road racers in the country when he retired to focus on his first car dealership.

    Agree with the points on Hawksworth. He is far greater than his stats on paper. Beyond the bright spots with Herta, he put on a great show jumping in a TUSC PC car for the first time, and reeling in the leader during his stint for the class win at I MS last July. Great kid, too.

    • After I wrote this, I had an idea someone would call me out on this – and rightfully so. You’re correct in Penske’s road racing abilities. My point was that he is known far more than an owner, than a driver. I’ll be willing to bet that some who read that had no idea that Penske was ever a driver, since it was so long ago. – GP

      • Bruce Waine Says:

        George – You’re aging some of us by using the phrase “since it was so long ago.” …………

        Would have preferred your using – It seems like only yesterday that Roger & Chip were racing back in the 60’s.. :o)

        Enjoy – Bruce

  4. billytheskink Says:

    The second car should prove very fruitful for the Foyt team. I would expect it to help Sato to qualify consistently among the top Hondas (he’ll race the same way he always does, though) and for Hawksworth to be consistently competitive at the road and streets. Ovals may be a different story, as they are a clear weakness for both drivers, especially Hawksworth.

    One thing I have noticed is that, despite the team’s decade plus of struggles, most of the drivers who have raced for Foyt over the years have good things to say about the team. Perhaps they simply fear AJ…

  5. Well, I am always for Foyt no matter what and it is good to see Larry become a very good team director. I now expect some good things going forward.

  6. George, you and I have the same opinion about AJ and were both in attendance at some of his milestone events. I also saw him race on some dirt short tracks into the late 60’s. One particular event I remember occurred in either 68 or 69 at a now defunct 1/2 mile high bank dirt track just north of Cincinnati called at various times Tri-County Speedway and Queen City Speedway. At the time AJ was shilling for for Ford and he would barnstorm local tracks running USAC Stockers. The scenario was AJ would show up and drive for the local Ford team with the hottest set-up and a USAC legal car. AJ would show up with a driving suit and helmet and race in a car he’d never seen before, often on a track he had never driven. At this particular track the hot Ford that was the Torino of an owner/driver, Joey Stricker who always came with 2 identical red and white Torinos on an open over/under tow rig. AJ drove one and Stricker the other. I don’t remember quals but in spite of numerous cautions AJ lapped all but about 10 cars to win the 100 lapper. AJ did a quick front stretch PA interview and was out the back gate in his renal car before all the dust settled. AJ’s lack of success in his later driving years and as as owner can be attributed to the fact that AJ races with his heart not his wallet, thank God somebody still does.

  7. George – there is nothing wrong with being an optimist. I agree that Hawksworth is a solid addition to the team and I think Sato will up his game now that he has a teammate. I have always respected AJ’s continued support of Sato, who I believe is another very good driver but one that takes a lot of chances. Hoping this is a good year for the team.

    So glad to see AJF on video this week with Robin Miller. It is good to see him looking healthier, stronger, and thinner. Am hoping to see him later in the season at Fontana.

  8. Doug Gardner Says:

    I like you George, grew up a Foyt fan. I have those seem feelings every year about those steps forward. Maybe this year some steps will be taken. Hawksworth will be a positive. I just was hoping for Conor Daly in that seat. Sato will always be there until Honda does not want him there. I was hoping Larry would go young with two very hungry drivers, but we will see. Daly should be in the series, but finances dictate how these thing go. He was faster than Newgarden and Hawksworth consistently on the way up til he left for Europe. Just hoping to see the 14 and the 41 at the top of the leader board. Seeing Daly in the 84 at Indy would be great as well.

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