A.J. Foyt Racing issued a release on Wednesday, March 18, its message typical of the hundreds of thousands being sent by companies around the world in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The company’s facilities have been temporarily closed, and employees have been told to go home. Thankfully for them, A.J. Foyt is an employer able to keep his team on full pay while everyone collectively tries to ride out the storm.
“With the invasion of the Coronavirus or COVID-19, not only is our country navigating uncharted territory, but so is the rest of the world,” read the release written by Foyt’s longterm PR person, Anne Fornoro. “Many people will face unprecedented hardship due to the drastic but necessary measures being taken to confront the spread of this insidious disease.
“As our government addresses ways to lessen those hardships, Americans are doing their part by following the directives to stay home and stay safe. After consulting with his father, Larry Foyt communicated to the A.J. Foyt Racing employees that their pay will not be interrupted despite temporarily closing the team’s race shop in Indianapolis and the team’s headquarters in Waller, Texas.”
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Larry Foyt commented: "Our biggest concern is for the health of our communities and our employees, so we are closing the race shops for the time being. I want to thank our partners and sponsors for their support and understanding during these extraordinary times.
“Many people will face some difficult challenges in the coming days. A.J. and I wish everyone the best, and we look forward to going racing again when the time is right."
God knows when that time will be, but for now, IndyCar participants are generally putting a brave face on the matter, and the Foyts are a good example. When Motorsport.com called Larry later that evening, naturally one of the conversation topics was whether the iconic A.J. – still the most successful Indy car driver of all time in terms of championships (seven) and race wins (67), as well as the first four-time Indy 500 winner – is keeping clear of any situation where he might catch the coronavirus.
“Unless you can catch it from a bulldozer in the middle of a ranch, he’ll be just fine,” chuckled Larry. “We just need to worry about keeping him away from bees…”
Obviously motorsport’s importance is negligible compared with a pandemic, and it’s hard to stay away from such an all-consuming subject. But when your life is based around racing, that continues to take up a large part of one’s thinking, hence the need to prognosticate about racing once our world returns to a more normal axis. Through the first couple of months of the year here at Motorsport.com, we were running an IndyCar 2020 Hot Topics series and on our list of 10 subjects was, “Can A.J. Foyt Racing become a force once more?” And we were coming to the happy conclusion that yes, it could.
And not before time. The team has struggled since its last win, at Long Beach in 2013 with Takuma Sato. Tony Kanaan’s fortuitous third place at Gateway last August was the team’s first podium in four seasons, and things got still more bleak when long-time primary sponsor ABC Supply revealed it would have to slash its funding for 2020, sponsoring just the #14 car and just for the Indy 500.
The man, the myth, the legend – Mr. A.J. Foyt
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But this off-season, new part-time signing Sebastien Bourdais provided a welcome shot in the arm for A.J. and Larry, proving they shouldn’t expect to be perennially tethered to the back of the field. SuperSeb, a 37-time race-winner, has been fast every time he’s set foot in the car during testing, sparking hopes that the Foyt team could contend for podium finishes and maybe even wins. Unfortunately, however, the cancelation of the first four (so far) 2020 NTT IndyCar Series races has heavily dented the team’s podium potential because Bourdais was due to be racing the #14 Mike Colliver-engineered car in the first three of those – St. Petersburg, Barber Motorsports Park and Long Beach. As of right now, therefore, Bourdais’ sole entry with Foyt will be in Portland.
That’s not to say all hope is lost. If the team has made strong engineering progress across the whole range of tracks in the NTT IndyCar Series, then the five ovals (providing they all remain on the schedule) should enable Kanaan, in his final multi-race season, to make the #14 prominent. Charlie Kimball, full-time in the Mike Pawlowski-engineered #4 car, is also at his best on ovals but has also had strong days on road and street courses. For those events, aside from Portland, he will be teamed up with journeyman Indy Lights graduate Dalton Kellett.
Charlie Kimball, A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet
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It’s by no means ideal to have three drivers sharing one car, even with Colliver at the helm, but financial needs made it imperative. And at least Bourdais’ presence during testing has already paid off.
Larry Foyt explained: “Sebastien provides great feedback, and that was the thinking behind stacking three of his races at the start of the season. There’s no substitute for proven talent and experience like his, so providing the team with a good baseline setup for road/street courses was the plan. Unfortunately that’s kind of taken a hit. But already what he’s done for us has helped confirm our off-season work was good, and he’s put us on the right path.
