Foyt Mixes Ingredients For New Recipe For Success Entering Indianapolis
For the past 50 years at the Indianapolis 500, there has been little dispute that A.J. Foyt was “The Man” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He was the hero of heroes and the definition of a legend. As the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, Foyt had established himself as the “grand champion” of the Indianapolis 500 and was the measuring stick by which all future legends would be compared.
Long after he climbed out of the cockpit of an Indy car and gave his tearful farewell on Pole Day in 1993, Foyt continued as a team owner and had all the swagger of a Babe Ruth.
This was a man who was as legendary for his colorful character as he was for his toughness that was forged out of the heat and humidity of Texas.
A.J. Foyt wasn’t a race driver – he was a winner.
With 67 Indy-car wins, including four Indy 500s and seven Indy-car national championships, Foyt was the measure of true greatness.
But in recent years, it appeared the sport was passing Foyt by. Bigger teams arrived, and drivers from all over the world descended upon the Indianapolis Motor Speedway while Foyt’s team and drivers struggled to keep up. Sure, where were moments of greatness and flashes of former glory, but entering the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season, it had been 11 years since Brazil’s Airton Dare had driven one of Foyt’s cars to victory in an IndyCar Series race July 7, 2002 at Kansas Speedway.
Although he was still one of the most popular figures at the Indy 500 every year, Foyt was given little chance at ever winning the big race or even winning an IndyCar race, for that matter.
Foyt recognized times were changing. In 2006, he brought his son Larry to the operation as team director. Foyt knew that in order for A.J. Foyt Racing to continue he would need to have a younger Foyt in charge of the team.
After working with a variety of drivers, Foyt was looking for a racer that reminded him of Kenny Brack, the talented driver from Sweden that drove Foyt’s team to the 1998 INDYCAR championship and the 1999 Indianapolis 500 victory.
Both A.J. and Larry saw something in Japan’s Takuma Sato that made them believe he could restore A.J. Foyt Racing to relevance.
In return, Sato returned Foyt to Victory Lane when Tokyo native Sato won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 21 in one of the most impressive performances any race driver has produced on a street course in recent years. Sato backed that up with a second-place finish in the Itaipava Sao Paulo Indy 300 presented by Nestle on May 5 in Brazil, which put Foyt’s team back on top of the IZOD IndyCar Series standings entering the 97th Indianapolis 500.
Ironically, the elder Foyt, 78, was not at Long Beach when Sato scored his impressive win. He was back home in Houston, suffering from a back injury that would require surgery.
“I was in a lot of pain,” A.J. Foyt said. “I couldn’t walk any more. My doctor was going to operate on a Wednesday after Long Beach, and the Kentucky Derby was coming up, and I had to be there. I told him to move it up, and he got it moved up one day. When Takuma won the race, I felt good. My wife was sitting there, and she was more excited that the Baby Boy – Larry – was going to win a race. She was so excited with five laps to go there, and I told her a lot could happen in five laps because it is a tough track. It was a great day.”
A.J. Foyt returned to Gasoline Alley for Indianapolis 500 Opening Day on Saturday, May 11, and he is back at the track that made him famous – the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And more importantly to Foyt, Sato’s victory at Long Beach and the team’s first place in the standings has brought tremendous rejuvenation to the entire operation.
Instead of A.J. Foyt Racing representing the past, it now has a chance to achieve further success in the future.
“It meant a lot to me,” A.J. Foyt said. “I was more happy with my son being there and making all the calls and the crew being recognized. I’ve been in Victory Circle a lot. I know what it is like. I would have liked to have been there, but I didn’t want anything taken away from the team and that way they would be recognized 100 percent. I was still recognized on TV.
“Right before the race, Sato said on TV, ‘My boss is sick; I need to win this one for him.’ That really meant a lot to me.”
Foyt’s decision to groom Larry as the team director and ultimate leader of the team in 2006 was a wise choice, although it has taken seven years for the team to win a race.
“That is one reason I wanted to put him in that position because he is younger,” A.J. Foyt said. “You want to stay there all day, but you have to recognize you can’t do what you used to do. I think the best thing is Jack Starnes has been with me on the team for almost 50 years. Somebody called him and asked what has changed on the team, and he said, ‘Instead of having a rider we have a driver.’ I thought that was pretty good.”
“Every day at the shop, Larry makes them practice pit stops, and that is paying off. You can still do it with a one-car team – you just have to stay on the ball.”
Larry Foyt was born Feb. 22, 1977. He was just a few months old when Foyt became the first four-time winner Indy 500 winner.
When Larry was a youngster, A.J. was more than just a father figure – he was a real-life superhero.
“It’s why I got into auto racing and motorsports,” Larry Foyt said. “When I was a kid and I would stay in the room next to my dad at the Speedway Motel when it was still here, I was so excited and would wake up early and walk over with Dad. When you go out of Gasoline Alley with A.J. Foyt, there is nothing like it. The fans cheering left such an impression on you as a kid. That is one of the most amazing moments not only in my life but in all of sports. You know how this place gets to you. I still get chills when I drive up 16th Street every day.”
Larry would go on to become a race driver but had far less success than his famous father. Larry attempted to become a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver but was unsuccessful. He competed in three Indianapolis 500s from 2004-06 but finished 32nd, 33rd and 30th.
