INDIANAPOLIS -- A.J. Foyt IV is fortunate -- there are no lasting scars from his first Indianapolis 500.
He crashed three times in practice, barely avoided the wall in qualifying when he spun out of control in the back straightaway and was criticized for poor driving on race day.
A month like that would have left most drivers broken. Not a Foyt.
''That was a long, rough day,'' the 20-year-old driver said. ''This year, I'm a little more confident, we've been running more consistently and I'm feeling good.''
This year's return to the speedway that made his grandfather, A.J. Foyt, famous has already been better by any measure. Foyt IV has not crashed or spun and has had no real problems other than getting up to speed.
The question entering Sunday's race is whether the youngest qualifier in the 33-car field has learned his lessons.
''The biggest thing is that he's brave,'' team owner A.J. Foyt said. ''He's matured a lot.''
Foyt, a four-time Indy winner, hired his grandson to race last year and expected some struggles but nothing like what happened in the 2003 race.
The younger Foyt made a bad decision, changing his earplugs before the race, and lost contact with the team before the green flag even waved. Ten laps into the race, Foyt IV was on pit road for 1 minute, 36 seconds -- an eternity in Indy cars -- before his grandfather called him in, grabbed the faulty earplugs and crushed them in disgust on pit road.
Seven laps later, Foyt IV pitted again for 13 seconds. On lap 47, Foyt called his grandson back to pit road and kept him there for another 3:49, losing several more laps and putting the young driver in a tough predicament.
''He didn't know what to do, he looked like a lost goose out there,'' the elder Foyt said.
Foyt IV spent the rest of the afternoon trying to keep his car out of trouble and out of the way. It wasn't nearly enough to appease his competitors.
As Foyt cruised around the 2 1/2-mile oval at slower speeds than the rest of the field, he frequently held up traffic. Some drivers, such as Jimmy Vasser, complained he didn't even belong in the race.
But he managed to keep his car off the wall and finished 18th, one of 17 drivers still running when the checkered flag dropped.
''The best thing was coming off turn four, seeing the checkered flag and knowing the race was over,'' he said. ''It was such a long, tough day, I was just glad to get it over with.''
Not everyone was critical, though. Foyt congratulated his grandson for finishing the race, and Al Unser Jr., a two-time winner, who finished ninth, said Foyt IV never caused him any trouble.
Foyt IV notes that Indy Racing League officials never instructed him to pit or penalized him.
Unser, who experienced radio problems in his last win in 1994, even empathized with Foyt IV's struggles.
''With A.J. on the other end, it was probably a good thing,'' Unser joked. ''Today is a new day for him. He knows what's coming in the month of May, he knows more about what to experience. I think he's more calm.''
In 15 races since his last Indy start, Foyt has been beset by other problems. Seven times, he's dropped out because of mechanical problems. Twice he crashed. And his best finish was an 11th-place at Nazareth, Pa., in August.
But he's returned to Indianapolis with more confidence.
He took a four-lap average of 214.256 mph on the first of three days of qualifying, then turned his attention to improving the race setup. The younger Foyt will start 21st Sunday and promises to be patient. His uncle, Larry, qualified 22nd.
In Thursday's final practice session, Foyt IV drove 17 laps, clocking a fast lap of 209.935. To him, that was more than enough.
''There was no real reason to risk anything,'' he said, sounding like a veteran.
But the real test will come Sunday when the younger Foyt tries to survive another 500-mile ride with two goals: being competitive and erasing the bad memories from last year.
Peninsula Clarion ©2014. All Rights Reserved.