Takuma Sato gives A.J. Foyt a chance

INDIANAPOLIS -- A.J. Foyt is back. No longer is his bluster the only threat he poses around here. No longer is he Indy's irascible icon and nothing more, fielding uncompetitive cars and drivers.

"Now all of a sudden he's kicked into gear," fellow Indy legend Bobby Unser, long Foyt's most candid critic-yet-admirer, said Thursday. "He's really got him a fast race driver."

Not that Foyt has found a bull of his own breed, some burly Texas prodigy. The force that has driven to the top of the IndyCar standings with a win in Long Beach and a second-place in Sao Paulo this spring -- and has created such a stir going into Sunday's 97th Indianapolis 500 -- is 5-feet-4 and 117 pounds.

He never raised cattle nor ran a bulldozer nor wielded a fist nor a ball-peen hammer, back yonder around home, in Japan.

Takuma Sato might have caught your eye and taken your breath on the last lap of last year's 500 when he shot alongside Dario Franchitti to challenge for the win, was squeezed by the Scotsman at 220 mph and wound up crashing.

Sato, driving for Bobby Rahal at the time, got Foyt's attention. And that of Foyt's son Larry, who manages the team with a little more finesse and high-tech methodology -- and a little less hammer-banging and laptop-spiking in the pits -- than the old bull used to.

So the Foyts hired Sato for this year, and the troubled realm of IndyCar racing has fresh breath in it, a little lore resurgent.

And for the first time in a long time, Foyt's team is a contender to win this race.

To see Foyt now, at age 78, you'd think the opposite. He struggles worse than ever to walk -- and even just to sit down and get up -- because of recent back surgery, and all his racing wounds of yore.

"I guess some of these scars and [long-ago shattered] bones have finally given up," he said Thursday.

"I wasn't supposed to live this long. I don't know if that's good or bad. I got mixed emotions. A lot of people said when I started I wouldn't live to be 22."

Through myriad crashes that should have killed him and did maim him, he has lived on, through four Indy 500 wins, plus victories in the Daytona 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

And he has lived through hobbling around here as an owner while, in his wake, came sad smiles and even wry laughter, and slowly shaking heads. Since his fourth Indy win as a driver in 1977, his team has won this race only once, with Swedish driver Kenny Brack in 1999.

For the past decade-plus, the Foyt garage stalls in Gasoline Alley have been but a faded reminder of what was …

His own greatness as a driver might have been his worst handicap as an owner.

"Him thinking that he's God -- now, I'm not knocking Foyt," said Unser, who won this race three times himself in direct competition with Foyt, "but that's where it all comes in. In his world, the way he thinks -- this is my perception -- he thinks that he was the greatest, and untouchable, and every decision he makes is a perfect decision.

"And we all watched for years: terrible decisions. I mean, worse than terrible."

Sato, asked whether he has any idea just how rare it is for one of Foyt's drivers to remotely please the old man, shook his head and admitted, "I don't know."

"You know that he's always had a hard time hiring drivers," Unser said. "I think that's one of the problems with having been a good driver.

"First of all, ain't no way in the world he'd want to pay a driver," Unser continued. "So there's got to be sponsor money. In this case, the driver brings it."

Foyt has a domestic sponsor, but significant money comes from Japan, a nation that has contributed as much or more to world motor racing than any other in recent decades. For all that technology and money, Japan has yet to see one of its own drivers win the Indy 500 or any other major international race.

The Foyt-Sato car is powered by Honda, a manufacturer that was overwhelmed by Chevrolet engines in qualifying. But last year it was the same way, and then, in the race, the Honda-powered cars surprisingly went to the front and remained there.

Sato starts 18th Sunday. But last year, before mounting his magnificent charge in the waning laps, he started the race 19th.

And now, with reasonable luck Sunday, "We'll see Foyt up there, and see the race car up front, instead of clear at the back," Unser said. "I mean, I got so tired of seeing that.

"But the thing is, he went after a fast, aggressive driver. For the first time in how long? You know [Sato is] good. He must be. He's going like hell."

"I think perhaps now, A.J. has got somebody behind the steering wheel," said Brack with his understated Swedish accent, "that is the right -- how do you say? -- material."

I wasn't supposed to live this long. I don't know if that's good or bad. I got mixed emotions. A lot of people said when I started I wouldn't live to be 22.

-- A.J. Foyt

Sato, at 36, with years as a hard-knocks Formula One driver under his belt and now in his fourth year of IndyCar, is fully aware that, although he's the one who floors the throttle and turns the wheel, he is best known as A.J. Foyt's driver.

Throughout the weeks of practice and qualifying here, "I could see a lot of fans really smiling and cheering me in such a warm, nice way," Sato said. "Particularly, they are enjoying to see A.J. Foyt Racing come back to be very competitive."

It took Jack Starne, Foyt's general manager who has been with the team since 1967, at the height of the glory, to boil down, so that Foyt could grasp it, the difference in the team now, from the past decade or so.

"Jack said, 'We've had riders in the past. We've got a driver now,'" Foyt said.

"[Foyt] didn't say that to me, of course," Sato said. "But now that he said it to the public, I'm very happy to hear about it."

Going into the race, "I'm very happy that everybody shouts my name," Sato said. "Which wasn't the case last year.

"But this year, every time I've moved here, the fans followed."

"Indy racing needs something like this," Unser said. "This is not the only thing. This is not gonna save it. This is not gonna get it out of the hole. But this is a big deal."