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.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

NHRA Bristol: Schumacher, Capps, Coughlin Jr. take home wins

Tony Schumacher, from left, Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Ron Capps. Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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You’ve heard of classic rock, right?

Well, Sunday’s 18th annual Fitzgerald USA NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol (Tennessee) Dragway was classic drag racing – old school style, you might say.

Drivers who have combined for 14 national championships between them emerged at the top of the heap, with eight-time champ Tony Schumacher taking Top Fuel honors, former champ Ron Capps took Funny Car honors and five-time champ Jeg Coughlin Jr. grabbing Pro Stock honors.

In Top Fuel, Schumacher earned his sixth career win at Thunder Valley, as well as his first win overall of 2018.

Known as “The Sarge” due to his U.S. Army sponsorship, Schumacher marched through the field to reach the Winner’s Circle.

Schumacher (3.946 seconds at 313.58 mph) defeated Mike Salinas in what would prove to be Schumacher’s third final round of the season and the 150th of his career.

He now is 6-2 in career final round showings at Thunder Valley.

“We have had little things bite us this season, but we knew we had to overcome adversity and we knew we had a great car that was capable of winning,” Schumacher said. “I’m proud of my team for sticking to our plan, and I know our team is going to be a factor for the rest of the season.”

Schumacher was the No. 2 qualifier in the race and defeated Terry McMillen, Pat Dakin, points leader Steve Torrence and Salinas to take the win.

It was the first runner-up finish of Salinas’ career, defeating Leah Pritchett, No. 1 qualifier Clay Millican and Scott Palmer before meeting Schumacher in the final.

In Funny Car, like Schumacher, Capps won for the first time this season on the NHRA national event circuit. It was also his second consecutive win at Bristol, having won last year’s event there.

Capps earned the 59th win of his career with a pass of 4.234 seconds at 296.37 mph, defeating Bob Tasca III.

Capps also earned Don Schumacher his 300th career nitro victory as a team owner.

“This is a great facility, and when you roll into this place you get a special feeling,” Capps said. “Getting to the Winner’s Circle at a track like this is even more special because you feel like you really had to earn it, and this weekend I am proud of what my team accomplished in some tough conditions.”

Capps went to the top of the Funny Car mountain starting from the No. 11 qualifying position, defeating 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force, 2017 Funny Car national champ Robert and J.R. Todd before defeating Tasca in the final round.

Capps qualified 11th for the event before defeating John Force, defending Funny Car world champion Robert Hight and J.R. Todd on his path to Winner’s Circle.

Tasca was the No. 4 qualifier and defeated Tim Wilkerson, Cruz Pedregon and points leader Courtney Force to reach his first final round since at Seattle in 2013.

In Pro Stock, Coughlin earned his second win in the last three races. It took an effort of 6.709 seconds at 205.10 mph to defeat points leader Greg Anderson in the final round.

“My team has made some transitions this season and now we are running much faster, and it feels pretty great to be on the right track now this season,” Coughlin Jr. said. “Winning at Thunder Valley is historic and it feels fantastic, so to be crowned a champion here is really special.”

Coughlin qualified No. 2 and beat Tommy Lee, Chris McGaha and Drew Skillman en route to overtaking Anderson in the final round.

Anderson now has two runner-up finishes this season, but continues to seek his first win of 2018.

The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule moves on to its 12th race of the season – the halfway mark of the 2018 campaign – next weekend at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, from June 21-24.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Tony Schumacher; 2. Mike Salinas; 3. Steve Torrence; 4. Scott Palmer; 5. Pat Dakin; 6. Doug Kalitta; 7. Antron Brown; 8. Clay Millican; 9. Brittany Force; 10. Leah Pritchett; 11. Shawn Reed; 12. Richie Crampton; 13. Dom Lagana; 14. Bill Litton; 15. Terry Totten; 16. Terry McMillen.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Ron Capps; 2. Bob Tasca III; 3. Courtney Force; 4. J.R. Todd; 5. Robert Hight; 6. Jack Beckman; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 8. Cruz Pedregon; 9. Tim Wilkerson; 10. Del Worsham; 11. Jonnie Lindberg; 12. Shawn Langdon; 13. Jim Campbell; 14. Matt Hagan; 15. John Force; 16. Jeff Diehl.

PRO STOCK: 1. Jeg Coughlin; 2. Greg Anderson; 3. Tanner Gray; 4. Drew Skillman; 5. Erica Enders; 6. Vincent Nobile; 7. Tim Freeman; 8. Chris McGaha; 9. Jason Line; 10. Bo Butner; 11. Alex Laughlin; 12. John Gaydosh Jr.; 13. Wally Stroupe; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Deric Kramer; 16. Tommy Lee.

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SUNDAY’S FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Tony Schumacher, 3.946 seconds, 313.58 mph def. Mike Salinas, 5.251 seconds, 152.18 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 4.234, 296.37 def. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 4.300, 286.98.

