Foyt Team Returns Intact
February 19, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
While high-profile changes altered a good portion of the 2002 IRL roster, Foyt’s team steered clear of the Silly Season madness and will return with Donnie Beechler and Eliseo Salazar this season.
Beechler will drive the No. 14 that Salazar drove last season, and Salazar will drive the No. 11. Banco de Chile signed on to be Salazar’s sponsor, replacing Harrah’s on the No. 11.
The two drivers tested for the first time at the beginning of February, but it wasn’t at the Test in the West. Instead, Foyt put his team through a private test at Phoenix International Raceway.
“It went pretty well,” said Salazar, last year’s fifth-place finisher in the IRL points. “We went a couple of days before everybody went there for the open test, so we ran when the track was dirtier and not so much oil on the track. I ended up doing it at 20.3 (177.34 mph), and I feel that was really good, because last year we qualified at 20.8 (173.077 mph), and we ended up at second in the race, and we had a very good car for the race.
“So the main thing is to test the driver because after four months, you need to get some of the rust out and try learning again how to do this. But after a couple of days, we were happy with what we accomplished.”
For Beechler, the test was the first time driving an IRL car since the race at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 2. Beechler was driving for Foyt on a race-by-race basis, and Greg Ray replaced him in the No. 11 at the season-finale.
“The first few laps, you get the feel for the car again, and you’re back in it,” said Beechler, the 15th-place finisher in the IRL points last season. “I was very fortunate to run several races with AJ and Harrah’s last year, so it was one of those deals that I knew what I was going into. I think that if I wouldn’t have had that opportunity last year and then gotten put in this situation right now, it would have been a lot tougher for me. But I know the cars. I know the team.
“The motor programs are the only things that were really a little new on. But we’ll figure those out, and Phoenix really wasn’t the place to test the engines I don’t feel for the power that I think they have. Phoenix is more of a handling track. So I’m very satisfied with the position that I’m in, and we just hope for the best this year.”
Beechler’s position last season wasn’t solid. He entered the year without a ride and sat out the first three races of the season before agreeing to a race-by-race deal with Foyt. Beechler competed in nine events and collected three Top 5s and six Top 10s. His best finish was a third at Kansas Speedway in July.
Salazar started the season strong with five straight top-10 finishes but then faded. Beechler outperformed him in the last half of the season, and Beechler was rewarded with the coveted No. 14.
“Naturally, it’s very exciting for me,” Beechler said. “This is something that has come along further than what I would ever had thought. So for me to be in the 14 car, a little bit of pressure, but I’ve got to go out and just do my job and do the best that I can do and hope for the best.”
With their offseason testing out of the way, Beechler and Salazar can turn their attention to the season-opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway on March 2. Beechler will be making his first trip to the track in Homestead, Fla.
“I’ve looked at some videotapes, watched some races on it, but I think until I can get out there and personally get a feel for the track, it’s going to be new to me,” Beechler said.
Salazar, on the other hand, had one of his best performances of the year at Homestead last season. He finished third and led 16 laps.
“This is kind of my home grand prix,” said Salazar, a Miami resident. “I’m looking out of the window now, and I live very close to the track. But this is the closest thing that I could have to my home grand prix. Last year we did well. We finished in the podium. We were leading the race at one point, and we finished third, and we really - how would I name it if I had to - this is the race that I would most like to win.”
Not more than the Indianapolis 500, though.
“It’s hard to find words to describe how big it is for us,” Salazar said. “In 2000 with A.J., we qualified in the front row and came third, and we were disappointed because at one point we were really close to Montoya, gaining on him, and then we had a bad pit stop, but we’ve been there. I’ve finished third, fourth, sixth, seventh, this (past) year, the best out of the IRL drivers.
“It’s impossible to describe how much it means. I’ve done Formula One and CART and everything, but it is nothing like the Indy 500. I can’t tell you how much it would mean. Hopefully, I will tell you after the race in May.”