INDIANAPOLIS — AJ Foyt blames his PR for this super cool opportunity that will occur later this month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He says that it’s to make him feel old. He’s joking of course. Foyt was in a fun joking mood on Wednesday. That’s for good reason.
That’s because we’ve arrived in the Month of May. The 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 30 will be a celebration of Foyt’s first of four victories in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. With that said, he’ll have a tighter than normal pit stand on May 30 due to his good pal Tony Stewart coming to join him for the special occasion.
“I’d be honored,” said Tony Stewart when he accepted A.J. Foyt’s invitation to attend the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where “Super Tex” will celebrate the 60th Anniversary of his 1961 triumph, the first of his four Indy 500 victories.
“It took literally a matter of seconds. There might be a curve ball thrown in this today or in the future here, but obviously when AJ called and invited me for the month of May, it was an invitation you can’t turn away.
Foyt, joked that having Stewart there “won’t be much fun.” He says that he’s “known him too damn long. I’d like to win the race so he could know what victory circle is like on the 500 with the INDYCAR. That would be the most fun week I’ve had, both of us.”
Stewart, noted that contrary to Foyt’s popular belief, they’re both going to have a blast.
“Obviously what you heard him say, that shows the relationship the two of us have together and the respect for each other that we have, and I’m excited to be up there,” said the NASCAR Hall of Famer. “Can’t be up there for all the practice and qualifying, but we’ll be there for the race for sure, and really excited to be a part of AJ Foyt Racing and hang out for the day.”
Stewart, holds Foyt to high regard and said that it’s an honor to join his boyhood hero at such an iconic place for an iconic race. The Indiana native in Stewart has long said that Foyt became his hero after watching him in the 1982 Indy 500 when Foyt got out of his car and started working on it in the pits during the race. Foyt’s never-give-up attitude registered with the 11-year-old youngster who went on to become a successful driver in open wheel and stock car competition, much like his hero.
“A.J. is my hero, and a great friend whom I’ve known for a long time,” said Stewart, the three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, 1997 INDYCAR Series champion and four-time USAC champion. “It didn’t matter what it was, but if it had four wheels and went fast, A.J. would drive it. NASCAR stock cars, USAC stock cars, sprints and midgets, Indy cars, IMSA sports cars – A.J. won in all of them. We both kind of came up through the racing ranks in the same way. He just did it in a different era.
Stewart got behind the wheel of the Bowes Seal Fast Special and took it for a drive around the track. (Dan R. Boyd photo)
“A.J. called me after I won my first Cup championship in 2002 and I remember how much it meant to have him call that night and congratulate me. He has given a lot back to racing and has been one of the sport’s biggest supporters. Without guys like him, guys like myself wouldn’t have had a chance to succeed. Being with A.J. on the pit box this year at Indy is an honor and something I’ll cherish forever.”
“Tony and I have been good friends for a long time, and I’m glad he’s able to come out for this 500,” said Foyt, who first shared the stage with the then 24-year-old Hoosier back in 1995 when the Indy legend presented Stewart with his championship rings for winning the USAC Triple Crown. Stewart was the first driver to win the USAC Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown titles in a single season. The only other driver to do so was J.J. Yeley in 2003.
“I’m hoping having Tony at the 500 might change our luck! Normally, we run pretty good at Texas but the luck was pretty bad in the doubleheader. We got crashed in the first race and at the start of the second race, both cars got crashed—they never made it to the start-finish line,” said Foyt, referring to the seven-car melee at the start of the May 2nd race at Texas Motor Speedway.
In fact, when Stewart debuted Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009, he asked Foyt for his blessing to run his famed No. 14. Foyt was honored by the gesture and accepted Stewart’s invitation to attend the Daytona 500, which was Stewart’s debut as a NASCAR driver/owner. Less than three years later, Stewart went on to claim the 2011 NASCAR Cup Series championship, his third in NASCAR’s premier division.
“I think one of the earliest ones that really made an impact on me was the year that he got out of the car, and I think he had got in the wall or got into somebody or somebody got into him and it went the right front suspension and he got out of the car, beat on it with a hammer, got back in it and got back in the race,” Stewart told me on his most memorable memory of Foyt.
“Trust me, I’ve seen him in a hammer in his hand. I wouldn’t want to get in anything after he’s had it with a hammer. To watch him do that — I think there’s so many things — watching highlights of the midget win that he had indoors in the Houston Astrodome way back in the day, there’s just so many moments from so many different types of cars that I’ve had the opportunity to go back and watch, that’s what makes AJ Foyt AJ Foyt. I don’t think you can ever really pick just one moment.
“But one of those that stands out at Indianapolis for sure was the year that he got out and — I don’t think he was quite content with the crew’s decision that it probably wasn’t a good idea to go back out, and he got out and worked on it himself and got back in the car and took back off. That just shows the true grit and determination AJ has always had.”