“I think we have strong engineers, but I also think what’s helped us has been that the group has meshed together well – really well, actually. It’s very open, and that’s paid dividends already. The teams are all so close now that something like good interaction between team members is the sort of thing that can make a real difference.”
Trying to find setups that suit Bourdais, Kimball and Kellett might sound like it would be tricky, but Foyt plays down the significance of both that and the different handling preferences of say, Kimball and Bourdais.
“You’re right, ideally you want to keep the setups of the cars pretty close together,” he says, “but that’s more a product of this current car. The thing is, there’s no point in going too far outside the box setup-wise: there’s a very particular way this car and aero package needs to be driven to get the maximum speed out of it – I think every engineer and driver would agree with that – and you can’t change much on the car because the rules are pretty restrictive. So now it’s about encouraging the drivers to drive the car in that way, and then helping them by providing little tweaks according to what they prefer.
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“With Dalton it’s a different story because he’s a rookie. He hasn’t yet developed his preferences like Sebastien and Charlie, so you can start with the basics and say, ‘This is the car set up to be the fastest it can be.’ And that’s exactly what happened at Sebring. At COTA [for Spring Training], he only got about 20 laps in so it wasn’t representative at all. But at Sebring, with Sebastien driving the #14 on the first day, we know Dalton had a good car to step into the next day and he did a really good job and turned over 100 laps and showed pretty good pace.”
Kellett’s most recent record – six third places in four seasons of Indy Lights – is hardly convincing, but the Canadian does have a degree in engineering, and Foyt believes that working with the similarly tech-sharp and also eloquent Kimball should mean that the team can still make progress at events where Bourdais isn’t present.
“Yeah, Dalton is a really smart kid,” says Foyt, “and he works with Darren Manning, who drove for us and is a good coach. We’re expecting him to make good progress. Dalton knows there are going to be challenges ahead, that he has no experience at this level, and that the best thing for him to do in this circumstance is to listen to Sebastien, Darren, Charlie… It’s a team effort, and applying what he learned I’m sure is what enabled him to do a good job at Sebring.”
Losing three races from Bourdais’ four-race roster was the least financially painful scenario for the team since only he was set to run with the #14’s throwback all-black livery relatively unadorned with logos. Kimball’s car is funded by Tresiba and ripKurrent, Kellett is backed by K-Line Insulators, while Kanaan will carry ABC in the Indy 500, and he and the team have also lined up sponsors for his other races. However, no question that Seb’s absence (for now) from all but one race will obviously frustrate a team owner who was eager to prove his team is on the rise again.
“Yeah, A.J. was very happy with testing,” said Larry. “Any time you see your car up near the top, even if it’s just testing at Sebring, that’s a good thing and that’s what he likes to see. A.J. knows that now we have a team that, on the days where we get everything right, can be competitive – and that’s saying a lot when you see how deep the field is these days.
“So for us to look strong in testing, that’s very encouraging for A.J.… well, for all of us, to be honest. Ninety-five percent of the team is the same as before, so I think for them, Sebastien’s pace was particularly uplifting after the past couple of difficult years. We’re very proud of our people.”
But for now, the raceshops are shuttered, team personnel are at home and a great deal of uncertainty prevails across IndyCar and the sport in general.
“We’re all just wondering what the 2020 season will look like,” says Foyt, “but we desperately want to keep our group together, because of our belief in them. We have to look after our business, but at the same time we really want to take care of our people. And it’s a tough situation that’s almost changing daily.
“But the Penske Entertainment group is steering the ship and we’ll follow their lead and keep the faith that we’ll have an Indy 500 and several more races this year, whether it’s done by double-headers or scheduling races in some of the gaps in the season.
“A lot of our races now have date equity so people are preparing to travel on certain days for certain races, so I’m sure Roger’s team will try and retain as many of those well-established dates as possible. But I think also our fans accept that this year’s circumstances are very unusual and are prepared to adapt. We’ll have to see how NBC want to deal with it, regarding what dates change, and whether the Olympics are shifted to a different date, etc. There’s a lot for our TV partner to consider.
“But speaking for our sport, we’re racers and we’re used to changing plans and doing whatever it takes. Whatever’s thrown at us, we’ll get it done. And speaking for this team in particular, our sponsors have been great and supportive, they’re aware that every company and organization in the world is facing unprecedented challenges right now, and if we’re smart and diligent in the short term, we can ride this out.
“The same thing is true about the people we race against. There’s this sense that we’re all facing this together, we’ll beat it, and we’ll get back to normal. It might be a bit of a ‘new normal’ for a while, but we’ll be back.”
And hopefully with AJ Foyt Racing as a consistent force. It’s been too long.
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