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A.J. Foyt returns to Road America after 21 years, drivers ready for its challenge

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After a 21-year absence, team owner and former driver A.J. Foyt will return to the legendary Road America road course for this weekend’s Kohler Grand Prix.

Foyt has not been back to the 4.048-mile, 14-turn high-speed track since 1995, when his car was running in the CART IndyCar Series.

Foyt switched to the upstart rival Indy Racing League the following season. The IRL is now the Verizon IndyCar Series and will bring Indy car racing back to Road America’s home in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, for the first time since 2007.

Sebastien Bourdais won that race under the Champ Car World Series banner and hopes to pick up where he left off nine years ago.

Foyt or his drivers competed eight times at Road America, with the best finish being an eighth-place showing by Mike Goff in 1991. Foyt’s best finish as a driver there was 10th in 1988.

But Road America also brings back bad memories for Foyt, who nearly died in a crash there in September 1990. He suffered severe injuries to his feet and legs when the brakes failed on his Lola, sending him head-on into a dirt embankment.

It took him eight months and several surgeries before he was able to climb back in a race car (for the 1991 Indianapolis 500).

But Foyt isn’t looking back at the past. He’s ready to start a new chapter at Road America with drivers Jack Hawksworth and Takuma Sato.

This will be Hawksworth’s second go-round at Road America, having competed in a sports car race there in 2014 (finished 12th).

“I love Road America,” Hawksworth said in a team media release. “It’s very quick, has a variety of corners and is the only track we go to that is over four miles in length.

“I had a fantastic time racing there in 2014 made even better by the fact that I had a very quick car.”

But Hawksworth also understands there’s a big difference between a sports car and his Indy car.

“The Indy car has a lot more grip and downforce so certainly braking will be later and the corner speeds higher,” he said. “It’ll just be a case of adapting to the car and putting it on the limit.

“In terms of passing, it should in theory be easier as we have the push-to-pass system in Indycar racing. Road America has a lot of character, and it is technical like other road courses yet it still allows for a lot of passing and action due to the length of some of the straights and the big braking zones.”

Sato, meanwhile, will be returning to Road America after taking part in a test there last September.

“Road America is very impressive and a great fun track, as expected,” he said of his first impression of the venue. “I’ve heard so many positive stories about Road America since I joined the IndyCar Series, and I know everyone and as well as the fans wanted IndyCar to go back there.

“So it was a nice experience that we had a great crowd show up at the test day last fall, and I had a lot of fun driving this superb track.”

While drivers like Max Chilton and retired great Mario Andretti compare Road America to Belgium’s famed Spa road course, Sato sees a greater similarity with Italy’s Imola.

“It is as fast as I experienced at possibly Imola,” Sato said. “Both tracks are the classic narrow type of track but very fast with good elevation change.

“For the drivers, you need a lot of commitment because there are so many fast corners. From an engineering perspective, you need a good stable car through the high speed sections and performance under braking with such a low downforce car.”

Another reason that this weekend is important for the Foyt teams: Primary sponsor ABC Supply Co. is headquartered in Beloit, Wisc., about 135 miles southwest of Road America. The company plans on having close to 1,000 employees at this weekend’s race.

The race will be televised live on NBC Sports Network, starting at 12:30 p.m. ET.

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Michelin appoints new North American motorsports director

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Michelin North America has named Tony Ménard as director of motorsports, effective Jan. 1, 2020.

Ménard is succeeding Chris Baker, who has held the role for the past eight years. Baker is scheduled to retire in March of 2020, ending a lengthy career that began with Michelin in 1982.

“Chris has played a vital role in the growth and success of our motorsports program, both for BFGoodrich and Michelin in North America,” said Matthieu Bonardel, global director for Michelin Group’s motorsports business entity. “His passion and understanding for motorsport fueled growth in the organization and established credibility in the market. Chris’s leadership propelled the Group, which experienced tremendous success with race wins, and advanced the way the brands leveraged our motorsports participation to benefit the overall business.”

A native of Le Mans, France, Ménard has served in several positions during his 30-year career with Michelin, most recently serving global business leader for Michelin brand in the passenger-vehicle category. Ménard has worked closely with the North American motorsports team since early July in preparation for the transition.

Baker oversaw the development of the motorsports function for Michelin and BFGoodrich Tires brands as a single business unit in North America. He also directed the expansion of Michelin’s involvement in IMSA sports-car racing as the “Official Tire of IMSA” and BFGoodrich Tires partnership with SCORE International Racing as the “Official Tire of SCORE.”

During Baker’s tenure, BFGoodrich achieved an unprecedented 650 off-road class wins, including five overall victories in the Baja 1000. The brand also demonstrated performance in the Battery Tender Global Mazda MX5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires, Lucas Oil Off Road Racing, Ultra4 King of Hammers, and provided strong support of grass roots racing across North America with the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), National Auto Sport Association (NASA), and Super Production Challenge in Canada.

“I am incredibly grateful to Michelin for the opportunities and support throughout my career, and to all the folks that I have worked with and continue to work with,” Baker said. “I want to thank all the teams, partners, officials and fans who have made our relationships so successful and are essential to the brands’ successes. I look forward to witnessing the continued success of our motorsports programs under Tony’s leadership, as well as the contributions of the Michelin Motorsport North America staff and volunteers, who are completely dedicated and invested in representing our brands in competition.”