Foyt with a wrench. It’s an iconic image dating back to the 1960s, when the brash, hott e m p e r e d racer started forging his image as one of the world’s best drivers. A wrench gripped by Foyt’s rugged hands is still the image that best characterizes the legendary Texan.
But in an era of high-tech diagnostics and sponsor-driven economics, it’s no longer a winning image.
“There are certain athletes, racing drivers and personalities that have unusual ways they go about their tasks and winning,” said Derek Daly, a broadcaster, business owner and former race car driver. “That different ‘it’ factor is part of what made them successful and most of what made them popular.
“Foyt had that ‘it’ factor before most race drivers knew what that was. It’s what made him great as a driver, but a big part of what makes him not great as a team owner. Foyt knew what he wanted as a driver, knew how to get it, and only did things his way. His way isn’t working anymore.”
Some say Foyt’s uncompromising desire to do things his way has secured his place at the back of the pack. And sports marketers say his single-minded focus on racing has made him difficult to work with and less desirable for sponsors. Others aren’t sure how to untangle the mess.
“A.J. Foyt has been the ultimate racing brand for so long, his current situation is mystifying,” said Dick Berggren, executive editor of Speedway Illustrated, a national monthly publication covering motorsports.
Foyt declined comment for this story.
He hasn’t been in the Indy Racing League’s winner’s circle since 2002. His team hasn’t had a top-five finish and has had only four top-10 finishes in three years, and hasn’t qualified on the pole in six years.
His record as an owner bears little resemblance to his days on the track. Foyt was the first driver to win four Indianapolis 500s, and the only one to win at Indianapolis, the Daytona 500 and 24 Hours of LeMans. He compiled 67 Indy car victories and a mind-numbing 172 total victories in everything from sports cars to stock cars.
After Foyt, 69, retired as a driver in 1994, his ownership efforts had brief success. He won the 1999 Indianapolis 500 with driver Kenny Brack and his team regularly ran up front.
But when better-financed and more-business-minded team owners like Bobby Rahal and Roger Penske came to the IRL from CART this decade, they brought an expensive attitude with them. Computers, telemetry and digital diagnostic equipment surpassed the importance of wrenches, hammers and screwdrivers.
Foyt began to fall behind.
“It’s really sad to see him running at the back of the field with no sponsors,” said Robin Miller, a longtime motorsports journalist. “It’s painful to see him struggle. He helped the Speedway become what it is.”
Foyt this May did land Wisconsin-based ABC Supply Co. Inc. as a primary sponsor. But even before Carmel-based Conseco Inc. left Foyt last year, he didn’t have much of a sponsorship program. And industry experts said ABC Supply is paying only a fraction of what Marlboro feeds into Penske Racing or Target funnels into Chip Ganassi’s team.
“The perception in the marketplace is, he’s behind the times in terms of commercialization,” said Zak Brown, president of Just Marketing, a local firm that pairs corporate sponsors with motorsports properties. “His overall presentation is not that of Penske and Ganassi and as the sport has grown commercially, he’s fallen further behind.”
Most agree a successful race team has three key ingredients: strong sponsorships and funding, top-notch computer technology and engineers, and quality drivers.
AJ IV: Untapped potential?
Industry insiders argue about the ability of Foyt’s grandson, A.J. IV, who drives A.J. Foyt Enterprises’ full-time IRL entry. Daly, who operates Derek Daly Performance Driving Academy in Las Vegas, said the 21-year-old has potential.
“When [A.J. IV] was 15, he came to our school, and I got a call from my head instructor, Jeff Shafer,” Daly said. “He said, ‘You have to see this kid.’ [A.J. IV] was one of the most talented drivers we’d ever seen.”
Other industry sources said it’s difficult to tell how good A.J. IV is because his car is far worse than those rolled out by the powerhouse teams.
“Foyt runs the same cars as his competitors,” Daly said. “It’s what he does with the car that keeps him at the back of the field. Foyt still relies on seat-of-the-pants, oldschool thinking. Old-school thinking doesn’t make cars go fast anymore.”
“The reality is, computers help you go a lot faster,” said Brown, a retired racer. “He’s of the attitude of, ‘Give me a wrench. I’ll fix it by wrenching on the car.'”
Some habits-especially when they’ve been successful in the past-die hard. In Foyt’s case, Miller said, those habits aren’t even ill.
“In his day, no one knew more about cars than A.J. Foyt,” Miller said. “He did a lot of the work himself, and few were better at it than he was. Now, he’s not going to have an engineer tell him what to do.”
Technology is the biggest difference between what Foyt drove and today’s cars, said four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears, an adviser for Team Penske.
“You have to work with electronics, computers and data acquisition and you have to know how to read that information,” Mears said. “It doesn’t work as much by driver’s feel as it used to.”
Mario Andretti, one of Foyt’s biggest rivals during their driving days, said Foyt is still fueled by a driver’s mentality.
“A.J. Foyt was first and foremost a driver,” Andretti said. “Ownership is a totally different business. You have to become more of a manager and surround yourself with the best people.”
Foyt employs few engineers, owns little computerized equipment, and eschews wind-tunnel testing. He certainly couldn’t afford any of that with his current sponsor lineup, which industry sources said might bring in $2 million annually at best. Foyt likely kicks in the rest himself.
While Foyt has a handful of small sponsors, teams like Rahal Letterman Racing and Michael Andretti’s Andretti-Green Racing have sponsorships that bring in $18 million to $20 million annually.
“It’s part of our business model,” said Kevin Savoree, Andretti-Green Racing chief operating officer. “We’ve put together an infrastructure that has helped us win the race off the track.”
Andretti-Green has leveraged its relationship with 7-11 convenience stores and several of the products sold there to elevate the team’s exposure and increase revenue. Foyt, said Just Marketing’s Brown, does little to activate his team’s sponsorships, not even with Craftsman Tools, with whom he has a 25-year relationship.
Given Foyt’s name recognition and accomplishments, Brown said, Foyt shouldn’t have difficulty cultivating sponsors, especially if he were committed to fielding a competitive team.
While Foyt’s staff ranges from six to 10 employees, Rahal has 39 dedicated solely to working with the cars and drivers. In addition, Rahal, Andretti and Penske have other staff working on marketing, hospitality and sponsorship sales.
While Rahal, Andretti and Penske are working as ambassadors for their teams, Foyt is still turning a wrench trying to perfect his car’s setup.
“His mind-set is centered around what made him great in the first place,” Daly said.
Though few fear Foyt’s team the way they did in the 1960s and 1970s, that doesn’t diminish his accomplishments, Miller said.
“No matter what anybody thinks, how could you not respect what this guy has done in the car?” Miller said. “He lived in a time when a driver died every weekend. He survived in a gladiator era. He succeeded by doing things his way.”