Could This Finally Be Foyt’s Year?

It’s that time again! It’s that time in the pre-season that everyone takes note of all of the positive changes at AJ Foyt Enterprises. You know the drill; after coming off of a very disappointing season in 201X – Larry and AJ Foyt make driver changes and beef up their engineering staff that will practically guarantee that the 201X+1 season will be their year. Then a year later the cycle repeats itself.

You will be hard-pressed to find a bigger fan of AJ Foyt the driver, than me. I grew up watching him race in his prime and my entire family cheered for him. Looking back, I now realize how lucky I was to live in an age when possibly the two best drivers in history – AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti – were competing against each other. In my mind, AJ Foyt is the greatest driver in history. Period.

AJ Foyt the car-owner is a different story. The sentimental side of me will always pull for Foyt’s team; but the realistic (or cynical) side of me appreciates the comic relief that his bungling team has provided over the years. Foyt’s career at Indianapolis lasted thirty-five consecutive years. That’s a marvel in itself, considering his career encompassed a time when more entered cars missed the race than made it. You would think at least once, a bad qualifying run or ill-handling car would have caused him to miss at least one of those races.

But the last fifteen or so of those years, his crew seemed to give a half-hearted effort. Foyt himself has admitted that he was a shell of himself after the death of his parents. His mother died in 1981, and the father that he had sought so long to please passed away in 1983. I’m not going so far as to say that Foyt had checked out mentally, but he has confessed that his desire was no longer there and that he was just sort of going through the motions.

After Foyt’s near-fatal accident at Road America in 1990, he only ran in ten more races before officially retiring in May of 1993. In those other races, he was already settling into the role of car-owner. Settling may be way too strong a word, because he was very uncomfortable sitting on the pity box. He also had a tough time settling on who would be driving his famous No.14.

While Mike Groff was a constant in 1991 when Foyt was not in the car; 1992 saw a revolving door of drivers that included such household names as Gregor Foitek, Jon Beekhuis (who really is a household name now), Ross Cheever and Brian Bonner; as well as Jeff Andretti at Indianapolis and an over-aged Pancho Carter. Let’s just say that the team results were not stellar.

Foyt finally figured he needed to settle on one driver, so in 1993 he ran promising young rookie Robby Gordon. Things improved as Gordon finished tenth in points, in an era when there were twenty-six to twenty-eight cars per race.

But Gordon moved on to Derrick Walker’s team for 1994. After Davy Jones flamed out with Foyt after three races, Foyt turned to another young rookie – Bryan Herta. Lots of promise was shown with Herta, who made his CART debut in the Indianapolis 500 and finished ninth. Herta’s first three races with Foyt were all Top-Ten runs. After a thirteenth-place finish at Cleveland, Herta was practicing on the streets of Toronto when he hit the Turn 11 wall. The result was a broken pelvis that sidelined him for the remainder of the season.

Eddie Cheever took over at the next race for the rest of the 1994 season and most of 1995. Cheever came tantalizingly close to winning for Foyt at Nazareth before running out of fuel in the closing laps and finishing fifth. But Cheever didn’t close out the 1995 season at Foyt. That honor fell to Brian Till at Vancouver and Fredrik Ekblom at Laguna Seca.

The playing field changed for Foyt in 1996. He was the only one of the full-time CART owners to move their entire organization to the fledgling IRL. To be blunt, Foyt’s team went from being a little fish in a lake to the biggest fish in a little pond. In those first few years of the IRL, AJ Foyt Enterprises won two championships in three seasons. OK, the first season in 1996 probably needs an asterisk for a couple of reasons. Foyt’s driver, Scott Sharp, was tied for the championship with Buzz Caulkins; and that first season was technically only three races, since the IRL had the bright idea that the season should end in May with the Indianapolis 500.

The championship with more of a feel for it came in 1998, when Kenny Bräck won the championship outright in a true eleven race season. From 1996 through 2002, AJ Foyt Enterprises won seven races, two championships and one Indianapolis 500. But 2002 was the year that Team Penske moved from CART to the IRL full-time, opening the floodgates for almost all of the top CART teams over the next couple of seasons. Foyt was beating Chastain Motorsports and Pagan Racing of the early IRL days, but when the good teams migrated from CART, AJ Foyt Enterprises was relegated back to the role of backmarker.

When Airton Daré won for Foyt in 2002 at Kansas; it began a non-winning streak that lasted until Takuma Sato won for Foyt at Long Beach in 2013. In that time; Foyt employed Greg Ray, Eliseo Salazar, AJ Foyt IV, Jaques Lazier, Shigeaki Hattori, Larry Foyt, Jeff Bucknum, Scott Mayer, Felipe Giaffone, Darren Manning, Vitor Meira, Jeff Simmons, Franck Perera, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Mike Conway and Wade Cunningham. Most of these are forgettable names. The exceptions, like Hunter-Reay, had yet to become regular winners at the time. Mike Conway won at Long beach before his time at Foyt and again afterwards, but struggled in his one season at Foyt.

Sentimentalists like myself want to see the legend have another day in the sun before he settles off into the night. That’s why every season in the spring, we say that this year is Foyt’s year; but we are never too surprised at the end of the season to find them down low in the standings, once again.

After parting ways with Takuma Sato and Jack Hawksworth after the 2016 season, Foyt turned to Carlos Muñoz and Conor Daly for 2017 to see what they could do. Switching to the Chevy aero kit and moving Daly’s team to Indianapolis, while the team of Muñoz curiously stayed in Houston, thereby splitting the organization – was a tall order for any team. Neither driver was retained for this year.

Here’s where things may change. Before I say why, I’ll throw out the disclaimer that I am a long-time Tony Kanaan fan. Except for AJ Foyt himself, I’m pretty sure that he has never had a former series champion or a former Indianapolis 500 winner driving for his team. With Tony Kanaan in the cockpit of the famous No.14 for the 2018 season; he has both.

From whatever you can tell from an internet stream originating from the Open Test at Phoenix last week – it sure seemed like Foyt and Kanaan were having a great time. Kanaan knows that he is nearing the end of his career and he probably doesn’t want to end it brooding, as he was much of the time near the end of his stay with Chip Ganassi. He says it has always been a dream of his to drive for the legendary Foyt. He seems to appreciate driving for the man regardless of the team. Foyt seems to be enjoying seeing his cars piloted by a champion, and one that is sort of old-school like him.

Maybe Kanaan is also smiling because his longtime engineer, Eric Cowdin, came over to Foyt’s with him. I’ve always heard that Cowdin is one of the most underrated engineers in the paddock. Perhaps Foyt is happy because his team is no longer behind the eight-ball like they were last year, when they were trying to learn the nuances of the Chevy aero kit with two young drivers that had driven Hondas the previous year.

This new body kit is supposed to favor the drivers that drove in CART/Champ Car more than fifteen years ago. That would be Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay and that’s about it. Some of the young drivers used to the high-downforce of the aero kit car, may find themselves in an adjustment period. Kanaan’s learning curve is likely much shorter than others.

It probably doesn’t hurt anyone’s mood that Kanaan is teamed with a fellow Brazilian albeit half his age. Matheus Leist was born in September 1998, the same month Kanaan was wrapping up his rookie year in CART driving for Steve Horne’s Tasman Racing. Who was Kanaan’s engineer that rookie season? Eric Cowdin. Leist is no competition for Kanaan like Scott Dixon was. He can be the undisputed leader of the team while serving as a mentor for Leist. Hopefully, last week was not an indication of how many times Leist might be involved in an incident. If that keeps up, Foyt won’t be smiling for long.

Am I saying that we’ll find Foyt’s team in victory lane this season? No, because we probably won’t. But I do think Kanaan will be very competitive in Foyt’s No.14 and make it fun to be around AJ this season. And if Kanaan can somehow win in Foyt’s car this season, well…a lot of us old fans will be smiling as well.

George Phillips

Please Note:  Monday is President’s Day and Susan and I are both off. Therefore, I’m going to take a short break and not have a post here on Mon Feb 19. I will return here on Wed Feb 21. Enjoy your weekend! – GP

5 Responses to “Could This Finally Be Foyt’s Year?”

  1. No mention of the two separate bases for the two cars. I see this as a major issue. Is it unchanged for 2018 or are they bringing it all under one roof?

    • Paragraph 14. But I’ve addressed that issue before, extensively. This post was already getting too long without tearing into that. But you’re right; that creates a huge unnecessary hurdle. – GP

  2. billytheskink Says:

    I was pleased to see Foyt’s cars fast at the Phoenix test, but will be curious to see if they can approach that pace on the road and street courses.

    At the very least, both cars look good. I like the palette-swapped (so to speak) paint schemes.

  3. The positive impression I get from AJ Foyt’s team is not only the fact that they hired a very skilled, popular veteran driver but even more so that the whole organisation had their best race last year at a track that was new on the schedule, Gateway Motorsports Park.

    The new track levelled the playing field between Foyt’s team which had to learn how to set up their cars around an engine and aero package all new to them whilst most other teams did not have to do that.
    AJ Foyt Enterprises showed right there and then that they have everything that it takes to be competitive if the playing field is even amongst all competitors.
    This is likely going to be a good season for this team because everybody will run what is basically a new car.
    I expect the #14 run out of the team’s Indy shop to be in the upper midfield most of the time. However, the 2nd car is driven by a rookie and that is likely to be noticeable when it comes to the car’s results. Yet, Leist was the fastest rookie during the rookie session at the Phoenix test. Good for him.

  4. I am hoping for a stronger showing for the Foyt team this year. I hope they get a couple of podiums (okay let’s face it I hope for a win). Will it happen? Who knows. I am the eternal optimist and a fan of Super Tex. I thought AJ looked very good in his interview with Katie during testing. TK is the key with a strong assist from his teammate.

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