INDIANAPOLIS — AJ Foyt Racing has had a ton of changeover between the 2022 NTT INDYCAR Series season and the 2023 one. They’ve not stopped pushing full steam ahead into upcoming year. New faces in new places were capped off by highly respected veteran engineer Michael Cannon joining the team this year. Cannon will lead the team’s race engineers Daniele Cucchiaroni and Roberto Garcia along with drivers Santino Ferrucci and rookie Benjamin Pedersen.
“It was an opportunity to do something that interests me,” said Cannon. “I know that Larry has been working hard to move the team up the grid. I saw this opportunity to both help him and Santino and obviously Benjamin Pedersen who’s coming on board. I want to see if I can make a difference here.”
Cannon’s career spans five decades dating back to the early 1980s. “What was supposed to be a summer job when I was 20 years old turned into a career in motor racing,” said Cannon, who was born in Montreal.
Throughout his career, the Canadian worked with an array of exceptional engineers whom he considers his mentors including Lee Dykstra, Bruce Ashmore, and Tony Cicale. Cannon said, “You do pull bits out of every one of those interactions. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some of the best people in the industry.”
Although the driving factor to join Foyt’s team for Cannon was the chance to work with Ferrucci with whom he worked in 2019 when both were at Dale Coyne Racing, there is a loose connection to team owner A.J. Foyt. Cannon’s father John, a renowned driver who made his name in sports cars, teamed with Foyt when they drove for Houstonian oil magnate John Mecom in the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1964. They placed second in class (Grand Sport) behind the duo of Roger Penske and Jim Hall.
Asked if he had met A.J., Cannon laughed and replied, “Not since I was five years old. My mom was born on the exact same day as him, January 16, 1935. I grew up with A.J. in our house!”
That’s not the only change that has occurred.
In November, Team President Larry Foyt hired Craig Brooks as the Team Manager; Brooks oversees both the Texas and Indiana operations but is based in Indianapolis. Brooks previously worked as the technical director for the Indy Lights Series for the past 13 years and was a technical consultant for the IMSA Series on a part-time basis since 2016.
Foyt also hired Chris “Beaker” Sheffer as the shop manager in Indianapolis. Sheffer brings a wealth of experience as he has worked in a variety of management and technical roles in the motorsports industry for the past two decades. Six more mechanics were hired as Foyt beefed up the operation for this year.
Foyt summed up saying, “We certainly have many new faces in the team this year, but I can say the feeling is very positive and everyone is pulling in the same direction. We know it will take some time to get where we want to be, but we are looking forward to the challenge and proving that we are heading in the right direction.”
This comes after changing both drivers for the upcoming season as well. Rookie Benjamin Pedersen replaces Dalton Kellett in the No. 4 Dallara-Chevrolet while Santino Ferrucci shifts into the No. 14 Dallara-Chevrolet in replacing the departing Kyle Kirkwood who moves over to Andretti Autosport.
“Really I think we both feel like we’ve got something to prove,” Larry Foyt said on a zoom call announcing the Ferrucci move. “We were really aligned on what we want to do, work together, get out there. It really just all came together.”
Ferrucci is just a younger version of AJ Foyt. Brash. Doesn’t care what people think about him. Fast. Races anything. Makes everything that he does race in competitive. He’s raced sprints, he’s raced midgets, he’s raced an INDYCAR a NASCAR, you name it. He also likes to work on his own cars just as his new boss.
Foyt sees a lot of himself in this young racer too and now the 24-year-old is back in Indy Car with a potential to bring AJ Foyt Racing back from the ashes and into the national limelight again.
“I think the coolest thing, when I listen to A.J., the appreciation is there,” said Ferrucci. “I like to work on my own stuff as well. I definitely turn wrenches. In the garage, when I was growing up karting, I’d show up at the racetrack in the back of a pickup truck and do my own setups.
“Having the fundamentals, I’m not the typical driver that doesn’t get his hands dirty. There’s a lot of those today that don’t even know how to drive a stick, which is mind-blowing to me.
“I am a very old school mentality. I want to be in the weeds like everybody else, working on things, making sure everybody is doing it together.
“It’s a team, man, at the end of the day. I’m one part of many. We need to function like a team.”
Team President Larry Foyt consulted with his famous father about bringing Ferrucci into the fold for 2023. The senior Foyt had chatted with the curly-haired youngster on several occasions this year and liked his attitude.
“I am thrilled to welcome Santino to the team,” Larry Foyt said. “He’s shown a knack for getting towards the front of the field, and I think he is a racer who moves forward on race day. A.J. sees the fire in him and has enjoyed their meetings together.
“A.J. is a huge fan. Obviously when you run good at Indianapolis, A.J. takes notice (smiling). Especially on the ovals, A.J. is at pretty much all the oval races for sure.
“I was super impressed with what Santino did at Texas. He’s watched him race at Indy, Gateway. Just Santino will jump in and race anything. He’s just a racer. That certainly catches A.J.’s attention.
“A.J. just really wanted somebody that really wanted to race. Really glad we were able to get him.”
Takuma Sato is the last one to win for Foyt, coming back in Long Beach for the 2013 season. The organization is winless in its last 164 races. Can Pedersen and Ferrucci change that tune next season?
It will be somewhat tough to go from a team that made up the bottom of the standings and immediately jump to mid pack, however.
