Thursday, May 4, 2017

9/28/03: Larry Foyt’s rough rookie season culminates in hard Talladega crash

On September 28, 2003, Larry Foyt picked up the 2nd last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the EA Sports 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway when his #14 Harrah’s Dodge was involved in a crash after 9 of 188 laps.  The finish, which came in Foyt’s 17th series start, was his second of the season and first since March 9 at Atlanta, 25 races previous.

The grandson (and adopted son) of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt (a three-time last-place finisher in Cup), Larry aspired to race from an early age, cutting his teeth in go-karts.  “I knew when I was just a little kid that racing was what I wanted to do,” he said in 2001.  But when his Larry middle brother Jerry saw his racing career stall out, A.J. said he would only help Larry if he got a college degree.  Larry held up his end of the bargain, earning a communications degree from Texas Christian University, and from there, A.J. lent a helping hand.

From the start, Larry eyed a career in open-wheel racing, competing part-time in the USAC Formula 2000 with dreams of running at Indianapolis.  But a terrible accident while battling for a top-five finish made A.J. steer him elsewhere.  “I was scared,” said A.J. of the crash.  “It looked bad, and he was very lucky.  After that, I started to think about getting Larry into something else.”

So in 2000, it was A.J. who steered Larry toward stock car racing.  That year, A.J. returned as an owner in the Cup Series for the first time since 1994, hiring newcomer Mike Bliss with sponsorship from financial group Conseco.  Bliss made the Daytona 500, finishing 33rd, but failed to qualify for the next three rounds, and the rest of the season didn’t go much better.  Dick Trickle and Rick Mast rounded out the year, missing the cut for four more races and earning just two Top 10s.

Larry was reluctant to compete in stock cars, but soon came around.  In that same 2000 season, A.J. fielded a car for him in the American Speed Association (ASA).  There, the results were noticeably better.  Driving his grandfather’s iconic #14, Larry finished 9th in his debut at the USA International Speedway, won his first pole at Winchester, and finished a season-best 5th in the season finale at Gateway.  Larry also made his ARCA debut at Charlotte, finishing 35th in a race won by Ryan Newman, and got his first taste of Winston Cup by trying to qualify for the 2000 finale at Atlanta, only to be one of 13 drivers who missed the cut.

Prior to the 2001 season, A.J. made a pair of announcements.  On the Winston Cup side, Truck Series veteran Ron Hornaday, Jr. would compete for Rookie of the Year in the Conseco Pontiac.  “We had problems last year right from the start,” said A.J., “We got a late start and we weren’t making races early in the season.  Then we made a lot of personnel changes through the year.  Now we’ve got good people, we’ve got a good driver and we’ve got good cars.”  The team would also debut a Busch Series effort for Larry.  Harrah’s Casino, which backed Larry’s ASA ride, would fund his #14 Chevrolet for the full Busch season.  “He’s got a good head on his shoulders, and he doesn’t do anything stupid,” said A.J. of Larry, “If you watch him this year, I think you’ll see how smooth he is on the racetrack.”

Larry began the 2001 Busch season well enough, finishing 19th at Daytona, leading under caution, and coming home on the lead lap.  His season-best finish came in the next plate race at Talladega, where he ran 12th.  But nine DNFs – eight due to crashes – mired him back in the standings.  The most infamous crash came on September 1, 2001, during the South Carolina 200 at Darlington.  On Lap 20, during a caution for rain, Larry was speeding through Turns 1 and 2, looking to join the lapped cars on the inside line for the restart.  As he came off the second corner, the steering wheel on Steve Park’s #31 Chevrolet suddenly came loose, causing his car to cut left, directly in Larry’s path.  The two cars collided, leaving Park unconscious with injuries that would ultimately cut short his career.  Foyt also sat out the next round at Richmond, handing the wheel to Mark Green, and finished the season 22nd in points.

