Larry Foyt Determined to Get A.J. Foyt Back to Victory Lane

·11 min read
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It’s hard enough working for a legend. But when you work for a legend who happens to be both A.J. Foyt and your adoptive father and biological grandfather, the experience is magnified infinitesimally.

Even so, Larry Foyt wouldn’t have it any other way. Since taking over as president of his father’s team, A.J. Foyt Racing (AJFR), more than a decade ago, the younger Foyt calls the experience of working side-by-side with arguably the greatest race car driver to ever live “awesome and very rewarding.”

“It's still a lot of fun,” Larry Foyt told Autoweek in an exclusive interview ahead of the 106th Indianapolis 500. “It's a lot of hard work. It's tough. It's certainly something that I feel like I've aged a lot over the past few years with the stress of it all, but there’s still nowhere else I want to be other than at a racetrack.

“I was even nervous because driving for A.J. (earlier in Larry’s own racing career) was really tough. He's obviously super tough. He wants you to know he's expecting a lot out of you. It was hard for me and (A.J. Foyt IV, Larry’s cousin), it's just difficult. His intensity never wavers at a racetrack. I was nervous about what it would be like working with him with a team, but it's really been awesome, we've gotten so close.”

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Admittedly, it hasn’t always been easy. The man also known as “Big A.J.” has long had a reputation of being stubborn and set in his ways.

But the elder Foyt is also a realist. Shortly after turning 70, he called Larry—who was living in North Carolina and racing part-time at the time—to have “the talk.”

“A.J. said, ‘Look, I'm getting older, and if you want to keep this race team going, you might think about moving home and learning the business,’” Larry Foyt recalled about moving back to the Foyt family stomping grounds near Houston, Texas. “And so I did and I’ll tell you, it's amazing how well we do work together. I don't do any big decisions without him and I discussing it.”

Even though A.J. knew change was in the best interest of the team, making those changes wasn’t always easy.

“I mean, before I came back (to Texas), AJ was the engineer, owner, everything,” Larry Foyt said. “It was a lot for him to probably start slowly turning that loose. But I think when he was sick in 2013, when we won Long Beach without him there, and as much as I knew he hated not being there, I think he started to feel like, ‘Okay, they can handle it all without me there.’

“It's just tough, all these teams, there really aren't any small teams left and everybody’s a pretty big company and pretty big organization. So we’re trying to keep up and work our way to where we're consistently up there with (the other teams).”

Yet even with such a serious subject of letting go of his previous ironclad control, the elder Foyt couldn’t help but have a bit of good-natured fun at his son’s expense.

“A.J. got me pretty good,” Larry Foyt said with a laugh. “They were racing at Michigan and I came to the race. A.J. was doing a press conference and he announced that I was taking over the team and moving back to Texas.

“I was like, ‘Wow, that's news to me! I better go start getting out of my apartment lease.’”

Sure, Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. could have turned over control of his race team to someone with a greater background in racing, but he chose his son because while Larry wanted to do some racing in his youth, his father insisted he go to college and earn his degree before he’d give his approval to his son getting behind the wheel.

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“I wanted to race but (A.J.) didn't really want his kids in racing,” Larry said. “I think he was a little nervous about it, and didn't want us to get hurt. And he also was very frank about the fact of, ‘Look, not everybody's A.J. Foyt. I made this work.’

“He was big on me going to college and getting an education before he’d ever help me drive at all. I’m glad he did and it’s great to have that to fall back on. But that was the thing, he never tried to push us too hard. He said, ‘Look, just go out and do what you can do.’ He said, ‘I've won about every race there is to win and I've also hit the wall about as hard as anybody can. You're not gonna do anything to impress me. So just go do what you can do.’”

In full accuracy, Larry is actually A.J.’s biological grandson, but he also was adopted at a young age by the man they call “Tex” and is now in a unique situation as both AJ’s son and grandson.

As Larry grew up, A.J. wasn’t just a racer. He was also a firm but caring father who only wanted the best for his family. He also imparted great lessons for his children to learn. And in somewhat of a bow to Foyt’s famous name and legacy, in conversation Larry calls his father not only “Dad” or “Father”, but also by his famous initials.

“I think some of them were even unspoken.” Larry Foyt said of the life lessons A.J. has taught him. “I mean, just his dedication, his intensity, his desire to win, were just unbelievable. Even probably in some of the times that he didn't have the biggest budget and didn't have the most people, but he just wanted to win. And behind the wheel, he did whatever it took. You draw a lot of that from him.

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“As far as him as a dad, growing up, he was gone a lot because he was still racing. But as I started to get older, the one race I still came to every year since I was a baby was the Indy 500. I'd always be up early and back then we stayed at the Speedway Motel. I'd always walk over to the track with him and hear the fans hollering at him, saying, ‘Give ‘em hell, AJ.’