“Well, what I’d say is we know there are certain types of tracks that we feel we should show well,” Foyt said. “I think for us our strengths are certainly road and street courses. As always, we put an emphasis on the Indy 500, so we’ll continue to work on that program and make sure that we can do the best we can at Indianapolis.
“Then it’s, okay, where do we improve. I think permanent road courses have been a struggle for us, especially smoother tracks, so we’re certainly deep diving into damper programs to see what we’re lacking to make grip on that type of circuit.
“Again, a lot of rules aren’t changing from last year, so I think everyone tries to build on what they’re doing well, make it even better, but also what are weaknesses and how we make that better.
“The engineers have a lot of work over the winter to do on that, and that’s kind of our focus.”
If not next, then surely in 2024. It takes time to gel and I’ll give 2023 as a learning season for Ferrucci, Pedersen and Foyt. Even saying so, Ferrucci is so good, so fast, that I can’t see him not showing flashes of contention in some races. 2024 he could be there more consistent.
It’s more about Ferrucci taking this car and maximizing it as a veteran.
“The tough thing was there were plenty of races I think we showed some speed, and we couldn’t capitalize,” Foyt continued. “We had too many accidents. At Texas Kyle was running well and we have a crash. You get kind of beat down because you start — you’re fixing cars all the time, and the guys get tired, and it’s kind of a domino effect.
“It certainly made it tough, and all of a sudden you’re like we’re back in the points and we’re trying to climb out of it, and it certainly was frustrating and disappointing because we did come in with a lot of optimism.
“But that’s motor racing. You don’t give up. None of the guys gave up, kept going, and even I know Kyle was frustrated, but through all of our talks, he just wanted to push on.
“That was just unfortunate, but that’s part of racing, and sure, we wanted more out of it, but that’s the way it went, and now we start to where we’re looking forward, not backwards.”
Ferrucci agreed in what he saw out of this group.
“I mean, the biggest thing is when I talked to Larry, spent a lot of time on the phone with him, talked about this,” he said. “The car has shown speed this year, without a doubt. It’s had its moments of brilliance. It’s about how to make it consistent.
“The car also didn’t finish a lot of races because he had a rookie in the car. Bringing the team back into consistency. Are we going to show up in St. Pete and light the world on fire? Absolutely not. Are we going to start with realistic goals, put the car in the top 10, seeing how consistent we can be? Yeah, without a doubt.
“It’s going to be a new team for me. It’s going to be completely reorganized by the time we start our winter prep, which has already started. I’m now about join.
“It’s one of those things where we’re going to get the most out of this if we stay realistic and we stay consistent. Talking to Larry about it, I think we can bring in a couple of good engineers, me being based in Texas, I can spend a lot of time with the team, make sure our pit stops are good, building the cars to top quality.
“Like I said, all we got to do is go out there and perform and see what it gives us, go from there.”
The mix of new with the existing has Foyt excited for the season ahead.
“It’s a huge piece, but then also with that is how the driver works with the engineers and things like that,” said Foyt. “Obviously that’s something we’re working hard on.
“It’s not like everything’s a total reset. I guess it is because you got two new drivers coming in. We have a lot of core pieces staying in place. We’re just building on that.
“I think last year there were tracks we had speed on and there were tracks we struggled on. We’re trying to work on those tracks that we struggled.
“I just think the good thing is Santino is going to get everything out of the car and get us some good finishes, get things rolling back the right direction. I really believe that.
“It’s not that we think consistently we’re going to be surprising people, but there’s no reason that we can’t have some really decent top 10s and even a little better.”
That plus another year of changes with the driver lineup, they need as much time this offseason to gel as ever.
“I think it’s just been too many changes year to year,” he notes. “Like I say, like being able to announce this multiyear deal I think is very important for our company, just because you’ve got — INDYCAR is so tight, everything is so close, that if you can get the right driver and engineer working together, get them to really know each other, and we just haven’t been able to put together that consistency. We’ve had different sponsorships, different engineers and different things over the past couple years.
“That’s the biggest thing I’m excited about is getting to work with a driver knowing we’re going into a multiyear program, building the program around him, something that suits him. I think that’s going to take us a big step forward with the team.”
It marks the 2nd time in 4 years that Foyt will roll out a completely new driver lineup. Foyt says that the turnover of that magnitude doesn’t have as much of an impact as it once would have.
“Well, I think what we’re seeing is without the rules changing as much right now, I think it is different back in a time where maybe there’s a new chassis or some really new rule developments. I think everyone has brought this car down to such a level — we’ve had virtually the same car here for a little while.
“So your basic setups, you’re not going to reinvent the whole wheel. You do have driver preferences, so whether it’s Kanaan or Bourdais or Kirkwood, they do have some little things that you’re going to have to tune around the driver.
“I’m not really that concerned about it because I think you see these kids — Indy Lights drivers come in and do really well. We saw what Malukas did, we saw Kyle show speed plenty of times. Veterans are great, but rookies coming out of Indy Lights have shown really, really well, too, and I think Benjamin is going to jump right in and be just fine.”
Pedersen is only 23. Ferrucci is just 24. Foyt has a young pairing that can last for years if they do this right.
Ferrucci and Pedersen will participate in the NTT INDYCAR Series Open Test in Thermal, Calif. Feb 2-3. A private test is scheduled in mid-February in Sebring, Fla. The series kicks off its 17-race season March 3-5 in St. Petersburg, Fla.