At Indy, boss Foyt is driving force, too

4-time winner also respected as owner

May 26, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS -- You might walk down the street somewhere around the world and ask for the name of a famous Indianapolis 500 race car driver and find answers that range from Al Unser to Mario Andretti to Emerson Fittipaldi.

But if you are walking down a street in Speedway, Ind., or down pit road inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and you are thinking about the history of the Indianapolis 500, the only name that comes to mind is A. J. Foyt.

As the final preparations for tomorrow's 85th Indianapolis 500 are being undertaken, it is still the man in garage A-1 through 5 who draws the biggest crowd.

"A. J. Foyt has won in so many decades, in so many different circumstances," said Buddy Lazier, the 1996 winner here. "You could never count him out then or now. As a car owner, his teams are always ready."

Sitting in his garages, Foyt is juggling life. Phone calls. Sponsors. Drivers. Crewmen. Even seeking a peek at his team's new Web site: Foytracing.com.

"Indianapolis is the only place anybody knows me or Mario or Fittipaldi from," he said, leaning back in a rickety yellow chair. "Even Roger Penske's name was made right here. They don't know Formula One or LeMans or sprint cars or sports cars. It's Indianapolis, period.

"I've won four Pocono 500s, too, but who cares."

It is his four Indianapolis 500 wins in 1961, 1964, 1967 and 1977 that made him a legend, the first man to win four times at Indy.

Since retiring from driving in 1993, he has been just as flashy as a car owner. His driver, Kenny Brack, won the Indy Racing League championship in 1998 and the Indianapolis 500 a year later.

"It is different driving for A. J. Foyt," said Eliseo Salazar, who has driven for Foyt for two years. "When you drive for other teams, you are the superstar. Here, with A. J., you drive for the superstar."

Last year, Salazar looked as if he would give Foyt his second 500 win as a car owner. He was in second place, challenging then-Championship Auto Racing Teams driver Juan Montoya for victory here when a bad pit stop on lap 175 cost him 18 seconds. Salazar dropped to 17th, but still recovered to finish third.

Now, Foyt has three well-prepared cars in tomorrow's race. Robby Gordon will start on the outside of the first row, Donnie Beechler will start on the outside of Row 9, and Salazar will be on the inside of Row 10.

In Gordon, Foyt has an experienced driver with a checkered history. No one questions his talent, only his attitude. In Winston Cup racing, he has bombed out twice. But in open wheel racing, he has shown great promise and finished in the Top 5 in the Indy 500 three times and sixth last year.

This is his second stint with Foyt and Foyt has only positive things to say about him.

"The thing with Robby," Foyt said, "is he has to respect you first. He's smart. He knows a lot. If he knows that he knows more than you, he'll run right over you. He doesn't run over me because he knows I know what I'm talking about.

"If I tell him to try a certain suspension, he'll try it and come back saying, `The car is great!' He knows I have his best interest at heart."

For a man whose reputation has been built on his toughness, Foyt is surprisingly warm-hearted. Yes, he does have his own self-interests as priorities, but he also really does have Gordon's best interests at heart. And even those of Winston Cup car owner Richard Childress, whose longtime friend Dale Earnhardt was killed during the Daytona 500 last February.

A month or so after Earnhardt's death, Foyt asked Childress if he'd like to be part-owner of the Gordon car at Indy.

"Richard and I have been friends a long time and he helps me with my stock cars," Foyt said. "But he and Earnhardt were together so long. ... I thought it might help Richard a little to get his mind off it. And he had a good time out here qualifying weekend. Now, he has a car on the front row in the Indy 500."

While Foyt talked, Gordon came in.

"A. J. has taught me a lot, a lot about what it takes to survive," Gordon said. "I do have a lot of respect for A. J. because of his Indianapolis experience. And everything I learned working with him the first time, I'm using now."

Foyt keeps Gordon interested. He keeps Salazar interested, too. And Beechler, who didn't qualify until the last minutes of the final day, showed his inspiration by turning in the fifth-best qualifying speed (224.449 mph) in the field.

"If everything goes well in the race, all three of my cars could win," said Foyt, who fields Dallara-Oldsmobiles for his teams, as do all but 14 competitors. "Robby has the best shot because of his experience and car control. But both Salazar and Beechler are good, too."

Foyt, a physically well-rounded 66, says the experience of running Indy is one of the most important ingredients in success here.

"This atmosphere, there is such a high profile, the whole world is looking at you," Foyt said. "It tightens you up. It's Indianapolis once a year. You screw up and you have to wait a whole year to try to make it right."

Tomorrow, he will tell Salazar and Beechler to take their time, but stay on the lead lap for 450 miles. Then, if there is anything left, race. Gordon's directive will be similar; stay in contention. Wait for the closing laps to move.

How it all will turn out, A. J. Foyt doesn't know. He's had his share of botched Indys. But he's also had above average success. That's why his name will be the most recognizable, the most respected at The Speedway tomorrow.

Indy 500

What: 85th Indianapolis 500

Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

When: Tomorrow, 11 a.m.

TV: Chs. 2, 7

Distance: 500 miles; 200 laps around the 2 1/2 -mile, asphalt-on-brick track

Number of starters: 33

Pole-sitter: Scott Sharp, who qualified a Dallara-Oldsmobile at a four-lap average of 226.037 mph

2000 champion: Juan Montoya, now driving in the Formula One series, did not enter the race this year.

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