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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.

"I'm trying," he said.

On a personal level, the two hit it off fairly well from the start, flying to sponsor events and testing sessions in the offseason. Sato said he had heard of Foyt growing up, but didn't fully understand his impact on the sport — a master of many branches of racing, Foyt was named "Driver of the Century" by the Associated Press — until he joined IndyCar in 2010 and noted the Texan's magnetic presence in the garage area and podium.

They have become racing's Odd Couple.

"A.J.'s always cutting up, kind of telling jokes," said his son and team director, Larry Foyt. "I could look at Takuma, and I think sometimes he's trying to break down the Texan accent and see what he said. There might be a little 10-second delay, and Takuma starts cracking up. ... Those two together is pretty funny, because sometimes I don't know if they know what the other is saying."

Lately, the relationship has been strictly long-distance. A.J. Foyt had hip replacement surgery at the beginning of July, and has been mostly laid up since.

He is no stranger to medical emergencies. Foyt's racing injuries included fractured vertebrae, leg, ankle, arm, knee and shoulder, as well as several serious burns. Out of the cockpit, he was bitten by a brown recluse spider in the late 1990s, and attacked by a swarm of killer bees — doctors pulled more than 200 stingers from his head alone — in 2005. In 2007, he nearly drowned when the bulldozer he was driving went upside-down into a lake.

Foyt has had his knee replaced three times. He contracted a staph infection in January 2012, underwent back surgery in April and battled severe leg pain until the most recent hip surgery. He hasn't traveled to a race since the operation.

"I've gotta be real careful and not fall right now, and not twist, because they said it could come out, pop out of the joint," Foyt explained.

"And, damn, I'd hate to think that. I think I'd have to take a gun and shoot myself. That would have to hurt."

A.J. hopes to make the last IndyCar race of the year, in Fontana on Oct. 19. In the meantime, he is in frequent contact with Larry via telephone and email. A.J. can watch race footage and go over practice data and offer insights, but it isn't the same as being there for a man who has lived much of his life at raceways.

"It's 1,000-percent frustrating for him," Larry Foyt said.

"He is not a guy that likes to sit at home or watch from the sidelines in any way, shape or form."

Asked if his father is listening to doctors and curtailing his activity, he glanced up at a team PR director.

The two exchanged sheepish smiles. "I heard he was on a bulldozer last week," Foyt said.

A.J. Foyt's back pain got so bad earlier this year that he was willing to try just about anything to relieve it — including acupuncture, an approach suggested by his driver, Takuma Sato. Foyt isn't ready for sashimi just yet, but you apparently can teach an old Texan new tricks, even at 79.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.