One of the perks of my life is a weekly phone call with Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. We start out comparing notes about getting old and our latest maladies, but we always finish up spending 20 minutes on the joys of Langhorne, the coolest Coyote, why Eddie Sachs was a badass, and how much he misses dirt tracks, Gypsy Mitch and Milwaukee.
But about three weeks ago RACER’s Marshall Pruett got tipped that Sebastien Bourdais might be driving the IMS road course doubleheader for Foyt next month, so I called Super Tex and asked if it could happen. He kinda downplayed the chances, but then he asked: “How much to do you think it would cost to hire Bourdais to run for us next year?”
My response was, ‘Probably $500,000 to $750,000, and he’d be worth every penny.’ But I couldn’t imagine the original old-schooler ever spending that kind of money.
Last week, that cagey old codger called and told me Seb was going to run the last three races of 2020 in the No. 14 Chevy, but to keep my mouth shut because he didn’t want Anne Fornoro (A.J.’s longtime public relations director and voice of reason) to get mad at him.
Of course, he left out one small detail – that the four-time champion had also signed on full-time for 2021.
“Oh, did I forget to tell you that?” Foyt claimed on Tuesday before the news became official with Pruett’s story on RACER.com.
Now, if you’re a fan of Indy’s all-time winner, this is great news for his team. It’s also good for IndyCar and could be an elixir for one of the best drivers of the past two decades.
There was a time when driving for Foyt was not only an honor, but a chance to shine as well. From 1965-77, Al Unser, George Snider, Jim McElreath, Roger McCluskey, Joe Leonard, Jim Hurtubise, Donnie Allison and Bill Vukovich were teammates with A.J. in the United States Auto Club.
While Tex was winning 39 times in those USAC days (including two more Indy 500s and three more championships), McElreath won the inaugural California 500 and Leonard, McCluskey and Allison all ran strong.
It all changed in the CART days and Foyt didn’t visit Victory Lane from 1982 until he walked away in 1993 – managing only a second at Indy in 1979 and second at Milwaukee in 1982. He hated English engineers, computers, engine leases, and the fact you no longer built your own chassis, all that distaste compounded by his own stubbornness.
From 1979-95, Foyt had 25 different drivers, and other than a spark from Robby Gordon (second-third-fourth in 1993) and Eddie Cheever being one lap away from winning at Nazareth before running out of fuel, it was slim pickins’.
The Indy Racing League, which debuted in 1996, represented a new lease on life for Indy’s first four-time winner. Kenny Brack returned the team to the winner’s circle three times in 1998 while winning the IRL title and then captured the 1999 Indy 500. Airton Dare gave A.J. his last IRL win in 2002 at Kansas.
The formation of IndyCar in 2008 brought everyone back together and sent A.J. back to mid-pack (or worse), other than Takuma Sato’s victory at Long Beach in 2013 and second at Detroit in 2015 plus rare podiums by Mike Conway (2012) and Tony Kanaan (2019).
There are plenty of reasons for all the struggles. The team is divided (one car in Houston and one in Indianapolis, although A.J. says that’s no big deal) and, between location and/or the clash of ideas, it’s been difficult to get the best people to work or stay working for the irascible 85-year-old legend.
A lack of consistency (67 drivers have donned Foyt colors since 1979) is also a culprit – especially when you consider Scott Dixon is in his 20th year with Chip Ganassi, Will Power his 10th with Roger Penske; and Ryan-Hunter Reay has been with Michael Andretti for a decade.
On the flipside, journeymen like Ross Cheever, Fredrik Ekblom, Gregor Foitek, Marco Greco, Shigeaki Hattori, Scott Mayer and Frank Perera have called A.J. boss, so it’s little wonder he lost interest and turned things over to Larry Foyt.
I’m convinced Larry’s involvement is the only reason that A.J. keeps the doors open, and he vowed earlier this year only to attend the Indianapolis 500 since it’s all he cares about. But Tuesday, he said he’d be seeing me for breakfast at Charlie Brown’s in a few weeks because he’s coming back for Seb’s debut.
In spring training at COTA, Bourdais was at the front of the grid in his only day in Foyt’s car, and it’s a shame he didn’t get to run those five scheduled races after the pandemic shuffled the schedule because he immediately clicked with engineer Mike Colliver.
I’ve warned A.J. that Seb is very much like he was in his heyday – demanding; sometimes temperamental; very sharp at setting up an IndyCar; and driven to succeed. But it’s going to take that combination to turn this team around, and the Foyt group needs to listen.
Bourdais, at 41, is in the twilight of his great career, but is still hungry, and this is likely going to be his owner’s last shot at being competitive.
“I’m tired of running last and I think it could be a pretty good combination because Mike got along good with him at COTA and Seb liked Mike,” said Foyt. “He knows how to set up a car and he knows how to win, and I think he’ll do a good job. I think we did the right thing.”
I’m sure a lot of the internet experts are yawning because they see this as a guy past his prime going to a hopeless situation. And recent history could support that theory. But Bourdais, who has 37 career IndyCar wins and 34 poles, wanted to go out on his own terms, and if he can get some results for Super Tex in 2021, it will make a lot of us smile.
IndyCar needs A.J., his team, that commanding presence and all the history he represents. Hell, he might even start going to races again if that No. 14 car is in the mix.