Keeper of the Foyt family business
By DAVE D'ONOFRIO, Concord Monitor
24 July 2004
Larry Foyt has attended the last 28 Indianapolis 500s. He grew up in and around garages and learned firsthand from his father, A.J., a legend in the world of wheels. But only now, as he struggles to succeed at NASCAR's highest levels, has he come to understand what is driving the cars that dominate the sport.
"It just takes so much money to go racing," Larry Foyt said. "I never believed it, but it seems like once you get to these top levels, how fast you want to go just depends on how much money you've got."
The youngest of four Foyt children and the only to follow in the footsteps of their father, Larry has become all too familiar with the importance of funding. After starting his career with money earned sweeping the floor of his father's garage, he has earned a spot in A.J.'s stable as the lone Nextel Cup driver for Foyt Racing.
Yet his seat in the sport is far from comfortable.
Despite his father's famous name, Larry Foyt has struggled to build on the family success, largely because he lacks a full-time sponsor. In 2003, his first on NASCAR's top series, he was sponsored by Harrah's. But after a single season in which he ran 20 races and finished without a top 10, the casino cut its losses and dropped Foyt. No other opportunity has arisen since.
"It's so limiting what you can do without that sponsorship money,"Larry Foyt said earlier this month from his North Carolina race shop. "We went last year with Harrah's, but we were grossly under-funded. We thought we could still do good, but I think the results showed our situation. That was frustrating. We're still trying to look for that sponsor that will be with us for a few years and give us the opportunity to get some chemistry."
Larry is the only Nextel Cup driver for Foyt Racing, which also operates one car in the open-wheeled Indy Racing League. That team is sponsored, but it hasn't accomplished much more than the NASCAR team A.J. Foyt has operated since 1973. In 188 starts entering this season, Foyt Racing had no wins and only 16 top-10 finishes in what's now the Nextel Cup, NASCAR's top series.
The winner of four Indianapolis 500s and seven NASCAR contests, A.J. Foyt didn't want any of his kids to become racers. Though he was years into owning a NASCAR team by the time the last of his three boys was born, he still hoped his sons would all end up some place other than in the cockpit of a car.
"Even though he did have a lot of success, he did have a lot of injuries," said Larry Foyt. "He's constantly in pain. His legs are probably more metal than they are anything else. He's also lost a lot of friends who have been killed in racing, and it's a tough business. There aren't a lot of seats open in professional racing, and there are a lot of race car drivers out there."
Larry Foyt knows that well. He said his father's presence has helped him broker deals in the past, and that companies would "be crazy" not to have the name of a legend associated with their product, but thus far nothing has panned out. This season he's run only three races, and his best finish is 28th.
This experience has left Foyt still speaking hopefully of achieving success with his father's team, but also aware that he may need to strike out in a different direction.
"I've got some friends I've met that are team owners and they actually called me a couple of days ago to test, so maybe something will come out there that way,"Larry said. "But I'd sure like to keep our family business going."
Foyt and his current team won't be in attendance tomorrow, when the Nextel Cup comes to New Hampshire International Speedway, basically because they can't afford it. They are hoping to run next at Indianapolis in the Brickyard 400. But with only two weeks until then, they're still without a sponsor. Finding one is almost becoming a matter of desperation.
"Even our mechanics will ask friends of theirs that work at a company," he said. "I have a lot of meetings with people. Basically everyone is involved. We're knocking on doors and hoping that the law of large numbers will prevail and we'll find somebody who's interested."
The Foyt team targeted Indy in part because of the family's familiarity with the speedway. Larry Foyt raced in this May's Indianapolis 500, finishing 32nd of 33 cars. It was the latest of his annual visits to a track that was central to his father's accomplished career in open-wheel cars.
A.J. Foyt's 67 Indy car wins are the most ever, as are his seven national championships and 10 victories in one season. He's won races in five different countries, in six separate series, and is the only driver to triumph in each of motorsports' crown jewels - the Indy 500, Daytona 500 and 24 Hours of LeMans.
In NASCAR, A.J. Foyt never raced more than seven times in a season, but recorded seven wins and six second-place finishes in 128 career starts.
Larry Foyt, though, hasn't struck success quite so easily. Before jumping to the Winston Cup last year, he ran two seasons on the Busch Series and scored only two top-five finishes. He placed 20th in points in 2002, then moved up the ranks a year later and finished 41st during a first foray into Cup racing that, though difficult, left his desire strong.
"I still feel like I've got a young career," the 27-year-old said, emphasizing that his priority remains finding the right formula for NASCAR. ". . . I think I have a lot to prove at the Nextel Cup level and I'm not giving up on that."
That determination forged the youngest Foyt a place in his reluctant father's sport. He would do janitorial chores at his dad's garage during high school, and once he had enough money to buy a go-kart, he was allowed to work on that machine when his cleaning duties were done.
Since then he's climbed the chain in the family business, now to the point where his success - or failure - could compose or condemn its future.
He remembers his father's advice on success in racing this way: "You know, I've won pretty much every race I've wanted to win. I set track records, and I've also hit the wall as hard as anyone ever has. So always do the best you can do, and don't drive over your head, because that's when you'll get in trouble."
Now, time and money will tell whether Larry Foyt is indeed driving over his head.