In the world of IndyCar, nobody casts a bigger shadow than AJ Foyt.
Consistently topping every "greatest ever" list, Foyt built an unrivaled record during a 40-year professional career as a driver -- along with a reputation of having a personality as big as his native Texas and a temper that can be twice as hot.
"People who kind of know me know I try to be smiling all the time," said Foyt Racing team director Larry Foyt, son of AJ. "I don’t mind being in the background. Maybe I can take a little bit of credit for us being more competitive, I don’t know. It’s the whole group. I’m trying to put people here who are smarter than me. Everyone here has the same goal -- we all want to win."
Larry Foyt said AJ tried hard to keep his children out of racing. Larry said part of it was for safety reasons, but physical pain -- something AJ Foyt became very familiar with during his career -- wasn't the only concern. Sparing Larry the pain of disappointment and frustration inherent to racing was also among the elder Foyt's motives.
"The danger was part of it, although it is obviously a lot safer now than when he was racing, but it’s also a tough career choice," said Larry during an interview on qualification weekend at Indy. "Like any professional sport, there are very few spots for a lot of competitors. Look at all the good race car drivers that don’t have a ride here at Indy or in any series. I think that was a factor as well."
At first AJ's discouragement worked. Larry was active in baseball, basketball, other "stick and ball" sports. But then in high school, came this ..
"As I started to get older, I started to think about it and finally one day I said, 'Why CAN’T I try this?' and he was very against it. But I started working at the race shop after school and saved up some money and mom helped me talk him into letting me go buy a go-kart."
Go-karts have long been a gateway drug into racing, and so it was with Larry. Then the Foyt racing gene took hold and Larry had almost immediate success. He rose from karts up to NASCAR in a relative flash. Visions of carrying on the family name flashed through Larry's head.
"At that time I never thought about running a team," he said, "but I always thought about later carrying on our family business of having a race team. I didn’t think I’d be this young (34). I hoped I would still be racing at this age for sure."
The racing didn't pan out over the long term for Larry, however. The mathematics of number of drivers for number of rides did catch up to him, and Larry found himself "taking bad rides and looking bad."
"So my dad said 'Why don’t you come home. I’m getting older. You can help me run this team if you want to take it over some day,' Foyt said. "I said OK I flew to Michigan (the next IndyCar race at the time)."
What happened next was classic AJ Foyt. "I'll never forget," said Larry. "I was just hanging out and someone came up to me -- a fan -- and said 'Congratulations on your position!' I said 'What?' They said 'We hear you're the new team director at AJ Foyt Racing.' AJ had gone into a press conference and made an announcement unbeknownst to me. He knew how to get me in. So I moved home and started working for the team."
Larry said he spent his first year with the team, 2007, getting the lay of the land.
"When I first got here, I kind of took my first year and watched and listened a lot and learned a lot," said Foyt. "I didn't want to come in and have it be 'Oh, here’s the boss’ kid and he’s trying to change everything.' I just kind of came in and tried to make little changes where I could."
Every year since then, Larry said as he's grown in the team director role as AJ has stepped back more and more. AJ continues to be the team's grand counselor and guiding force, Larry says. And part of Larry's job is to become a bridge between AJ and the rest of the team, to help everyone interact with the man without getting too hung up on the legend.
"You just have to understand AJ," said Larry. "He’s very straightforward. You can't tell him what he wants to hear, but tell him the truth of what is happening. I think so many people are scared he’s going to get angry if you tell him something or whatnot. I think the key to AJ is telling him what is really going on, what you want, and what you think needs to happen. And he’ll think about it. He may tell you you're wrong (initially), but he'll go away and think about it and my come back and say you were right."
As for the famous AJ temper, there may be some voices raised here and there, Larry said, but usually it's with good reason. Famous videos of AJ yelling, beating on cars with tools and throwing laptops may have given people an exaggerated view of AJ's volatility. Larry says AJ is far more deliberative than most people give him credit for.
"You don’t tell him what he wants to hear, you just tell him the facts and nine times out of ten, whether you think he’s right or wrong -- and he may use an example from the 60s or the 70s and you think 'oh well that’s relevant today' -- and it turns out he’s right," said Larry. "I think that’s just his experience and his racing knowledge is so deep that he’s usually right, even if you think 'no the technology is more right than you are' but he’s usually right. It’s unbelievable."
Larry has found his place on the team by taking his strengths -- "I think I'm more of a people person than AJ" -- and using them to manage existing talent and bring in new employees.
"For me, you’re only as good as the people around you so bringing in people who are a lot smarter than I am has really been my goal," said Larry.
Vintage AJ -- full of passion and fury -- still makes an appearance now and then, Larry said, but it's usually when the team has clearly "screwed up."
"He’s so competitive. I think that''s where it comes from. You see it in no matter what we are doing. He’s kind of competitive to a fault, that’s why he was so successful as a driver as well," Larry said. "At a race track he’s very intense. His determination is unbelievable. He wants to win. I think he’s been so frustrated at our performance for the last few years it’s been very hard for him."
Foyt Racing's performance has steadily improved in recent years with Vitor Meira moving up the pack each season. Larry gives a lot of credit to their sponsor, ABC Supply, for providing them with steady sponsorship that has allowed the team to build on each year without interrupting efforts to search for more funding.
Meira and AJ also have a good relationship, one built on values shared by the two men.
"I think what AJ and I like about Vitor is he wants to race," said Larry. "He’s not here to walk around, wave at the crowd and sign autographs. He wants to race. He gets it. He gives 110 percent. He trains hard, he works hard, he thinks about racing all the time, kind of like AJ does."
Right now Larry is trying to "mileage out" their inventory for the current Dallara car in preparation for the new cars coming in 2012.
"When everyone gets hands on a new car, we'll be straight to work on that to see how much will translate from the old car, etc.," Foyt said.
Larry is also working the phones, trying to find another sponsor to perhaps expand to a two-car team in 2012. "I feel like our next big step is to have a teammate for Vitor," said Larry. "That has been a lot of my efforts this year, trying to put that in place." A two-car team will be even more critical when it comes to building a database quickly for the new car, Foyt said.
As for Larry -- who is still in good shape and plenty young enough at age 34 to drive -- he admits to the occasional urge to get back in the cockpit, but not enough to jolt him out of his current role.
"When you hear the cars going you do (miss driving)," said Larry. "I mean that is fun. But then we qualify and I see the drivers and they are shaking when they get out of the car and I’m like "Oh, I’m fine with what I am doing right now.' There are a lot of times it’s fun, but when you really have to hang it out it really is nerve wracking. I’m fine right here."