As the sun set on a plush California vineyard, race fans reveled in the opportunity to meet legendary racer A.J. Foyt, who signed Foyt Wine bottles, smiled for pictures and shared stories and laughs with a steady stream of admirers.
Everyone enjoyed the party, two days before the Sept. 18 GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, although neither the first four-time Indianapolis 500 winner nor A.J. Foyt Racing president Larry Foyt could raise their glasses to toast much from a frustrating Verizon IndyCar Series season.
Both were blunt about the need for change in 2017.
“To be honest with you, it’s just been a terrible year,” A.J. said. “It’s just not clicking. It seems like nobody is clicking with each other. We’ve just got to come out fresh next year and make a bunch of changes.
“It’s to a point where when you’re not winning, you’ve got to do something. I like to win. That’s how I made my name. I cannot stand being in the back. Maybe I’m old school, but if things aren’t clicking, you’ve got to make major changes. So that’s what is going to happen.”
One race win since 2003 doesn’t sit well with an 81-year-old Hall of Famer whose name is synonymous with making motorsports history, whose 67 victories as an Indy car driver rank No. 1 on the all-time list.
But the dissatisfaction goes beyond that. In the team’s second season with two full-time rides, neither car ran near the front often enough. The best was Takuma Sato finishing fifth twice. Jack Hawksworth’s best was 11th twice. Sato finished 17th in the points and Hawksworth 20th.
Sato has been with Foyt since 2013, when he delivered that lone win at Long Beach, and it's the longest any driver has been on the team since Foyt was his own boss. Hawksworth just completed his second season with the team.
“We’re wide open on next year,” said Larry Foyt, A.J.’s son whose longtime stint as a team mainstay included being promoted to president before 2015.
“None of us are happy. A.J.’s not happy, I’m not happy, the crews aren’t happy, the drivers aren’t happy and certainly (sponsor) ABC Supply is not happy. We know we can do a lot better than this. There will be some changes coming and no doubt we’ll be headed a different direction next year.”
The team had to adjust to technical director Don Halliday relinquishing responsibilities in preparing to retire, which meant relying on two younger engineers in Raul Prados, 36, on the No. 14 ABC Supply Honda and Daniele Cucchiaroni, 35, on the No. 41 ABC Supply Honda.
“At the end of the day, we didn’t get the finishes and the results,” said Larry, 39. “That’s what hurts you. You walk away feeling, ‘Boy, we really had a bad year.’ When you look at the championship points, we did.
“That being said, there were a lot of things that happened, with Don Halliday kind of stepping back as he goes into retirement. We had some pretty young engineers and they did a great job, but they were learning every week. The way that all happened kind of left us with a great deal of youth in those positions. We didn’t finish races where we needed to. It was a year, yeah, we want to forget, but we’ve got to learn from it and how do we get better? I was really hoping this second year as a two-car team, we were going to start capitalizing on that, and we didn’t do it.”
Neither Foyt was specific about those changes, but it could include more than personnel. Stories have surfaced this week that the team may switch from Honda to Chevrolet as its supplier of engines and aero kits for 2017.
“It’s kind of that time of the year, everybody is seeing where they are, but yeah, there’s definitely big changes coming,” Larry said.
A.J. likes his engineers, but didn’t pull any punches about his drivers.
“You’ve got to look at every possibility where we’ve been weak,” he said. “And where we’ve been weak, we’ve got to make changes. I think we’ve got some great engineers. They’re very smart.
“I guess one of the things I don’t agree with, I’ve run a lot of road courses and been fortunate enough to win, say we’re on a road course and the driver comes in and talks to the engineers. When he comes in, he’ll tell you 10 things that are wrong with each corner. Let me tell you something, if you’re giving me 100 percent, how can you remember every damn thing that’s wrong with each corner? If you come in and say in Turn 4 or 5, you’re having a lot of trouble, then later on we’ll look at the computer and see where we are. But if you’re concentrating on how to run fast, you can’t tell me every corner what’s going wrong.”
He was disgusted at the end of the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen on Sept. 4 in Watkins Glen, N.Y. Sato was in position for a strong finish but spun late to drop back to 17th.
“We’re going to run a good, honest fifth, started 22nd, and there’s no reason to spin. Nobody is challenging,” A.J. said. “That’s hard for me to swallow.”
Larry accentuated the positive of qualifying stronger on ovals. That included Sato starting third at the ABC Supply 500 in Pocono (Pa.) and fourth in the Firestone 600 at Texas. Hawksworth’s strongest qualifying effort came on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, when he started fourth for the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
The team president didn’t sound discouraged about the prospects of turning the team around.
“That’s what is great about this championship right now, it’s not a huge difference from the top to the bottom,” Larry said. “When you’re just a little bit off your game, you’re at the bottom right now in INDYCAR. It can be some small adjustments that get you back to the top. To me, it’s not like we’re so far out to lunch that it’s a five-year rebuilding program. It’s nothing like that. There are a lot of positives. We just have to strengthen our weaknesses.”
A.J. acknowledges his sponsor deserves stronger results.
“That might be the reason I had the damn heart attack,” he said with a chuckle. “I’ve been sick for the last three years.”
One change A.J. Foyt doesn’t intend to make is removing himself. Despite his share of health issues in recent years and race struggles, he’s not ready to retire.
“Not until we get winning again,” A.J. said. “Larry loves it and he’s doing a great job for me, sick as I’ve been for the last three and a half years. I’m going to teach him how to win.”