IRL: Foyt Racing's 50th recalls tradition and speed

AJ Foyt enters his 50th year in IndyCar Racing in ten days at Homestead/Miami Speedway. His view of where racing was, and where it is now, fascinates any fan of the open-wheel view of the world. With a new driver and step-son Larry Foyt at his...

AJ Foyt enters his 50th year in IndyCar Racing in ten days at Homestead/Miami Speedway. His view of where racing was, and where it is now, fascinates any fan of the open-wheel view of the world. With a new driver and step-son Larry Foyt at his side, the legendary Texas hopes to capture his sixth Indianapolis 500 triumph in 2007.

There's only one difference in the coming Indy Racing League season that marks half a century of participation for racing legend AJ Foyt from all the rest: "It means I'm gettin' awful damned old!" he said during the weekly IRL teleconference on March 14th.

The four-time Indianapolis 500 winner's shadow extends over the landscape of American racing like no other. With international victories at the 24 Hours of LeMans, three stockcar wins at the Daytona 500, a win at the Indy 500 as an owner, and more hours of competitive seat-time than most people have lifetime in their own cars he can look forward and back with greater perspective than anyone in auto racing anywhere.

In his long tenure as racer and owner, Foyt has seen numerous, even some unbelievable, changes occur in open-wheel racing. Chief among them are the improvements in safety and technology that mark the current state-of-the- art in IndyCar racing. "It's a hundred percent safer than 20 years ago," Foyt said. "Indy was first place to have the SAFER barrier. That's the most important thing. In the old days they didn't have all them roll cages and safety bars, and so forth."

"Racing's come so far today. I told Parnelli Jones before I quit driving 'You will not believe the way these cars feel today compared to the old ones. If somebody would ever told me that I'd run around the racetrack, wide open, and not lift-I'd said they will pick you up over at the Funeral Home," he said.

"It's hard for me to believe, but I'm glad I lived long enough to feel that (downforce) in these cars. You sit there wide open and it's so much easier. You still have to concentrate, but compared to those old roadsters if you saw them wiggle they went a thousand feet spinning. Nowadays these cars get out of shape and the drivers can get them back. That's the difference in the engineering on the tires and all."

Foyt watched qualifying speeds at Indianapolis rise from 130 mph to 230 mph during his career-a stunning hundred miles an hour evolution of technology and advancing speed over thirty-five years of competition at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and open-wheel racing in America.

"I look back, with the old days and cars like Ray Harroun and them, and look at their speeds. If Tony George said to me to run one of them down the freeway straight, I'd say 'Unh-uh.' It'd scare the crap outta' me. I mean, look at the tires!" he said.

"And traction control, back then you had to learn how to feather the throttle. You got a lot of good boys these days in IndyCar, but they came up in different equipment. A lot of these boys today are just on it or off it."

On the cusp of a new IRL season that starts under the lights at Homestead/Miami Speedway in ten days Foyt continues to chase the one victory that, to him, remains the most cherished of all: the championship of the Indianapolis 500 mile race.

"The greatest race in the world is the Indianapolis 500," he said. "I've won Daytona three times, and at LeMans, but I live every year for the Indy 500. You got lot of great racetracks out there but you only have one Kentucky Derby, and you only have one Indy 500. It's the greatest race in the world regardless of what people say," said AJ.

Foyt measures the success or failure of his season by that sole barometer. If the Indianapolis 500 doesn't go well for him or his team, he doesn't find consolation in another achievement. For instance, his 2006 team suffered a disappointing finish in twenty-first spot after qualifying in the same position on the thirty-three car grid. The setback eventually led to the departure of driver Felipe Giaffone, who had won Foyt's confidence with his steady driving and even personality the year before.

"I was so damned disgusted with my team I wasn't paying any attention to who won," he said, referring to the incredible finish last year between winner Sam Hornish, Jr and young Marco Andretti. "I can't wait to get back this year. You have one bad day at Indy and it ruins the whole year. I live for the Indy 500."

At seventy years of age, AJ Foyt continues to roll up his sleeves like he did forty years ago. "I'm still the main boss," said AJ. "Larry does all the leg work. He consults with me."

Foyt's team lines up with a new driver, Englishman Darren Manning, and a new pit presence in stepson Larry Foyt who will manage the team's everyday affairs in 2007. Despite outperforming his teammates in 2005, Manning was let loose from Ganassi Racing and is only now climbing back into IndyCar. He sees a team on the uptick at Foyt Racing.

"The last few years have not been what he (AJ) is used to," said Manning. "He's used to succeeding. He's trying to put that right and hopefully bringing myself along is part of that process. The team's improving, we have a lot of resources at hand and we're going to try and get up with some of the big guys."

While a lot of teams would hype these changes as the second coming, AJ has been around long enough to know it doesn't matter what you say, it's what you do on the track that counts.

"Until that first race you never know what you've got," Foyt said. "It (our season) will be better than the last couple of years. We've made lot of changes. We're in a slump and just gotta' work out of it. I've never been quitter, even when I've been down, been hurt, broken up. I always come back. All the trouble does is it makes you that much stronger. At the end, we'll be there."

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Darren Manning , Felipe Giaffone , Larry Foyt , Parnelli Jones , Marco Andretti , Tony George , Sam Hornis
Teams Chip Ganassi Racing