Larry returned to the Busch Series in 2002 and began to show progress.  He cut his DNFs from nine to three, scored two Top Tens, an 8th at Talladega and a 10th at Rockingham, and ran the full season, earning 20th in points.  At the same time, A.J.’s Winston Cup team was continuing to struggle.  Stacy Compton took over for the first half of the schedule and finished no better than 18th.  Mike Wallace ran the second half and earned just one Top 10 at Bristol.  Ironically, after the team failed to qualify at Sonoma, the year’s best performance came at Watkins Glen, where P.J. Jones steered the Pontiac to a 4th-place finish.

When Conseco didn’t return to sponsor A.J. Foyt Racing’s Cup effort in 2003, the decision was made to move Larry up to Cup full-time, bringing the sponsorship from Harrah’s with him.  Larry would be part of a stacked rookie class that year, matched against Greg Biffle, Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears, Tony Raines, and Jack Sprague, all with extensive experience in NASCAR.  “The rookie class looks really strong with a lot of top young guys that I raced against in (the Grand National series).  I know there’s no lack of talent there,” said Larry.  “For me, I need to get seat time and I want to run up front.  Top 20s for me would almost be like a win.”

Top 20s were in short supply.  Larry was the fastest car to not qualify for the rain-shortened Daytona 500.  He finished 36th in his Cup debut at Rockingham, came home no better than 32nd in the next three races, and finished last at Atlanta with engine trouble.  Qualifying for races continued to be a struggle throughout the year, so much so that by the 19th round at Loudon, the team changed its car number to #50.  Though the team announced the change was simply the team’s choice, speculation was that the number was changed to allow the #14 its one remaining provisional to start at Indianapolis.

Regardless, by the time the series came to Talladega in September, the car number was #14 once more.  Larry had made just 16 of the previous 28 races and failed to qualify 11 times, including the previous four races in a row.  He had yet to finish on the lead lap, and his season-best finish at that point was a 28th at Dover.  Even P.J. Jones wasn’t able to replicate his success at Watkins Glen – the purple and yellow Harrah’s car was too slow for him to qualify at Sonoma, and Larry missed the show at The Glen.

Larry Foyt was one of 50 drivers on the preliminary entry list to attempt the 43-car field for the EA Sports 500 (a list brought down to 49 after Morgan Shepherd withdrew his Ford).  While Larry had missed the show in the spring, he this time had the speed to make it without a provisional, turning a lap of 186.893mph for 35th on the grid.  Joining Shepherd on the early ride home were Kyle Petty’s #45 Georgia-Pacific Dodge for Petty Enterprises; the Morgan-McClure Motorsports #4 Kodak Pontiac for Kevin Lepage; Jason Leffler in the HAAS team’s #0 NetZero Hi Speed Pontiac; Joe Gibbs Racing’s #80 Advair Chevrolet with Mike Bliss; Steve Park in the #30 America Online Chevrolet; and Todd Bodine in Sam Belnavis and Travis Carter’s #54 National Guard Ford.

Starting 43rd in the field was Busch Series veteran Jason Keller.  Earlier that year at Richmond, it was Keller who was tabbed to drive in place of Jerry Nadeau, who suffered his career-ending injury during practice.  This time around, Keller would drive the #1 Pennzoil Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., a car whose driver lineup changed frequently once Steve Park was released after that same Richmond race in May.  Joining him at the rear were two drivers sent to the back for engine changes: Ryan Newman in Roger Penske’s #12 Alltel Dodge, and Dale Jarrett’s son Jason, making his Cup debut in a third Yates Racing car, the #98 C.H.I. Overhead Doors Ford.

On the first lap, Jason Jarrett trailed the field, hanging back in the rear along with 42nd-place Keller.  Keller caught the pack on Lap 2 while Jarrett looked to find the right line, swapping lanes between the middle and outside as he started to lose touch with the field, 2.3 seconds back of the leader by Lap 4.  On Lap 6, Larry Foyt was hugging the inside line around 30th as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. moved past him in the middle, looking to make up lost ground after his qualifying time was disallowed.  On Lap 10, Larry was up to 26th and in the outside lane when trouble broke out all around him in Turn 4.

