A.J. Foyt Racing Returns To Victory Lane

The feel good story of this years’ IZOD IndyCar Series season so far has to be Takuma Sato and A.J. Foyt Racing’s authoritative win in Sunday’s Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix. Sato’s win was fun to watch, especially since I’ve been a fan of Foyt and his team since I was a kid. Something about his feistiness or perhaps it’s the ‘I’ll do it my way’ attitude that attracted me. I always loved it when he’d run with the NASCAR boys down south or run a Champ dirt car for Tim Delrose at the Indiana Fairgrounds. I always looked forward to watching “SuperTex” drive his wide nose orange Coyote of the 1970’s and of course George “Ziggy” Snider qualify one of A.J.’s back-up cars on “Bump Day” at Indianapolis.

Since his last multiple win season in 1979, Foyt and his race team has seen some tough times. Nevertheless Foyt Racing did have some big moments in the high flying ’90’s. A.J.’s comeback at Indianapolis in 1991 after his serious leg injuries the previous year was inspirational. The huge Pole Day crowd loved it when he was qualified on the front row between Hall of Fame drivers, Rick Mears and Mario Andretti. The team really looked to be heading in the right direction after Robby Gordon’s strong run in 1993 as a rookie. However, the following year, Gordon left to go to Walker Racing. A.J. and Eddie Cheever nearly won at Nazareth in 1995 but ran out of fuel with a few laps to go. After the ‘split’ Foyt was one of the early dominant teams in the Indy Racing League. A.J.’s team returned to victory lane with drivers Billy Boat, Scott Sharp and of course Kenny Brack who won the Indy 500 in 1999. However he wasn’t running against super teams such as Penske, Ganassi at that time. Foyt’s final win in the original IRL was with Brazilian Airton Dare’ in 2002 at Kansas.

As the level of the series rose, it seemed that the Foyt team fell further behind. However, the seeds of change occurred in the fall of 2006 when A.J. named his son, Larry as team director of Foyt Racing. Interestingly, it was a position that held duties the three-time Indianapolis 500 starter acknowledged he did not initially fully grasp.

“I always felt comfortable around Indy car racing because I grew up with it, but I had to get back into the Indy car mentality,” said Foyt, the son of racing legend and team owner A.J. Foyt. “They do some things differently from NASCAR and the (Indy) cars are more technologically advanced. I spent the first couple of years learning, watching a lot and listening, too.

“It was important see how things were done, analyze and see where we could improve and work to make changes in those areas. By making small changes, they can add up to big results on the track.”

Struggling teams in some sports go though head coaches or managers, the Foyt team went through drivers. A.J. Foyt IV, Felipe Giaffone, Darren Manning, Vitor Meira, Jeff Bucknum, Franck Perera, Paul Tracy, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Mike Conway and Wade Cunningham to name a few.

The Foyt team would have flashes of speed and a good finish such as Meira’s 2010 podium finish in Brazil, or Conway’s podium finish at Toronto last year. Takuma Sato who came over from Formula One also showed flashes of speed with KV Racing and later RLL Racing. Sato had a high finish of second last July at Edmonton. However, Sato’s most memorable IndyCar highlight was his attempted pass of eventual winner Dario Franchitti on the final lap in last year’s Indianapolis 500. His all out driving style was one of the traits A.J. liked in the Japanese driver.

Changes with the over-the-wall pit crew and key personnel adjustments such as the addition of seasoned race engineer Don Halliday of New Zealand, assistant engineer Raul Prados of Spain and Larry’s management of the team started to reap its benefits this year.

Sato qualified second and finished eighth in the season opener at St. Petersburg, Fla., and followed with a 14th place finish at Barber Motorsports Park. Sato became the first driver from Japan when he delivered an emphatic victory April 21 in the 39th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The last win for the team on a road/street course was by A.J. Foyt on Oct. 1, 1978, at Silverstone in England with Foyt driving the aforementioned Coyote.

“This was one of the greatest days of my racing career,” Sato said.

Their triumph came as a surprise to nearly everyone – everyone except Takumo, Larry and the historic race team.

“Today was a fantastic day for us!” Sato said. “The team did a tremendous job this whole weekend. The car was great to drive-it was so much fun to drive! We managed both types of tires, the blacks and the reds, very well, and we were able to conserve fuel when we needed to do so. Everything was under control. I just had to make sure there was no bad luck and no mistakes.”

The No. 14 car has shown speed at all three events.

“We knew he was fast,” Larry Foyt said after the Victory Circle celebration. “Until you really know somebody, you don’t know how you’re going to work together and how it’s going to be. It was great our first working relationship was a seven-day Caribbean cruise. We’ve been good friends ever since.

“I really think between our chief engineer Don Halliday and Takuma, there was a lot of trust there, which you have to have. Like Takuma said, the speed has been there. Little issues can always bite you. Our junior engineer kept telling us, ‘We don’t have to be the biggest team to win. There can be positives to being a smaller team and a tight-knit group.’

“There was so much hard work over the winter. It’s a super group of guys with a super sponsor and it just all works. I’m glad we have another multi-year contract with ABC Supply, which has been awesome with us. I think that puts us in a good position with the future. What (Sato) did hopefully that keeps us heading in that direction.”

The question is, with Sato’s first win, the team in second place in the points, what else can this team do this year? One thing is sure, the team looks to be an early favorite for this year’s upcoming Indianapolis 500. It looks like this team is ready to run with the Penske, Ganassi and the Andretti teams.

IndyCar Media and AJ Foyt Racing contributed to this article

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