It's been quite a while since there have been happy faces at AJ Foyt Racing. While the team has had its bright spots here and there since Kenny Brack's 1999 Indianapolis 500 victory, those have been far and few between.
This year, with an entirely new technical scope to the IZOD IndyCar Series, Foyt's racing team has been looking extremely good. In the off-season the patriarch, AJ Foyt Jr and his son Larry hired Mike Conway as their driver. Conway has wide experience in Formula One and won last year's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach despite a poor pit stop. The team elected to go with Honda engines for 2012, as well.
Foyt also bolstered the engineering corps by hiring Don Halliday, one of the most respected engineers and designers in the INDYCAR paddock. The New Zealand-bred Halliday and Brit Conway have hit it off, resulting in Conway's top time in morning warmup for the first race of the season last week on the streets of St Petersburg, Florida. Conway was making his way toward the front in his Dallara DW12 with its Honda engine and Firestone tires when the gearbox failed leaving him without third and fourth gears, thereby unable to continue.
At Barber Motorsports Park this weekend, Conway used a little bit of luck and a heck of a lot of skill to nab fourth place on the 26-car grid, out-qualifying such luminaries as Dario Franchitti and Will Power in the process. It was the first time the No. 14 fielded by the Foyt family has been in the Firestone Fast Six third qualifying session since 2007, when fellow Briton Darren Manning took fifth place at St Petersburg.
“Obviously happy to be in the Fast Six,” Conway said. “The ABC Supply team did a good job making some changes overnight because I was happy with the car. Being up front makes life a little bit easier in the race because it’s quite hard to pass here so qualifying is key. We’ll make some changes overnight, not too much, just tickle it a little bit and hopefully improve it for the race.”
Team owner AJ Foyt Jr knows the competition is tighter than it's been in a long time - maybe even since before the "split" of the IZOD IndyCar Series and the former CART/Champ Car group. "We're moving up there where we need to be and I think competition is tougher this year than it's ever been," Super Tex said. "It just seems like we have a good mixture" in the team this year.
Although Conway was only 14th in the changing conditions of Friday's two practice sessions (where rain ruled in the second practice), Larry Foyt thought the "engineers did a great job in looking at all the data. Mike knew pretty much what he wanted and knew that we wanted to get the car back to the way we tested (at Barber) because we were fast in testing here. Mike drove well, the team prepped the car perfectly and the engineers put a good setup under it - and it all came together."
It's easy to dismiss this result as being "just qualifying; it's not the race result and not a pole position," Larry Foyt acknowledged, "but at the same time, it is steps in the right direction and that's what we keep trying to do with this race team. If we keep putting ourselves in these positions and show we're improving, then the pole positions and the race wins will come."
Not a moment too soon for his impatient father, we're all sure.