An interview with AJ Foyt

IndyCar commentary, Interviews, Podcasts — By on September 3, 2010 9:30 am
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Few voices in the world of auto racing speak with the authority and respect of AJ Foyt.  The auto racing icon drove competitive race cars from 1953 to 1993 and is the only driver in history to win the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500, 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the 24 Hours of Daytona.  In a championship car career that spanned 35 years, AJ witnessed nearly every technological innovation that exists in today’s modern IndyCar — rear-engine cars, wings, ground effects, radial tires, helmets, HANS devices, and many more.  Unfortunately, Foyt has also seen two ugly civil wars that have torn American open-wheel racing apart.  Recently, Foyt sat down with More Front Wing to discuss the current state of the IZOD IndyCar Series and how the future looks from his perspective.

Foyt says that for the IICS and the team owners to move forward in unison, it is imperative that the owners understand their own desires, find a common voice, and stick to one set of stated goals.  “I think the owners have got to make up their minds what they want to do,” Foyt says. “They’re having meetings every other day, and they want this and they want that.  So, I think they’re the ones who have got to get their heads on their shoulders right.” This frustration with his fellow IICS owners led AJ to abstain from the owners’ meeting that took place at Chicagoland Speedway.  AJ also refused to allow his son and team manager, Larry Foyt, to attend.

Regardless of how the IICS owners feel, AJ thinks that the IICS will ultimately continue down the path it announced at the ICONIC Committee press conference on July 14th.  Foyt believes that at least some of that motivation is being driven by the tax incentives offered to Dallara by the State of Indiana, which will yield a $150,000 discount to IndyCar teams based there.  Asked if such a discount for locally based teams bristled his feathers, AJ quipped, “No, it don’t rub me the wrong way because, the way I look at it, Penske don’t operate there. There’s a lot of teams [not operating out of Indiana].  Rahal don’t operate out of there.  Carl Haas’s team is out in Chicago.  So, there’s a lot of teams that don’t operate out of there, and if you’re going to go racing, you’ve just got to pay the extra money.”

Even though a tough economy still plagues much of the world and makes it difficult to secure sponsorship for a properly run IndyCar operation, Foyt believes the IICS is right to move forward with a new car.  Foyt realizes that purchasing new equipment will be a hardship for a lot of teams, but he still feels it’s time to update the fleet after using cars that have been in service for eight years.  Some owners have recently floated the idea of simply developing a new body to retrofit on the current Dallara chassis.  AJ describes such a plan as simply “sending good money after bad.”

Another area in which AJ stands isolated from some of his fellow IndyCar owners is regarding the controversial DeltaWing project.  Foyt firmly believes that trying to drive a car that is significantly wider in the back, where drivers cannot grasp the actual dimensions of the vehicle while at speed, is a recipe for disaster.  “The way I look at it,” says Foyt, “have you ever drove a one-ton Ford pick-up, or a Chevrolet?  Did you ever knock the rear fenders off?  Okay, that’s about three inches.  The Delta car’s three foot wider.”

AJ specifically points to road courses as being a potential problem for drivers in the DeltaWing as doing so would require a different skill set from what many of today’s drivers offer.  “On a road course,” AJ notes, “you normally run with your front wheel trying to do it, then you’ve got to constantly think you’ve got a pair of rear wheels about three foot wider.  I think you’d have to have a completely different driving skill, a bunch of different drivers. And I’d say most of the old guys running today who are used to running in [the current] cars, I think they’d be in a world of trouble.”

AJ believes the concept of the DeltaWing might have been good for trying to obtain a speed record but falls short as a race car.  To that point, Foyt says, “as far as racing, I think the concept was very bad because I think it’d wind up getting a lot of people hurt. I could be wrong, but I definitely would not want to drive one with the front end way narrow and the back end three feet wider because I think you just could have a lot of very serious accidents.”

Regardless of which IndyCar ends up on track in 2012, AJ believes it is unlikely that the IICS will be reconnected to the short-track oval racing of days gone by.  The problem is that the foreign drivers bring not only money but also a wealth of road racing experience in formula cars.  Ultimately, Foyt says that these factors leave many owners with little choice on who to hire. “A lot of the foreign drivers come over here and they buy their rides,” Foyt says. “They bring money with them.  The world economy’s been tough, and so the owners have to take them to pay the bills.”

When AJ broke into Championship Cars in 1958, it was a different time.  Clint Brawner, chief mechanic for the Dean Van Lines teams, had caught wind of AJ Foyt after his win in a 100-lap USAC midget feature in Kansas City.  After seeing AJ drive on the high banks of Salem Speedway in 1957, Brawner hired Foyt the next year to fill the seat vacated by Jimmy Bryan based solely on his talent and ability to handle a car.

It was also a time where seat time in any type of car was valuable because it taught a driver how to communicate with his chief mechanic and provide critical feedback to improve the car’s performance.  Foyt says drivers from his generation, specifically drivers like himself and Mario Andretti, drove anything they could because they simply loved to drive race cars.  Today, Foyt says that computers can do most of that work for a driver and a team, rendering the need for a diverse range of experience less necessary.  “You can tell the driver and your engineer to sit down and tell him everything he’s doing wrong,” Foyt observes. “He can see what he’s doing wrong on the racetrack.”  In AJ’s primitive years, that feedback came solely from the driver.  Now, “I could put a rookie in there and tell him everything he’s doing wrong, where before you didn’t have that technology.”

Realistically, Foyt does not see the types of drivers in the Series dramatically changing, even with a newer, cheaper car in 2012.  “Not as long as they’re bringing money,” he says.  “The car is not going to be that much different than the car is today.  It’s just going to be where you don’t have to do a lot of changes and it’s simpler.  It should be a lot cheaper to operate.”

Such sentiments will likely not sit well with the faction of IndyCar fans that believes the IICS must reconnect with its oval-track roots to once again be successful on a national scale.  Nonetheless, the harsh reality of auto racing today, be it IndyCar or NASCAR, is that money too often trumps talent and that owners must often pay the bills with driver sponsorship rather than race winnings.  Even in NASCAR, Foyt says, many drivers are ending up in rides because of their checkbook rather than their credentials.  He points to the lack of movement between the Nationwide Series and the Sprint Cup Series as proof that ride-buying is not confined solely to the open-wheel world.

The 2000s have been a tough stretch for AJ Foyt’s IndyCar team.  A rotating corps of drivers and a limited budget through much of the decade  made it difficult for the Waller, Texas based team to perform at the level of the Penskes, Ganassis, and Andrettis. But things seem to be looking up for Foyt. Through the difficulties and hardships, AJ’s passion for IndyCar racing still burns fiercely. With a revamped engineering squad, driver Vitor Meira has quietly put together several strong runs this year and currently sits in a respectable 12th place in the points standings.

Many things have changed in the IndyCar world since AJ Foyt drove his final lap at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1993.  Some have suggested that AJ’s ways are too antiquated and that his stubbornness to adapt to modern racing practices has kept his small team from succeeding in today’s competitive environment.  If the goal to reduce the cost of IndyCar participation comes to fruition in 2012, many fans hope to see a fundamental shift in the landscape of the IZOD IndyCar Series.  With lowered costs across the board and a clean slate for all participants, emphasis will be placed on setting up a new car rather than engineering trick pieces to gain thousandths of a second here and there.  If it all works as planned, smaller teams like AJ Foyt Racing may get a new lease on life and finally be able to climb out from behind the proverbial 8-ball that has been in their ways for so many years.

To hear the full audio of the interview, click the player below or search for More Front Wing on iTunes.

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