Team owner A.J. Foyt talks with driver Takuma Sato during practice for the… (Darron Cummings / Associated…)
INDIANAPOLIS — In a back room inside garage stall A-5 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, just off Gasoline Alley, A.J. Foyt sits at a cramped lunch table entertaining friends and co-workers.
The 78-year-old Foyt shifts in his chair carefully, having had lower-back surgery a month ago. But the famously temperamental Texan is calm and smiling amid the clanking sounds of mechanics tweaking his team's race cars nearby.
"It feels good" to be back for this year's Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, Foyt said. "I think we've got a real good chance" to win.
Foyt as a driver was synonymous with motor-racing glory, having won a record 67 IndyCar races, including a record four Indy 500s.
But as a team owner he had entered 2013 with a winless streak stretching back more than a decade.
Foyt also suffered a series of other health problems during those years, getting knee-replacement surgery and contracting a staph infection in the artificial knee.
Then last month his fortunes suddenly improved in Southern California. Takuma Sato, a veteran Japanese driver hired by Foyt this year, won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the first victory for a Foyt-owned car since 2002.
Sato also nearly won the next race, in Brazil three weeks ago, before being passed on the last lap. But his second-place finish lifted him atop the championship standings of the Izod IndyCar Series.
What's more, Sato already has shown he's a threat to win Sunday. On the final lap of last year's Indy 500 when Sato was driving for a different team, he made a daring attempt to pass Dario Franchitti for the lead.
The maneuver backfired when Sato spun and Franchitti went on to take the checkered flag. But Sato's charge caught Foyt's eye.
"Any time you take the biggest race in the world and you go for the lead on the last lap, that did more than anything" to make Foyt want to recruit Sato, Foyt said. "We liked that about him."
Now Foyt has returned triumphant to Indianapolis and "everybody enjoys seeing them successful again," said Mario Andretti, Foyt's archrival in their driving days and whose son, Michael, heads one of IndyCar's most prosperous teams, Andretti Autosport.
Sato, who starts 18th in the 33-car field, said, "We are here aiming to win the 500. There is no reason why we cannot." (Foyt also entered a second car driven by rookie Conor Daly, who starts 31st.)
Foyt and his drivers face fierce competition, however.
Both Franchitti and Helio Castroneves are trying to join Foyt, along with Al Unser and Rick Mears, as the only four-time winners of the legendary race.
Marco Andretti (Mario's grandson and Michael's son) and reigning IndyCar champ Ryan Hunter-Reay also have been strong all month.
Scott Dixon, the Indy 500 winner in 2008 and Franchitti's teammate at Target Chip Ganassi Racing, is another threat. So is Castroneves' Team Penske teammate Will Power.
But A.J. Foyt Racing is competitive again as well, and hiring Sato, 36, is only one reason why.
Foyt's son Larry has assumed day-to-day management of the team and brought it more in step with the times, adding emphasis to the engineering and computer side of things. The team also hired the respected Don Halliday as chief engineer last year.
"There are so many [computer] simulations we can look at without the car actually being on the track," Larry Foyt said. "We stepped into the modern age of racing preparation."
The changes even included interviewing Sato by a video-phone connection before they met in person. "I'm sure it was the first time A.J. had ever used Skype," Larry Foyt said.
Not that A.J. Foyt has been left out of the loop. "He'll always be the boss, and I don't make many decisions that I don't speak with him about first," Larry Foyt said.
The IndyCar series also began using a new race car last year that put small teams like Foyt's on more equal footing with the bigger teams, said Eddie Cheever Jr., the 1998 Indy 500 winner who's now a racing analyst with ABC.
"All these planets have aligned" for Foyt's rebound, Cheever said.
Sato's car carries the number 14 that A.J. Foyt made famous when he drove. Three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart also drives No. 14 because Foyt was his childhood hero.
Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr., born during the Depression in 1935, became a hero to many during a driving career that spanned from the mid-1950s to the early 1990s.
Foyt raced all types of cars and is the only driver to win the Indy 500, NASCAR's Daytona 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race.
With his last Indy 500 victory in 1977, Foyt became the first driver to win the race four times. No driver has won it five times.
Foyt also holds the record for most Indy 500 starts with 35, which were consecutive. "Whenever I talk about the Indy 500 to somebody who's not American, immediately A.J. Foyt comes up," Cheever said. "It's like saying Coca-Cola or McDonald's."
But the only time Foyt celebrated an Indy 500 victory as a team owner came with Kenny Brack's win in 1999.
Has it been frustrating ever since? "Naturally when you've won as much as me, hell, yeah, I ain't going to lie to you," Foyt said. "But you can only do with what you've got.
"I guess the last time I really felt we could win this race was with Kenny," he said.
How many years ago was that? 14.
Omens aside, "there's nothing for my family and our team like the Indy 500," Larry Foyt said.
"If I could experience [winning] that with my dad," he said, "and be standing there with him and our team, that would definitely be the highlight of my life."