INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A.J. Foyt sits quietly recounting stories in the back of his garage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
At 78, the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner has less hair, a softer voice and a crankier back than he used to. He also has something else: Less responsibility and a resurgent team.
Yes, after coming to this 2.5-mile oval every year since 1958, Foyt has finally decided to be more of a backseat owner.
“He’s about 100 percent in charge now,” Foyt said, explaining that he’s given his adopted son, Larry, almost full authority to run the team. “Before that, it was probably 50 to 75 percent. I’ve put him in full charge, and, you know, the kids are closer to his age anyway.”
In many ways, the changes were borne out of pure necessity.
Foyt struggled with sciatic pain in his left leg late last year, but the feisty Texan convinced himself he could tough it out. When he went back to fine-tuning IndyCars and digging ditches, the pain became so excruciating he was actually talked into trying acupuncture treatment by his driver, Takuma Sato. When that didn’t work, he finally opted for surgery in April — one week after his wife, Lucy, also had back surgery.
Suddenly, Foyt was out of the garage for three races while someone else took charge of everything from the day-to-day operations to radio calls.
The switch couldn’t have worked out better.
Sato finished 14th at Alabama, then won at Long Beach to become the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar race. Two weeks later, Sato came within an eyelash of a second straight win, finishing second in Brazil as he took the points lead.
All Foyt could do was watch his once powerful IndyCar team surge back to prominence as he cheered the team on from Houston.
“To be truthful, I would have been happy to have been there in California,” Foyt said. “But I was happier for the team and the crew that I wasn’t because I’ve been there. I just wanted them to have that experience.”
Make no mistake, Foyt has not ceded total control.
He still shows up at team headquarters in Houston almost daily and still plans to be on the radio for the May 26 race — if Sato and his second driver rookie Conor Daly make the 33-car starting grid as expected. And, of course, those running the show do expect Foyt to speak his mind now and then.
Otherwise, Foyt is mostly content to let his three-man team — Foyt, Sato and chief engineer Don Halliday — make all the calls.
“Larry works them real hard every day on pit stops,” Foyt said. “We’ve made changes on different positions there and it’s worked out good.”
Whatever the reason for the changes, things are running smoothly.
Both Foyts acknowledge that Larry has a better understanding of all the distractions today’s drivers face.
He also strikes a perfect counterbalance to his father, in part because he grew up with it.
The calm, soft-spoken 36-year-old started his racing career by running go-karts, became a regular in the Busch Series, then made the jump to NASCAR where he started 23 times in two years. His best finish was 16th at Homestead in 2003 before the team lost its sponsor and Larry Foyt was out of a job. Eventually, he resurfaced at Indianapolis where he made three starts on his dad’s team before retiring from driving and working full-time for the team.
The most notable change has been on the radio.
“It’s like ying and yang,” Larry Foyt explained with a smile. “The thing is when A.J. grew up racing, they didn’t have radios, so it always bothered him when there was a lot of chatter on the radios. These young drivers, like Sato, they like that. Takuma actually is more focused when he has more information.”
Larry Foyt isn’t surprised by any of it.
“Once he trusts you, he’ll let you do what you want to do. That’s why Don has been so great,” he said. “You look at A.J.’s day and he was really a leader. He was always thinking outside the box. There are some things he doesn’t understand, but Don can explain those things in terms he does, so he’s not averse to change.”
The results prove it.
And now that he’s back in Indy, things are starting to look familiar, too.
Sato, who came within yards of passing eventual race winner Dario Franchitti in last year’s 500, a move that sent him spinning into the wall, has fared well.
In Monday’s practice, he posted the sixth-fastest speed going 223.363 mph on the busiest day at the track this week. Two drivers from rival Andretti Autosport finished in the top three. Marco Andretti had the best lap of the day at 225.100. Defending series champ Ryan Hunter-Reay was third at 224.386. In between was Brazil’s Helio Castroneves, who went 225.075 as he tries to join Foyt in the four-time winners club.
But the biggest winner in Foyt’s resurgence may be IndyCar itself.
“You can’t forget his history and you can’t forget his history here,” said Derrick Walker, IndyCar’s new head of competition. “Seeing A.J. win the other day, I would be surprised if somebody in the paddocks or stands wasn’t really excited to see that.”
Including Foyt himself.
All he wants to see now is that team he created continue to win races, win points and win titles — just like he was doing three decades ago.
“He’s done a great job,” Foyt said of his son. “Andretti and (Chip) Ganassi are running four cars, (Roger) Penske is running two or three, it’s hard to compete with a 1-car team, but we’re doing it.”