“As a kid, that was such a big impression, or sitting up in Turn 2 and having him wave to the family there in our family suite that we've always had. As I started to get a little bit older, I just started to think, can I give (racing) a shot? I went to him and he was pretty against it. And so I went to mom, I was like, ‘What do I need to do?’ And she said, ‘Why don't you quit your other sports and start going to the shop after school?’ So I did that and they gave me a job as a janitor. I saved up some money and mom finally helped us get a go-kart and that got it started.”

Even though he’s now 87 years old, the elder Foyt is still very spry and loves racing as much today as he did when he first started driving as a teenager.

“He still comes by the shop pretty much every day, comes by in the morning and then goes to lunch with some of the guys,” Larry said of his father. “And then in the afternoon he might go jump on a tractor to check some of the ranches. He’s definitely in every day and we go over things.

“I obviously learned from him through all the years of working together. I’m not going to say we haven't had our battles, usually little stuff.

“It's definitely a different world from when he was there. I think it's unbelievable, if you look at what he came up through and racing at Indianapolis and front engine roadsters, then going to rear engine cars, then downforce cars, it's pretty amazing.”

But A.J. can still be A.J., Larry said with another laugh.

“As we all know, he's not crazy about computers. He's thrown a couple in his day. He knows they're a big part of racing, he gets it. So now he he's really supportive (of his team using them).”

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Primed For a Turnaround

This is a very pivotal season for AJFR. After too many years of finishing as also-rans in IndyCar, father and son Foyt have essentially hit the reset button and are committed to turning things around.

“I don't want to say strategy, but part of it also was the whole series just continues to get more competitive, and teams continue to grow,” Larry Foyt said. “If we're going to try to fight against these big teams that have big resources, we've got to grow as well.

“So going to three cars, we thought, is a good thing, as long as this sponsor was there and (primary sponsor) Rokit wanted to have two cars (and AJFR has a third team with a different sponsor). So that's kind of what brought that about.”

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This year’s lineup is made up of two rookies, Kyle Kirkwood and Tatiana Calderon, and third-year racer Dalton Kellett. Youth is the key to the organization growing, Larry said.

The plan is to keep AJFR where it’s at now in terms of the IndyCar program, but diversification into other areas is also on the table.

“Indy car is still our top priority,” Larry Foyt said. “I would like to stay at three cars. I think that's a good number for this series. And continuing to work on getting the best people we can, the best drivers and get our competitiveness a little bit more consistent. That's the big deal there, just keeping the IndyCar program going.

“But I'm also very interested in diversification on the side of looking at some sports car stuff, maybe some other series, whether it's some ladder series in the IndyCar Series or sports cars.

“It’s like A.J. did. Obviously, he won Le Mans, the 24 Hours of Daytona, he bought a Porsche back in the day, and liked to go do that as well. So that's something certainly on the radar. But the IndyCar team will always be the priority.”

A.J. knows his time is limited on Earth yet occasionally likes to make light of it.

“He told me if anything ever happens to him, just shut the door and lock it, and the next day sell everything,” Larry said with a big laugh. “I say that in jest and he says it in jest, but he’s also halfway serious.

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“A.J. is not a guy who goes into debt; everything we have is bought and paid for. He's like, ‘Look, we've got a lot of stuff here.’ He doesn't want to see if you don't have sponsors. This sport is obviously extremely expensive, and he just doesn't want to see me lose everything trying to keep something going.

“We’ve really got some good partners and (adding more is) the thing I'm working hard on. Unfortunately, the majority of my time and energy goes into the financial side these days. So we have people in place on the other side that keep working on the competitive side.”

As the countdown continues to Sunday’s 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500, Larry and his father both feel they might have a few tricks up their sleeves on race day. Kirkwood and Kellett will be joined by IndyCar veteran J.R. Hildebrand, who is filling in for Calderon.

“(Winning the 500 again would) be unbelievable,” Larry Foyt said. “Obviously at Indianapolis, anything can happen and the Speedway tends to like to tell a story.

“I would love to see J.R. get the win there that he deserves. I mean, he really is good at the Speedway. (He’s driving a) beautiful livery with that Homes for Our Troops car this year, a great feel-good story, great for ABC Supply to make that happen. J.R. is definitely a guy that can get it done.

“And you never know about rookies in this place; strategy gambles can play out. Kyle's looked really good in traffic, Dalton is getting more laps and getting better. I mean, it's tough and just everybody is so good in this series, I've never seen IndyCar this competitive. It's exciting because you literally feel like you come in and anybody can win.”

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For all that his father has given to him in this life, including ceding him control of the organization that not only carries his father’s name but also his legacy, Larry would like to pay his father back in a way that only a true racer can understand.

“He sees that we're keeping it going,” Larry said of A.J. “And obviously while he is still here, I'd like to get him back to victory lane. That's the most important thing.”

Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski