Tuesday, 9 Aug, 2022

Larry Foyt lamenting ‘tough decisions’ if ROKiT payments end

LEXINGTON, Ohio – AJ Foyt Racing president Larry Foyt couldn’t say much regarding his team’s financial relationship with primary sponsor ROKiT on..


Larry Foyt lamenting 'tough decisions' if ROKiT payments end

LEXINGTON, Ohio – AJ Foyt Racing president Larry Foyt couldn’t say much regarding his team’s financial relationship with primary sponsor ROKiT on Friday afternoon, which in and of itself perhaps best illustrates how precarious things have become between the two sides.

You wouldn’t have noticed anything out of place outside the team’s garages Friday morning at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Team members unloaded and prepped their three cars ahead of the IndyCar race weekend. ‘ROKiT’ branded shirts were worn, like normal, by those aligned with the Nos. 14 and 11 entries of Kyle Kirkwood and Tatiana Calderon. Kirkwood’s Chevy featured a new primary sponsor in Sexton Properties, but it was one of more than a half-dozen on the grid to undergo a branding change this weekend.

But inside the transporter, Foyt sat by himself away from the hustle-and-bustle of the garages, wondering whether Calderon will have a Foyt ride in two weeks and if a not-insignificant number of the team’s full-time employees will still have jobs . Unfortunately, they’re decisions that aren’t entirely in his hands, as the team waits for ROKiT to catch up with a series of late payments that nearly parked the No. 11 this weekend before some stopgap funds are believed to have arrived.

More:Tatiana Calderon’s sponsorship with Foyt uncertain for rest of 2022

Doing what he could to fill in a few details while being careful not to paint ROKiT in a bad light, Foyt told IndyStar in an exclusive interview, “It’s not like ROKiT hasn’t paid anything. It’s just, they’re a little behind and in this sport that adds up very quickly, and we just don’t want to get too behind ourselves. We’re hoping (our relationship) continues.

“All my dialogue with ROKiT is that they want to continue, so we’ve just had a bit of a hiccup on the funding side and want to get it resolved.”

AJ Foyt Enterprises driver Tatiana Calderon (11) stands in pit lane Friday, May 13, 2022, during practice for the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

This isn’t the first time the telecommunication company has struggled to produce timely funds on a major racing sponsorship deal. In January, a court arbitration ruling demanded ROKiT pay more than $35 million to the Williams F1 team for a failed title sponsorship that began in 2019. An initial three-year deal was extended through 2023 midway through 2019, but the sides parted ways before the start of the 2020 campaign. ROKiT argued Williams hadn’t fulfilled its obligations from Jan. 1, 2020 onward, though in communication between the two sides, ROKiT was revealed to have “unambiguously promised” payments in full into March of that year.

Foyt acknowledged that things involving the No. 11, driven by Calderon on road and street courses and JR Hildebrand on ovals this year, nearly came to a head in May. Then, funding began flowing again after a series of conversations, and Foyt believed the issue – at least to this serious an extent – had been rectified.

A month later, though, ROKiT was behind again. Rumors and questions about the no. 11’s future began again at Road America in mid-June, and this past weekend, erroneous reports circulated on Twitter that the No. 11 was being parked for the rest of the year.

“It’s not a fun situation by any means, but you have to look out for the whole business, as well as the other cars that have funding going for them,” Foyt said.

The team of AJ Foyt Enterprises driver Tatiana Calderon (11) prepares her car Friday, May 13, 2022, prior to the first practice session for the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

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Until this weekend, Calderon’s fellow rookie teammate Kirkwood has run a virtually identical black-and-white ROKiT livery on the No. 14. Though his deal was announced with Foyt this offseason more than two months before Calderon’s, Kirkwood’s appearance on-track in 2022 is not dependent on ROKiT funding, Foyt said. The company served as a primary sponsor for Foyt’s No. 14 of Sebastien Bourdais in 2021, and a big reason for their return in 2022 was the ability to land a part-time ride for their affiliated driver Calderon with the hope she could begin to build a foundation in the American open-wheel series.

Calderon came to IndyCar with plenty of upside – she served four seasons from 2018-21 as one of the test drivers for the Alfa Romeo F1 team – but she’s yet to find a consistent home, having raced in more than a dozen series around the world since the start of 2016. From the outside, bringing the 29-year-old to IndyCar was always viewed as a multi-year plan to give her time to learn a calendar full of brand-new tracks inside a brand-new car. Though considerably off the pace at times at the start of race weekends, Calderon’s results have been more than respectable – landing a best finish of 15th on the IMS road course in a rain-soaked GMR Grand Prix to go with 16th on the streets of Long beach

“She’s making gains every session, and she’s not out here crashing a bunch of cars while trying to learn at a good pace,” Foyt said Friday. “She’s been progressing nicely, and that’s why we wanted to bring her here (to Mid-Ohio) so badly. It’s a track she’s seen before (during a test a year ago with Foyt).

“I just hope everything can get resolved and we can continue.”

AJ Foyt Enterprises driver Tatiana Calderon (11) talks with her crew Friday, May 13, 2022, during practice for the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

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Foyt added: “Hopefully we have some clarity on everything early next week, and it’s just a little bump in the road.”

But once Toronto comes July 17, the marathon IndyCar season quickly turns into a full-blown sprint, with eight races in nine weekends leading to the finale at Laguna Seca on Sept. 11.

Foyt said that if the team was forced to park the No. 11 for Toronto (or at any time the rest of this year), it wouldn’t be a permanent status if the proper funds were to be delivered that would allow it (and either Calderon or Hildebrand) to get back on track. Funded drivers not currently running in IndyCar have approached Foyt in recent days seeking the chance to pick up the reins, though the team principal said he’s yet to seriously consider any other backup options. He did say that it’s likely too late in the game for a currently unsigned sponsor to save the No. 11’s season if ROKiT can’t do so.

“If they can’t, we’ll have to cross that bridge and make some tough decisions,” Foyt said.

Whether Calderon’s IndyCar debut season comes to an end Sunday, or even if ROKiT comes through but declines an IndyCar return with the team for 2023, Foyt said he’s interested in keeping Calderon around to continue to develop her in IndyCar – obviously funding-dependent. Kirkwood has already announced he’s headed to Andretti Autosport next season and Dalton Kellett isn’t signed beyond this year, though he and his family’s K-Line Insulators funding is expected to stick around.

Arrow McLaren SP driver Juan Pablo Montoya (6) speaks with AJ Foyt Enterprises driver Tatiana Calderon (11) on Friday, May 13, 2022, prior to the first practice session for the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Foyt said he’d love for his team to stay at three full-time cars for 2023, having already gone through the heavy lifting this offseason of hiring new personnel. But like all of this, it will largely depend on what sponsor funds allow him to run.

“All that hiring is so difficult with as many cars as are on the grid right now, and that mechanical experience is tough to come by,” he said. “We have a lot of young people, but if we’re properly funded and can stay that way, then I’d love to stay at three. But if it’s a stretch, then I’d rather be a strong two than three and stretched thin.”

Reflecting on his team’s expansion over the last 12 months, Foyt said he didn’t have any regrets in hindsight – only that “the deal with ROKiT came together kinda late.” “We didn’t have a lot of options, but it let us be able to both run Tatiana and Kyle, which we thought were great additions to our team,” Foyt said. “But that’s just the way the negotiations went with sponsorship. ”

Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.