LEXINGTON, Ohio – Back when A.J. Foyt was compiling a resume that included 67 IndyCar wins including four Indianapolis 500s, it seemed as if he could win anywhere he drove.
But in the back of his mind, it was as if the tracks had personalities of their own. Some welcomed and helped him, others worked against him.
"I've had tracks like that. The ones that I didn't have luck at, I worked that much harder to try to win on them. Which, normally I did," Foyt said during the recent IndyCar stop at Mid-Ohio. "I had some that I always liked a little better. Like the Hoosier 100. That was the next biggest purse to Indy. It was like I couldn't be beat there."
Ask a driver at any level of racing his favorite track and he'll likely smile and rattle off at least a couple. Then their faces will cloud over and they'll address the ones that always seemed to be adversaries.
Regardless of how they felt about a venue, however, it sometimes has no bearing on how they did there.
"There's always that saying, 'horses for courses,'" said three-time IndyCar champ Bobby Rahal said. "There were tracks I loved where I never really did that well and then there tracks that I always did really well on, like Toronto and Mid-Ohio. There was just something about it that you always ended up doing well there. Don't ask me why."
So, is there something about a layout that matches up with the skills of the driver? Or is it just a roll of the dice? Does past performance affect future success? Or is it all just coincidence, and winning doesn't beget more winning, and a bit of bad luck doesn't necessarily lead to more of it?
Count Scott Dixon among those who believe that there's something special at certain tracks. He was disappointed with qualifying last weekend at Mid-Ohio, then rebounded on Sunday to win there for the fourth time in six years.
"I wish I was this happy to come to all the tracks," he said with a grin. "When you see it coming up on the calendar I'm excited for it because I know we do well."
This much is certain: Winning requires a number of tumblers to fall in your favor. Being confident because you've done well before at a track certainly helps, but it's just one reason why a driver might find success at the same track repeatedly.
"I won four years in a row at Laguna Seca on the original course and when they changed to the new, longer course I never won there again. I can't tell you why," Rahal said. "It seems like everything clicks at those times. You went to every race thinking you were going to win it, or trying to win it. But, for sure, you look back and there were some tracks that everything seemed to click."
The reverse is also true, without question. Some drivers never seem to fare well on a given layout. Others can be haunted by a wreck or other bad experience.
When Justin Wilson returned to Mid-Ohio last week, he tried not to treat Turn One any differently — even though that's where he had broken his back a year ago.
Instead, he tried to force himself to forget, to treat that portion of the track and the track as a whole like any other. It was a puzzle to be solved, a question to be answered.
"It crossed my mind to the point where I thought, 'I'm not going to back off through this corner.' I wanted to prove to myself and everyone else that I can carry the commitment through Turn One as much as anyone — even though this is where it all went wrong 12 months ago," Wilson said. "It's just one of those stubborn things. (I say) 'It's not going to beat me.'"
Foyt laughs when he's asked about tracks where he had a problem.
"Well, I had that at a lot of them tracks I ran," the 77-year-old cracked.
He just never let it bother him. It was as if a strip of concrete or blacktop was personally challenging him. And he never backed down from any challenge.
When Rahal hit a wall or collided with another car, he thanked his lucky stars for surviving and then added it to his store of knowledge for future use.
"You might say, 'Well, I'm going to approach this a little differently because of what happened last year. I'm not going to do THAT again,'" said Rahal, who now co-owns a team and has to be concerned about the safety of his own drivers. "But, no, you went in thinking, 'Boy, I don't like this place.'"
Wilson was forced to sit out the next three or four months after his broken back. He spent that time watching the IndyCar series. He noted that, pure, blind luck also is a factor.
"I'm good friends with Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, and you watch them, two great drivers, and at the time, Scott was having terrible luck and Dario was fortunate. It's just interesting to see two guys, the same team, both excellent drivers, and yet one's winning and the other one — if it could go wrong, it did. If there was a crash, Scott would get taken out and Dario would get through it," he said.
So on top of past performance, confidence, driving ability and a hundred other aspects, there's also an unseen element that seems to hold a fickle power over drivers, regardless of where or how they're racing.
"There's such a thing as luck," said Wilson, who finished 18th at Mid-Ohio this time around. "Things that you can't control, things that just happen."
Rusty Miller can be reached at http://twitter.com/rustymillerap