When his team made it to victory lane on Sunday afternoon at Long Beach for the first time in almost 11 years of IndyCar competition, there was one important figure missing from the celebrations. Team owner AJ Foyt was not present in California this weekend and was instead watching the race on television from his home in Texas ahead of planned mid-week surgery.
Race winner Takuma Sato said that he'd spoken to his team boss immediately after the race: "He's very happy, he said he's very proud," said the former F1 driver who became the first Japanese winner of an IZOD IndyCar Series race this weekend. "It's a shame he can't be here. I think he watched the whole race, every lap. He said a big congratulations to the team and me, so I was very happy."
"He's such a big part of everything we do every day. I hate he's not here, but this is certainly great for him," said the team general manager Larry Foyt, AJ's son. "He said that this really lifts his spirits. He said everybody did a great job."
Foyt had been due to have surgery mid-week to relieve serious and ongoing chronic sciatic nerve pain, which is why he did not attend the race. However, Foyt was still able to contribute to media teleconferences on Monday following the team's Long Beach success,
"I've been in victory lane a lot myself and I know what that's like,” said Foyt, recalling his 67 wins. "I am so glad to see them there. I'm sorry I couldn't be there with everybody but I'm glad it shows they can win without me," he said, adding: "And now they're going to have to win with me because I will be at Indy!"
After talking with the media, the 78-year-old decided to bring forward the planned surgery by a day and underwent the procedure on Tuesday in an effort to ensure he would be ready in time to get to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the May 11 start of the this year's programme of events leading up to the 97th running of the Indy 500 on May 26.
Surgery took place at Methodist Hospital in Houston with neurosurgeon Dr David Cech performing the laminectomy. Reports said that the procedure in the lumbar area of the spine went according to plan and that there were no complications, and that Foyt is expected to make a full recovery. After staying in hospital overnight, he is expected to return home to continue his recuperation.
It's thought that the issue dates back to a near-fatal 1965 stock car crash in Riverside, California which saw Foyt's flip end-over-end. One of the worst crashes of his long racing career, Foyt had even initially been pronounced dead at the scene. Foyt aggravated his back over the winter when he fell at his ranch in southwestern Texas, and he's missed two of the three IndyCar races so far this season because of difficulties and pain when walking.
Foyt wants to make sure he's present at IMS to help Sato prepare for the race. Sato crashed out of last year's race at the start of the final lap while challenging eventual race winner Dario Franchitti for the lead, and the motor racing icon is hoping that this year he'll be able to help his driver go one lap better and clinch victory.