To Larry’s inside, Jeremy Mayfield lost a left-rear tire on his #19 Dodge Dealers / UAW Dodge.  Out of control, Mayfield bounced off Joe Nemechek’s #25 UAW-Delphi Chevrolet on the inside, knocking him to the right – directly in Foyt’s path.  The two collided, pinning Foyt’s car against the outside wall.  Foyt ground his car to a stop against the barrier as Mayfield spun to the inside, collecting four other cars.  Of all the cars involved, only Foyt’s was unable to make it back to pit road.  Crews attended to him at the exit of Turn 4.

Larry was transported to a local hospital with a cracked wrist, though an examination the following Tuesday cleared him to race in Kansas with the aid of a brace on his wrist.  “It was a really hard hit,” he said.  “One of the hardest I’ve ever taken.  But my guys did a great job setting up the safety equipment in the car.  All the equipment, including the LaJoie seat, did its job.”

Two cars involved in Foyt’s accident finished 42nd and 41st – the #7 Sirius Satellite Radio Dodge of Jimmy Spencer and the #10 Valvoline Pontiac of Johnny Benson, Jr.  Benson was actually 43rd for most of the race’s first half until he returned to complete 20 more laps, climbing two spots in the process.  40th went to the #00 Crown Fiber Communications Chevrolet of Roy “Buckshot” Jones, who that day enjoyed perhaps the best run of his Cup career.  Driving an old DEI car owned by Michael Waltrip, Jones was making just his second start of the season and his first at Talladega in two years.  Jones not only qualified 16th, but led 19 green-flag laps before a blown right-front tire tore up the fender short of halfway.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was 39th-place Sterling Marlin, whose #40 Coors Light Dodge was overheating.

This race is more widely known as Michael Waltrip’s fourth and final Cup win, as well as the site of Elliott Sadler’s terrifying flip down the backstretch with seven laps to go.

Larry Foyt finished the 2003 season as best he could, scoring his first lead-lap finish at Phoenix, then a career-best 16th in the finale at Homestead.  When it was done, Larry had made 20 of the 36 races, failing to finish 8 of them, and either did not qualify or withdrew 13 times.  Harrah’s left as a sponsor at season’s end, and Larry made another three starts in a car with piecemeal sponsorship, including an elusive Daytona 500 where he ran 28th.  But following another DNQ at Talladega that spring, A.J. Foyt’s team was done in the Cup Series.

However, 2004 also saw Larry Foyt accomplish his lifelong dream when he started 22nd in his first-ever Indianapolis 500, his first of three consecutive appearances in the event.  Unfortunately, he suffered another injury there in 2005, and though he’d race on occasion over the next five years, he began to transition into a different career.  In 2006, Larry became more involved in the management of A.J. Foyt Enterprises, where today he is the team’s president.  He and his wife Kelly Curran were married November 7, 2015, and they still reside in Texas.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #14 in a Cup Series race at Talladega since May 14, 1978, when Coo Coo Marlin (father of Sterling Marlin) lost the engine on his Cunningham-Kelley Chevrolet after 4 laps of the Winston 500.  The number would not finish last there again until 2014, when Tony Stewart’s Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet crashed out of the Aaron’s 499.

43) #14-Larry Foyt / 9 laps / crash
42) #7-Jimmy Spencer / 11 laps / crash
41) #10-Johnny Benson, Jr. / 29 laps / crash
40) #00-Buckshot Jones / 88 laps / crash / led 19 laps
39) #40-Sterling Marlin / 103 laps / overheating

*Associated Press. “Another Foyt set to ride,”, January 23, 2001.
*Smith, Marty. “Six-pack: One-on-one with Steve Park,”, October 21, 2010.
*Jayski’s Silly Season Site
*“Larry Foyt medical update 2003-09-30”, October 1, 2003.
*Utter, Jim. “The Sensational Six: Biffle, McMurray, Sprague lead talented rookie class.” Daily News, February 2, 2003.
*Van Meter, David. “Life in the fast lane,” TCU Magazine, Winter 2003.

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