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Kimball Eager To Help Drive Foyt Team Back toward Top in Full-Time Series Return

Note: This continues a series of feature stories focused on competitors in the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge and GMR Grand Prix this May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Stories will appear at IMS.com on Tuesdays and Thursdays through May.

Charlie Kimball had a simple goal this winter. It had nothing to do with fitness, simulator time, sponsor commitments, a seat fitting or the various other concerns of NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers during the offseason.

This was far more basic. Kimball competed in just seven of the 17 races last season for Carlin after driving full time in INDYCAR for Chip Ganassi Racing from 2011-17. He knew that at age 35, his continued viability in the series was in question.

“Goal No. 1 going into the offseason was to work with partners to try and get back to a full-season program,” Kimball said.

Goal accomplished.

Kimball landed a full-season ride with the team headed by legendary four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt for 2020, driving the team’s No. 4 Chevrolet-powered machine. Kimball’s longtime sponsor partner, global pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, will stay with him for the move to Foyt.

While Kimball achieved his most important goal entering 2020, numerous challenges await him at A.J. Foyt Racing. The first became pretty evident when he first walked into Foyt’s shop in Waller, Texas, for a seat fitting and to work with the team’s engineers for a few days.

“I’m not going to lie – it’s intimidating,” Kimball said. “You walk into a race shop, and there are Baby Borgs and photos of four Indy 500 wins on the wall. There are four Pace Cars in the (shop’s) museum. There are Indy 500-winning cars in the lobby. I think it’s pretty clear what the expectation is, which is awesome.

“One of my favorite quotes is, ‘Pressure is privilege,’ from Billie Jean King. I think the opportunity to come into a situation like that and do my job and make sure my job is successful for an enterprise like A.J. Foyt Racing is pretty neat.”

Another challenge will be to lift Foyt’s team from the doldrums it has suffered the past two seasons.

Foyt’s full-season drivers in 2019, Tony Kanaan and Matheus Leist, finished 15th and 19th in the final standings, respectively, after respective finishes of 16th and 18th in 2018. The team is winless in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES since Takuma Sato triumphed in 2013 at Long Beach, ironically the same season in which Kimball scored his lone series victory, at Mid-Ohio.

“The foundation we’re building on, result-wise, over the last couple of years hasn’t been great, but that means the sky is the limit for where we can take it,” Kimball said. “Everybody is looking to get the results from the effort they put in, and I don’t think the results the last couple of years have been due to lack of effort, not from what I’ve seen. It’s just a question of turning that effort into results.”

Some observers think Foyt’s problems stem from lower emphasis on engineering as the sport becomes increasingly more sophisticated. After all, who can forget when Foyt climbed from the cockpit and beat on his car with two hammers in the 1982 Indianapolis 500 during a long pit stop for repairs or when Foyt famously tossed a laptop in disgust during a pit stop in the 1998 Indianapolis 500?

That led some to think Foyt’s team still relies more on seat-of-the-pants intuition for car setup than actual engineering these days, an accusation Kimball disputes with vigor.

Kimball knows what he’s talking about regarding race engineering. He was accepted into Stanford upon graduating high school but deferred to focus on his racing career. His father, Gordon Kimball, was a noted designer and engineer in Formula One and INDYCAR.

“I’d argue that while A.J. drove with the seat of his pants, he set up cars with the brain of an engineer,” Kimball said. “He can still talk about those changes that put him into Victory Lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway four times. So, I would argue that while he is known for his driving on track, he only gets there and gets that success because of the engineering background. I think A.J. is someone that frankly it would be dumb of us as a drivers, as a team, not to rely on that experience.”

Kimball also is looking forward to tapping into the experience of partial-season teammates Tony Kanaan and Sebastien Bourdais this season with Foyt’s team.

2013 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2004 series champion Kanaan is driving in the five oval races on the schedule, including the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 24, as part of his “TK Last Lap” swansong season in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. Four-time series champion Bourdais is racing for Foyt at St. Petersburg, Barber Motorsports Park, Long Beach and Portland.

This season will be a reunion for Kanaan and Kimball, who were teammates at Chip Ganassi Racing from 2014-17. Pairing with Bourdais will fulfill a bit of a racetrack prophecy Kimball encountered a few years ago.

“I really enjoyed being Tony’s teammate for a couple of years at Ganassi,” Kimball said. “His personality is larger than life and being around that can really buoy a team’s morale. He’s really good around Indy. Learning from him as much as I can, learning from him on short ovals. Having that history helps.

“I remember a few years ago, we were racing at Milwaukee, and Sebastien came up to me and said: ‘What are your plans for next year? If there’s a way in the future, I’d love for us to work together.’ That meant a lot to me at the time. But also I think it was an indication of me being excited about working with someone who has that much experience.”

There’s no illusion about the amount of work that lies ahead for Kimball and the entire Foyt team this season. But Kimball embraces the challenge because he stood on the abyss of the alternative while searching for a full-time ride, and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

“There were times where, I remember having the conversation, even in the middle of last year, with my family saying, ‘Is this what I want?’” Kimball said. “And every moment that was frustrating, every moment there was doubt and uncertainty, I just thought back to being in the race car and what it means to me.

“Being in the car makes my life make sense. Getting to the racetrack is where it all comes together for me. At that point, any challenge, any uncertainty, any doubt disappears, and all that’s left is motivation.”

Visit IMS.com or the IMS Ticket Office for tickets to the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, GMR Grand Prix and all other Month of May activities at IMS.

 
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