Another New Day Ahead For AJ Foyt?
Yesterday, the news came that had been rumored for several days – AJ Foyt Enterprises confirmed their driver lineup for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season. As expected, Carlos Muñoz will drive the storied No.14. Conor Daly will drive the car that used to carry the No.41, but will now be the No.4.
I like Daly’s new number for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I always thought the No.41 was an ugly number. Other than being the reverse of “14”, it has no real significance. I’m sure someone will come up with an example, but there is no one in racing or any sports that carried or wore number “41”. Tony Kanaan ran “11” for years. The number “21” carries significance in blackjack and was always the famous number carried by the Wood Brothers in NASCAR. Many outstanding football players have worn “21”, including current Dallas Cowboys rookie Ezekiel Elliot.
Al Unser, Jr drove No.31 to an Indianapolis 500 victory and a CART championship in 1994. Gary Bettenhausen drove No.51 for John Menard in the early nineties. Eddie Cheever’s Rachel’s Potato Chips car also was numbered “51” when it won the 1998 Indianapolis 500. But “41”? It’s just a little…odd.
But there is an historic link between AJ Foyt and the No.4. When AJ Foyt won his third Indianapolis 500 victory in 1967, he did so driving what would become his famous No.14 for the first time. Starting fifth and finishing third in that race was Joe Leonard, driving an identical orange Coyote bearing the No.4. Foyt would not settle on the No.14 on a permanent basis until 1973.
Foyt had a history or running team cars numbered “82”, “83” and “84”. I will admit to being ignorant as to why he chose that sequence of numbers. In the eighties and early nineties, Foyt ran “48” on his second car. After he retired from the CART circuit for the 1993 season, Foyt tapped Robby Gordon to drive the No.14 – except at Indianapolis, where Foyt planned to run for a thirty-sixth straight time. Robby would drive No.41 at Indianapolis and then return to the No.14 the next week at Milwaukee. But fate intervened and Foyt abruptly announced his retirement the morning of qualifications. No car ran “14” at Indianapolis that year. Jack Arute reported that morning that the number would never run at Indianapolis ever again. As we all know, it did. The very next year.
Since then, Foyt ran “11” for his second car in the early IRL years. Lately it has been back to “41”, with “48” being run on a third car at Indianapolis as recently as 2015 with Alex Tagliani.
As far as I know, Foyt has run the No.4 only one other time since 1967, until now – fifty years later. Finishing first and third was not too shabby of a result back then. The other was George Snider in 1984, who started thirty-first and finished eleventh. Can they replicate that success again with Muñoz and Daly? Probably not, but time will tell.
In bringing in Carlos Muñoz and Conor Daly, I think AJ and Larry Foyt have upgraded their driver line-up. At the very least, they’ve lowered their car repair bill. As fast as Takuma Sato was in the No.14 since 2013, he took a lot of unnecessary chances and brought home a lot of damaged race cars. He had brought Honda money with him, but with Foyt expected to switch to Chevy in 2017 – Sato was suddenly dispensable.
It’s a shame what happened to Jack Hawksworth at Foyt for the last two years. I still maintain that Hawksworth is a good driver, but the results for the No.41 team of Hawksworth were simply abysmal. Those results may have been part of the reason to switch to a different number – just to switch things up. If you listened to Trackside last night, you heard that the “4” might also signify AJ’s four victories at Indianapolis.
There is one part of the Foyt announcement that I find a little peculiar. The No.14 team will still be based in Houston, but the No.4 team of Conor Daly will be based in Indianapolis. I’m not sure what it does to the team dynamics to have the two teams separated by more than a thousand miles. Does technology shorten the distance? Yes, but I’m old-school enough to think that it helps to have everyone under one roof. We’ll see how this pans out.
It seems that at some point of every offseason, we all talk about the positive offseason changes going on at Foyt. Whether it involves new engineers, drivers or whatever – we speculate every year that the Foyt team has turned the corner and that much better days are ahead. Then when the actual season comes around, they lay an egg on an annual basis. It could happen again this season, but I don’t think so. I think this could be (another) new day for AJ Foyt Enterprises.
I’ve never hidden my admiration for AJ Foyt. He is my favorite driver of all time. I saw him race in his prime in the sixties, and have never stopped being a fan. I always cheer for his team to succeed. But let’s face it – the bad times have outweighed the good several times over since the eighties. They were able to succeed in the early IRL days, but once the big teams from CART came over in the early 2000’s; Foyt’s team has been relegated again to backmarker status. I’m hopeful that’s about to change.
I think that Carlos Muñoz is one of the most underrated drivers in the paddock. If they can provide a decent car, he’ll make it go fast – and he usually brings the car home in one piece. Conor Daly is still learning his craft, but he showed us last year why fans have been clamoring for him to have a fulltime ride. He still needs some seasoning on ovals, but as he gains more and more experience – I think he’ll develop into something special.
My hope is that these two young drivers can bring better days to AJ and Larry Foyt. It isn’t for a lack of effort that they haven’t been successful. With ABC Supply back on board for two more years, new drivers, (probably) new engines, a new locale for one team as well as a new number – let’s hope that the stars align and the Foyt team finally gets over the hump. I’d say they’ve earned it.