PRO STOCK: Jeg Coughlin, Chevy Camaro, 6.709, 205.10 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.741, 205.07.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Mike Salinas, 4.023, 295.53 def. Leah Pritchett, 4.011, 287.72; Scott Palmer, 4.017, 304.39 def. Bill Litton, 4.172, 261.07; Clay Millican, 4.018, 295.14 def. Terry Totten, 4.542, 182.58; Tony Schumacher, 3.917, 316.82 def. Terry McMillen, 5.112, 141.40; Antron Brown, 3.897, 316.82 def. Richie Crampton, 4.057, 297.22; Doug Kalitta, 3.998, 286.38 def. Brittany Force, 3.942, 307.51; Steve Torrence, 3.970, 303.71 def. Shawn Reed, 4.018, 283.25; Pat Dakin, 4.015, 307.30 def. Dom Lagana, 4.107, 272.12; QUARTERFINALS — Salinas, 4.035, 299.20 def. Millican, 9.938, 76.57; Palmer, 4.067, 302.41 def. Kalitta, 4.292, 230.92; Schumacher, 4.028, 288.64 def. Dakin, 4.041, 298.14; Torrence, 4.232, 253.33 def. Brown, 5.090, 155.65; SEMIFINALS — Salinas, 4.042, 301.07 def. Palmer, 4.356, 211.89; Schumacher, 4.038, 297.02 def. Torrence, 4.104, 254.04; FINAL — Schumacher, 3.946, 313.58 def. Salinas, 5.251, 152.18.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 4.757, 227.23 def. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Solara, 5.978, 124.51; Courtney Force, Camaro, 4.169, 307.65 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Ford Mustang, 4.382, 262.18; J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 4.213, 300.26 def. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.362, 252.61; Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.133, 303.09 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.183, 289.82; Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.582, 229.00 def. Jim Campbell, Dodge Charger, 5.030, 159.02; Ron Capps, Charger, 4.243, 296.37 def. John Force, Camaro, 5.824, 128.57; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.283, 281.30 def. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 4.569, 266.37; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.253, 291.26 def. Matt Hagan, Charger, 5.381, 142.06; QUARTERFINALS — C. Force, 4.197, 298.14 def. Johnson Jr., 5.139, 158.45; Tasca III, 4.233, 292.90 def. Pedregon, 5.757, 126.33; Todd, 4.203, 295.92 def. Beckman, 4.333, 277.49; Capps, 4.208, 299.33 def. Hight, 4.233, 300.73; SEMIFINALS — Capps, 4.242, 298.93 def. Todd, 4.372, 285.65; Tasca III, 4.219, 298.60 def. C. Force, 4.271, 286.62; FINAL — Capps, 4.234, 296.37 def. Tasca III, 4.300, 286.98.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Vincent Nobile, Chevy Camaro, 6.739, 204.45 def. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.776, 204.45; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.736, 205.32 def. Deric Kramer, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.729, 204.88 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.726, 203.95; Tim Freeman, Camaro, 6.787, 202.58 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.823, 201.94; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.754, 205.13 def. John Gaydosh Jr., Chevrolet Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.715, 204.23 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 9.845, 93.14; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.716, 204.35 def. Wally Stroupe, Camaro, 7.027, 176.70; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.719, 205.10 def. Tommy Lee, Camaro, Broke – No Show; QUARTERFINALS — Gray, 6.789, 204.94 def. Freeman, Foul – Red Light; Coughlin, 6.740, 205.26 def. McGaha, 16.733, 48.09; Anderson, 6.723, 204.73 def. Nobile, 6.755, 204.29; Skillman, 6.727, 203.98 def. Enders, 6.743, 204.54; SEMIFINALS — Coughlin, 6.750, 204.51 def. Skillman, Foul – Red Light; Anderson, 6.768, 204.91 def. Gray, 6.764, 205.19; FINAL — Coughlin, 6.709, 205.10 def. Anderson, 6.741, 205.07.

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UPDATED POINTS STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 896; 2. Clay Millican, 786; 3. Tony Schumacher, 760; 4. Doug Kalitta, 717; 5. Leah Pritchett, 663; 6. Antron Brown, 588; 7. (tie) Brittany Force, 552; Terry McMillen, 552; 9. Scott Palmer, 461; 10. Mike Salinas, 421.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, 937; 2. Jack Beckman, 736; 3. Robert Hight, 717; 4. J.R. Todd, 694; 5. Ron Capps, 693; 6. Matt Hagan, 669; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., 606; 8. Cruz Pedregon, 508; 9. John Force, 502; 10. Bob Tasca III, 500.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, 823; 2. Tanner Gray, 768; 3. Vincent Nobile, 758; 4. Erica Enders, 738; 5. Drew Skillman, 679; 6. Jeg Coughlin, 671; 7. Chris McGaha, 659; 8. Bo Butner, 642; 9. Deric Kramer, 627; 10. Jason Line, 569.

Follow @JerryBonkowski