“I always thought someday I wanted to keep the team going,” Larry said. “I didn’t think it would be that soon, but things weren’t going well with what we were doing. We were underfunded, and things in stock car land weren’t going well, so I was happy to come here and fulfill a dream to start the Indy 500 so I appreciate my dad helping me do that. When I realized what an opportunity we had here with ABC Supply, it was a great chance to come and turn things around. It was a true team effort.
“A.J. snookered me into it. When I went to Michigan that day, I thought I was going to watch and IndyCar race, and A.J. announced I was coming on as team director. It’s been fun. Jack Starne has been with our team for so long and Craig Baranouski, who is the team manager. It’s been a lot of fun, and I’m enjoying it.”
Larry knew that the race team had to keep up with the times, so he was able to bring some new thinking to the master of motorsports.
“A.J. didn’t want me in racing, so I went to TCU, and it was a great experience,” Larry said of his college education at Texas Christian University. “But my racing experience and seeing what we were lacking in my own driving experiences, and A.J. and I were bumping heads at the time because he didn’t think I was doing what was necessary, and I didn’t think I had the right equipment. Our working relationship now is so awesome, and we’ve gotten close together. All the decisions I make or the team makes we go over with him and he puts in his input. That relationship together helps me make small changes.
“These drivers that come up now are different. When A.J. began racing, it was a different style of racing. You didn’t have radios and computers and all the things we use now as tools. But A.J. is so good and drove so long from the front-engine cars to the rear-engine cars from dirt to pavement. He is not adverse to change. He knows when things work and lets us do those things.”
Foyt hired noted motorsports engineer Don Halliday to the team, who helped improve the operation dramatically. But it was the addition of Sato that was the final ingredient to the team’s restoration as a race-winning operation.
“I like that he wanted to win like Kenny Brack,” A.J. said. “When we hired Kenny Brack, everyone laughed at me because he was crashing all the time. When we hired Takuma, Larry and I sat him down and said if we have a 10th- place car, that is where we want to finish, and if we have a fifth-place car or a car that is good, that is where we will win. But if we have a 10th-place car, don’t try to win with it. He said, ‘Give me a chance, and that is what I will do for you,’ and that is how we put the whole deal together.
“Takuma is the best driver we’ve had since Kenny Brack, by far. And what is really good is he gives good feedback. If you have good feedback and a good engineer, that will really help. What I like about Don Halliday is if I say something, he is open to trying it and open to any suggestions anybody has, and he works his ass off trying to figure out the car. He and Sato are a great combination, and that makes a big difference.”
Foyt kept a close eye on Sato last year when he was driving for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He admired his fearless attitude and believed he could work with the talented Sato to achieve success.
“You could see him wanting to win like last year at Indianapolis on the last lap, and maybe if he had waited until the backstretch he could have won it,” A.J. said. “You better put one down like I pulled Kenny down than to get one to go.
“You would be surprised how many messages I got after the Long Beach win that said, ‘I’m glad you beat their ass.’ It makes me happier now that we have a team that is capable of doing what we are doing when they have a multitude of cars, and we have one.
“Like I said, I would have liked to have been there, but I’m glad I wasn’t. The media recognized they did it without A.J. there. This team will be in good hands long after I’m going. I’m going to let Larry roll with it.”
To put together the right driver with the right engineer to improve the team is what Larry Foyt wanted to do. And that is the reason the team has rediscovered success heading into this year’s Indianapolis 500.
“You hit the nail on the head when you said team because that is what we are – a team,” Larry said. “We aren’t the biggest team, but it’s nice to be leading the points coming into the Indy 500. I think it’s been a long time – at least 10 years that we have come out of Gasoline Alley and turned left instead of right to go to our pit box for practice. That is a good feeling. The whole feel of our team is in a much better place than it was last year.
“It’s really, for all intents and purposes, the same group we had last year, but the synergy of the team working together and bringing Takuma in, and him and Don have jelled together quickly. I’ve been really impressed with Takuma. We all knew Takuma was fast. We saw that since he first came over here, and we saw that in Formula One. He has a lot of experience, but I was impressed and surprised at what a smart race car driver he really is.
“Don is super. A super-smart guy. What is great is his experience and the way he works with A.J. Don really respects A.J., and in turn A.J. really respects Don. That has made all the difference. We’ve also brought over a young engineer from Europe named Raul Prados, and he has brought a lot of things from that style of racing that has helped us improve our engineering group.
“I think the biggest thing the way started with Takuma our first working relationship is we went with the sponsors on a seven-day Caribbean cruise. We just really got to know each other well. He actually likes to be spoken to a lot on the radio and know what is going on in the race. That helps him keep his head in the race, and that has helped us in our relationship. He and Don have communicated so well. He knows what he wants out of this new Dallara, and that has helped Don give him the right setup.”
Although Larry Foyt has helped bring the team back to prominence with some of his key decisions, there is little doubt that this is still A.J. Foyt’s team.
“A.J. is our big boss and the leader,” Larry said. “His input we use quite often. He is still very involved. He comes by the shop all the time. I know it’s been tough having the back surgery. I hate it he wasn’t at Long Beach for our victory, but he is here, and when he speaks we all listen, for sure.
“The Long Beach win was a key moment for us, it really was. Takuma -- the guy drove a flawless race that day. It was one of the best races I’ve ever seen a driver drive. From his restarts to his work in the pits, everything came together. The pit crew was great, and it helped me believe as a small team we can still compete against the big guys.
“Coming to Indy first place in points is unbelievable.”