Boat Hopes Ship Comes In With Panther

SPARTA, Ky. -- Between Oct. 11, 1997, and Oct. 11, 1998, Billy Boat won seven poles and started on the front row in nine out of 10 Indy Racing Northern Light Series races while driving for A.J. Foyt.

He started third, his only non-front row start during that span, at Walt Disney World Speedway because qualifying was rained out and the lineup was determined by the previous year's point standings.

During his 24 races with Foyt, Boat won at Texas and also had two seconds, two thirds, two fourths and 13 finishes in the top 10. He won $2,434,400 in prize money.

But he and Foyt parted company at the end of the 1999 season. At first, Boat tried to start his own IRNLS team, but that didn't materialize. He signed with Team Pelfrey, a smaller, lower-budget team than Foyt's.

As this season heads into its final two races, Boat seeks another ride with a top-rung team in the IRNLS. That's why he is auditioning July 17 and 18 at Kentucky Speedway with Pennzoil Panther Racing.

Boat hopes to replace Scott Goodyear, who is leaving the team after this season. Robby McGehee also will join Boat during the test, Panther team manager John Barnes said.

Sam Hornish Jr. and Alex Barron tested for the ride a few weeks ago.

"We're going to run and just kind of feel each other out, let me be around the team a little bit, let them be around me" said Boat, from Phoenix, a former USAC open-wheel standout. "We've got to see how we get along."

Boat has no complaints about Team Pelfrey. The team has good personnel, he said, but its smaller budget limits testing and development.

"For what we've had to work with, I think they've done a tremendous job," Boat said.

Boat's top 2000 qualifying position has been fifth at Las Vegas. A sixth at Phoenix is his best finish. Despite the team's small size, Boat still entered last Saturday's Midas 500 Classic at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 13th place in the Northern Light Cup standings, only two points behind Jeff Ward, who is tied for 11th with 112 points. Ward is one of Foyt's two drivers this season.

Boat harbors no animosity toward Foyt, the legendary four-time Indianapolis 500 winner. He says he wouldn't change a thing about his career path that led from USAC short tracks to driving for Foyt in Indy Racing.

"The 2½ years I spent at A.J. Foyt Racing was the best thing that ever happened to me," Boat said. "A.J. really helped to put me on the map. He gave me great race cars and great equipment. Unfortunately, we didn't get the kind of results either one of us wanted. We ran fast, but we didn't finish enough races, and we just didn't have the consistency.

"It's something I probably learned from," Boat said. "I learned a lot from the guy, and that's why I can still call him a friend."

And being Foyt’s friend paid off for Boat at the Indianapolis 500 in May. Boat crashed his car twice in May and was in danger of missing the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Fortunately for Boat, Roberto Guerrero was unable to get one of Foyt’s cars up to speed and Super Tex let Boat get behind the wheel of the No. 41.

With almost no practice time, Boat qualified the car, started 31st and finished 15th. But the reunion was short-lived. After the race, Boat and Foyt went their separate ways again.

Any time a driver is strapped in the seat of a race car, he must shoulder some of the blame for any failures, Boat said.

"We struggled for a lot of reasons. I just think I learned a lot there, and I'm going to welcome the opportunity to get back with a well-funded team to show that I still can run up front."

Boat still has visions of owning a team but not in the immediate future. He said it has to be at the right time with the right people, and that this may not be the right time.

"My first goal is to win races and run up front," he said. "I have to do what it takes to get back to that point, because I'm not here to go around, I'm here to win."

Boat admitted he took a risk when he indicated last winter that he might become a car owner/driver. It took him out of contention for seats with other teams. Team Pelfrey came to the rescue for this season.

Boat will be 35 before the start of the 2001 season. He realizes this could be a pivotal time in his career. He cannot afford another so-so year.

"Absolutely," he said. "I've got to be up front, challenging for the lead and winning some races, challenging for the championship. That's what I feel I can do, but you can't do it alone. It takes a team to do it."

Still, he tries to keep a chin-up attitude at home around his wife, Andrea, and four children, Trisha, 13, Chad, 8, Brooke, 5, and Emily, 4. When there is time between his Indy Racing schedule and running his performance automotive exhaust business, Boat enjoys helping Chad race in quarter-midgets. The whole family is involved.

Though he tries to hide his frustrations about not winning, it comes through.

"Everybody senses it, even Chad knows it's there," Boat said. "Everybody in my family knows it's there. Everybody goes through cycles, and you just have to work hard to try to get back on top."

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