Photos: IndyCar

New season gives early promise of better things ahead for A.J. Foyt Racing

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A.J. Foyt has been involved in racing since he first climbed into a midget car in 1953 at the age of 18.

Now 83, Anthony Joseph Foyt has been chasing the checkered flag and championships as both a driver and team owner for 65 years.

Along the way, he built arguably the most legendary career of any race car driver, including becoming the only man to win the Indianapolis 500 (tied with Rick Mears and Al Unser with four wins each), the Daytona 500, the 24 Hours of Daytona (now the Rolex 24 Hours), the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 12 Hours of Sebring.

And let’s not forget the 12 national open-wheel and stock car championships (plus 2 IROC titles) he earned from 1960 through 1979.

You’d think at 83 that Foyt would retire to his Houston-area ranch and fondly reflect back on his illustrious career. At his age, why does he need to put up with all the headaches of owning, operating and managing a team, constantly chasing sponsors, attracting and keeping employees, as well as the too-few highs and far more lows of IndyCar racing?

Tony Kanaan and rookie Matheus Leist have A.J. Foyt smiling this weekend in St. Petersburg. (Photo: IndyCar)

But no, Foyt stays young by being as hands-on and as involved as he’s ever been. Sure, he’s slowed down a little over the years and maybe can’t do all the mechanical work he used to, not to mention having to deal with some concerning medical issues in the last few years.

But one thing will never change:

* Even though he’s been solely a team owner now for more than a third of his professional life, A.J. has been, is and always will be a racer first.

* Likewise, while he hasn’t been behind the wheel himself for a quarter-century (last race was in 1992; retired prior to 1993 Indy 500), Foyt has never given up on earning more wins and more IndyCar championships, even if he rides the pit box now rather than behind the wheel.

It’s been 20 years since Foyt’s last IndyCar championship, won with Kenny Brack as his driver in 1998, preceded two years earlier when another of Foyt’s drivers, Scott Sharp, shared the inaugural Indy Racing League title with Buzz Calkins.

Since then, though, A.J. Foyt Racing has had a number of ups and downs – sadly, much more of the latter than the former. As much as I hate to say it, the numbers don’t lie: Foyt’s success as a race car driver has far outweighed his success as solely a team owner.

After last season, as he closed in on his 83rd birthday on January 16, Foyt reflected back upon a season that was, again, yet another disappointment. Of the series’ 20 full-time regulars, Foyt’s drivers – Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly – finished 16th and 18th, respectively.

It continued a more-of-the-same, year-after-year trend that sadly continued to detract from the overall Foyt legacy:

* Since Brack’s fifth and final win for Foyt in 1999, the organization has seen just two wins since: 2002 (Airton Dare at Kansas Speedway) and 2013 (Takuma Sato at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach).

* Since the 2000 season, the Foyt organization has had just 12 podium finishes in 282 races, its last coming in 2015 (Sato, 2nd at Detroit).

* Since Brack won the 1998 Indy Racing League championship, Foyt’s drivers have earned just four top-10 season finishes in the following 19 years: 2nd (Brack, 1999), 4th (Eliseo Salazar, 2000), 5th (Salazar, 2001) and 9th (Dare, 2002).

In a sense, A.J. Foyt Racing had become a forgotten entity. This was not the way A.J. wanted his own legacy to end.

But that may all be changing for the good.

Matheus Leist and Tony Kanaan have brought a reinvigorated spirit and excitement to A.J. Foyt Racing. (Photo: IndyCar)

Last season’s dismal showing prompted Foyt to invest a significant amount of new capital into his organization during the Verizon IndyCar Series offseason. He invested heavily in new equipment, new cars, new personnel and new drivers, bringing Brazilian Tony Kanaan into the fold alongside countryman and IndyCar rookie Matheus Leist in place of Munoz and Daly.

Given what we’ve seen in the first two days of practice and qualifying for Sunday’s season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Foyt has already seen a big return on his investment: Leist will start Sunday’s race third on the 24-driver grid, while Kanaan will start 10th.

It’s not a fluke by any stretch:

* In Friday’s opening practice, the 19-year-old Leist was quickest, while Kanaan was ninth-quickest.

* In Friday’s second practice, Kanaan was again ninth-quickest, while Leist dropped to 12th.

* In Saturday’s lone practice before qualifying, Leist was back up to fifth, while Kanaan was 10th.

