SONOMA — As it turns out, A.J. Foyt's commitment to cultural awareness has its limits.
"I just told him I can't eat the food they eat," the motorsports icon said from his home in Houston. "I think I'm converting him over to Texas food."
On the surface, the owner of A.J. Foyt Racing and his IndyCar driver, Takuma Sato, don't have a whole lot in common. Foyt, a 78-year-old Texan, is folksy, gregarious, red-faced. And he is a large man, even in old age. Sato, a 36-year-old from Japan, is trim, polite and thoughtful. A former competitive cyclist, he stands 5-foot-4 and weighs 117 pounds. (He's a "little-bitty guy," as Foyt put it.) Honestly, A.J. Foyt has probably eaten breakfasts that weighed nearly as much as Takuma Sato.
And yet they have their common ground.
"We're born very different ages, generations, completely geographically different place — Tokyo, Texas — and drawing very different backgrounds," Sato said. "But come to join together, looking for just the pure speed. We're talking similar language."
Foyt and Sato resume their unlikely partnership this weekend in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma. Qualifying at Sonoma Raceway is Saturday, with the 85-lap race following Sunday. It is Sato's latest chance to get his season back on track.
His first year under the Foyt Racing banner started with a bang. Sato qualified second and finished in the top 10 in the season opener at St. Petersburg, Fla. He won the third race of the season, the Long Beach Grand Prix — his first victory in three-plus years of IndyCar competition — and was second the next week, at Sao Paulo. After that race, Sato was leading the series points standings.
But his results dipped, and then dipped some more. He hasn't finished better than 20th in his past five races and is currently in 13th place in the points. The reasons are many. Sato has been driving with an injured thumb since hurting it in Detroit on June 2, and he bowed out of two races with mechanical problems. Three other races ended with crashes, a problem that has plagued Sato throughout his racing career — including in the 2012 Indianapolis 500, when he spun out trying to pass Dario Franchitti on the final lap.
Of course, it was Sato's aggressive style that drew Foyt's attention in the first place. Perhaps it reminded Foyt of his own racing tactics — to an extent.
"I think I was a hard driver," Foyt said. "I never got in trouble a lot like some of these guys do. I always tried to stay in my bounds. He probably gets a little harder than maybe sometimes I did, and that's what got him in trouble. But I'd still rather have somebody like that. It's a lot easier to slow 'em down than it is to get 'em going."
Sato's first season under Foyt has become a lesson in patience for both men. For Foyt, that means waiting for his driver to regain his comfort level. For Sato, it means learning when to race aggressively and when to back off and keep the car on the track.
Sato admitted that it's hard for him to try to "fix" his weaknesses, but insisted he wants to improve and maximize results for the team.