The respect is mutual. A lot of people have said Stewart reminds them of Foyt. Well, what about what Foyt sees in Stewart?
“Well, he calls a spade a spade,” Foyt told me. “And what else can you ask for? And that’s what I really like about Tony. Like I say, I watched him drive all kinds of cars. He works on them a lot himself, and when you try to work on them with him, then he raises hell with you for not doing it right. He’s got a lot of ways he wants to do it, his way, just like I was kind of the same way on cars. I didn’t like the way some people were working on them, so that’s the reason I did it myself. That’s one thing that stands out with Tony in my mind because if it ain’t going his way he wants it his way and then he’ll go out and win with it, so what else can you ask for?”
Stewart, who turns 50 on May 20th, will be watching the race with Foyt though, not driving in it.
While there’s long been rumors that Stewart would one day make a return to the race that he clearly loves the most, he shot that potential down on Wednesday.
“It’s literally about the technology,” he said on why he’s not really got any interest of hopping back into an Indy Car. “There’s so much that has happened since I drove in 2001. I mean, it’s been 20 years since I’ve been in an INDYCAR. So try to learn the technology, to get in shape and lose the weight I would need to lose to be competitive to help the engineers out, it’s stuff that is just not realistic. I’ll be 50 here in less than 10 days now. 50 is probably not an age to try to revive an INDYCAR career at this point.”
Plus, a lot has changed since the last time drivers were able to hop in and out of race cars. You can’t be competitive in everything anymore due to the rich talent in all these disciplines.
“I think because of all the technology that’s involved,” he continued. “When we started running in ’96 and when we ran full-time through ’98, we were running new cars in ’97 and ’98, still six-speed gear boxes, but there wasn’t any paddle shifting or trigger shifting, it was still old-school gear boxes and you just didn’t do a lot of shifting, where now the gear splits are so small and those guys are constantly shifting gears to keep the rpms in the right spot. Those are details that are much finer details than what we had 20, 25 years ago.
“I think that’s why it is so hard for guys to make the jump now, and like we said, these guys are running these cars on the ragged edge and they’re on a knife edge all the time.
“To be that close to the edge you have to have a good feel and be in tune with the race car, and the only thing that gets you there is just seat time. If you’re not doing it all the time, it makes it difficult. He has a ways to go, but like I said, there’s nobody that I have the confidence that could be in that position versus him.”
While hopping into a car doesn’t seem like an option for Stewart, what about a return to Indy in the future as an owner. Stewart, said that would be a goal of is, but right now, it’s hard to do so with how busy he is with other endeavors too.
“Well, the hard part is it’s so hard right now, and AJ can confirm this, too. It’s just so hard to get partners to help fund these cars,” said Stewart on being a possible Indy Car owner one day. “I’m spread pretty thin between a racetrack, two racing series, two wing sprint car teams, four Cup teams, an Xfinity team. At some point you get yourself spread so thin that you can’t cover it all.
“I’ve learned to never say never, but it does become more difficult the more series that you spread yourself out in, the harder it is to get enough partners to help fund those projects.
“I would love to have that opportunity, but it’s just a matter of making sure that you could properly fund it to where you could do the proper job and give yourself the right opportunity to have great drivers, great crew members and give yourselves an opportunity to go out and have success on the racetrack.”
So, Stewart for now will just focus on this year only and get that excitement of coming through that tunnel of these hallowed grounds.
“It really does,” Stewart said on if the feeling is the same of coming to IMS as it’s always been for him. “There’s just something about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and especially when it’s your home track. Indy is a very special racetrack for INDYCAR racing. It has been for a century.
“To see the — every time you go in there, and obviously things change and things get updated, but there’s just one thing about Indianapolis is that the general feel of the facility never changes. It doesn’t matter what they do cosmetically. The feel once you get inside that facility, it feels the same. You think back to previous years and previous 500s, and it just doesn’t change.
“So every time you go in there you still have — I still get those same goosebumps I had when I was a little kid that went in there and had the same goosebumps when I was racing INDYCAR full time.”
This will also be the 25 year anniversary of Stewart’s first Indy 500 start. He came from the pole on that cloudy day in 1996. But it was a memorable race for Stewart in the sense his nerves were as high as ever before.
“The biggest thing that I remember of race morning is that’s the closest I’ve ever been to throwing up before a race,” he said of his recollection of that race. “The nerves were at a level that I had never seen before in my entire life, in any form of motorsports leading up to my first Indy 500. But knowing the history and knowing the pageantry of race day and everything leading up to it, it was extremely hard to stay composed. I mean, I was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been on a race morning knowing what all was coming up, what all was going to happen, and not knowing what was going to happen during the actual race itself.
“All of those things leading up to the command to start our engines was the hardest part of the ’96 500 for me.”