And then there was qualifying, and we know how that turned out. Leist out-qualified some of the best in the sport, including Ryan Hunter-Reay (6th), James Hinchcliffe (7th), four-time champion Scott Dixon (9th), 2016 series champ Simon Pagenaud (11th), defending series champion Josef Newgarden (13th) and Graham Rahal (24th).

That’s pretty heady stuff for a 19-year-old kid from Brazil. But Leist showed no fear, didn’t let the slight drizzle during qualifying significantly impact him, and he drove like a veteran rather than the rookie he is.

And then there’s Kanaan, who is approaching his mid-40s but has driven this weekend as if he’s once again back in his prime. The new venue and team has definitely helped inspire him and up his game.

Some have said at 43, Kanaan should retire. Yet, Foyt didn’t think that way, signing Kanaan to a multi-year deal after he was cut loose by Chip Ganassi Racing after four seasons.

Just like his young teammate and fellow Brazilian, Kanaan not only out-practiced several big names this weekend, he also out-qualified them, as well.

And now, as we prepare for Sunday’s first race of the season, suddenly A.J. Foyt Racing doesn’t look like an also-ran any longer. It looks like not only a bonafide competitor, but also a potential winner – something it hasn’t been considered for quite some time.

Sure, three practices and one qualifying session – let alone one race out of 17 – does not a season or championship make. But given what we’ve seen thus far from Leist, Kanaan and the entire Foyt organization, there’s a great sense of optimism and excitement that hasn’t been seen for a long time.

Heck, things may get so good – and here’s hoping they continue to do so – that old Tex may want to get back into a race car himself. After all, he doesn’t want the young guys having all the fun. He deserves some once again, too.

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Mercedes: F1 teams need to work together to avoid split

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said Friday that Formula One teams have a responsibility to try to overcome their differences over the future of the sport in the face of a threat by Ferrari to quit because of a number of proposed changes.

Bernie Ecclestone, who ran F1 for 40 years before being replaced by new owners Liberty Media last year, has raised the possibility that Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne could walk away from F1 and form a breakaway series over Liberty’s future vision for the sport.

Ferrari is unhappy with Liberty’s proposal to simplify engines and redistribute prize money among F1 teams after the current contract with teams expires at the end of 2020.

Ferrari team boss Maurizio Arrivabene would not comment on the specifics of Marchionne’s previous comments at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on Friday, but said: “My only suggestion, please take him seriously.”

Wolff is also taking the possibility of Ferrari walking away seriously. He told Britain’s Press Association before the Australian GP that he agreed with Marchionne’s concerns and that Formula One can’t afford to alienate Ferrari or lose the team.

“Don’t mess with Sergio Marchionne,” he said. “Formula One needs Ferrari much more than Ferrari needs Formula One.”

Wolff was more diplomatic on Friday, saying he hopes all sides could come together for the good of the sport.

“I think this as much a battle on track as much as it is a fight off track for an advantage,” he said. “It is clear the current governance and how the rules are being made is not very functional. There’s too much different opinions and agendas on the table and we need to sort it for 2021 for the best interest of the sport.”

Red Bull boss Christian Horner agreed there are too many competing agendas, suggesting that the FIA-Formula One’s governing body-and Liberty Media come together to decide on a set of regulations and financial framework for the next contract and the teams can then decide if they want to accept it or not.

“Trying to get a consensus between teams that have varying objectives, different set-ups, is going to be impossible,” he said. “It’s history repeating itself. It happens every five or six years, every time the Concorde Agreement comes up for renewal.”

Tempers also flared during Friday’s media conference over another issue of contention between the teams – Ferrari’s recent hiring of FIA’s ex-safety director, Laurent Mekies.

Horner believes Ferrari broke an agreement among teams at a recent meeting to institute a 12-month waiting period for any former employee of FIA or FOM (Formula One Management) to be able to start working for one of F1’s teams. The concern is that former FIA staff who go to work for a specific team could share secrets from other teams.

“Certain teams were pushing for that period to be three years, but in the end it was agreed upon being 12 months,” he said. “It almost makes those meetings pointless if we can’t agree on something and action it.”

Arrivabene defended Ferrari’s move, saying Mekies would not join its team until after a six-month “gardening leave” period.

“There is nothing wrong with that because we were absolutely respecting the local law, the Swiss local law where Laurent was hired,” he said.