Jack Starne is surrounded by family and friends after the festivities at the Foyt race shop in Speedway.
INDIANAPOLIS May 12—For 50 years, Jack Starne has been at A.J. Foyt’s side, standing just outside of the spotlight that perpetually shines on one of America’s greatest race drivers. It is by choice.
Last night the California native didn’t have a choice as nearly 100 close friends and family traveled from all over the country to pay tribute to the man who has been A.J. Foyt’s right hand man, a position he took over from A.J.’s dad Tony Foyt, Sr.
Small in stature, Starne is all of 5’3” and 115 lbs., but he’s always been the one that
A.J. listened to—if A.J. listened to anybody. He was there when Foyt won the pole for the Indy 500 in 1969, and again in ‘74 and ‘75. He knew the disappointment when rain cut short the 500 in ’75 and Foyt ran third. The disappointment was even sharper in ’76 when rain ended the race after just 102 laps and Foyt ran second.
In 1977, there was no rain, and Foyt and Starne—along with the entire Foyt family and crew -- were able to celebrate in victory lane for an unprecedented fourth Indy 500 victory. Foyt is rightly credited with winning in a car and engine built in his Houston race shop but it was mostly Starne and his mechanics who were turning the nuts and bolts. Together they won 29 IndyCar races and 31 pole positions plus 31 USAC stock car races and 39 poles.
Those were the happy times but Starne was also there through A.J.’s tough times—being burned and breaking his leg at DuQuoin, fracturing his arm at Michigan, and breaking his back at Daytona.Starne was also there when A.J. faced one of his most grueling rehabs after his accident in Elkhart Lake, Wis.
Starne had stopped traveling the circuit several years earlier when Foyt was concussed after hitting the wall in Charlotte in a stock car. He asked to be taken off the road, saying, “Boss, I just can’t stand to see you hurt again.”
Last night the celebration started with a gathering in the Foyt Wine Vault where guests were served the eponymous wine and hors d’oeuvres while they awaited Starne who was told he was coming to a surprise birthday party for A.J. Foyt IV. Keeping the party – six months in the planning—a surprise was quite a task for organizers Becky Baranouski and Nancy Foyt, who work with him every day in the Waller, Texas race shop. It was perhaps hardest on Jack’s wife Betsy who says, they talk about everything.
Everyone came through because when Jack, wife Betsy along with A.J.’s wife Lucy and their son Tony and his wife Nancy walked in the door, Starne’s shock was evident as the crowd shouted: “Happy 50 Years!”Foyt greeted the man who had been his friend—a man he calls his brother—for 50 years. Neither could prevent the tears as they shared a warm embrace. For nearly an hour guests came over to share their stories with the humble man who was continually surprised by everyone who showed up including Mark Miles, CEO of INDYCAR along with VPs Jay Frye and Brian Barnhart—who worked under Jack at Foyt Racing in the late 80s. Tony George, who had Jack as his crew-chief in ARS (forerunner to Indy Lights), and step-son Ed Carpenter who had Jack as crew chief when he won the Freedom 100 at Indy in 2003 were happy to attend. Robin Miller and Bill Simpson provided comic relief to those within earshot.
Three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, a longtime friend, team owner Chip Ganassi, who drove for Foyt at Indy 1985, Mike Hull, along with former drivers Davey Hamilton, Takuma Sato, Ken Schrader (drove a truck for Foyt) and current drivers Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz came to pay their respects. Former crew members Cecil Taylor, Billy Woodruff, Steve Jordan, Billy Spencer, Brett and Kurt Barnhart, along with the current crews from the 14 and 4 ABC Supply Chevrolets were all in attendance.
And for those who couldn’t attend there were videos from Tony Stewart, George Snider and crew members. And personal letters from Dan Gurney—A.J.’s teammate in their 1967 24 Hours of LeMans victory, and Sir Jackie Stewart, the 3-time Formula 1 champion, who competed in two Indy 500s, and was admired by Starne.
More surprises were in store as everyone moved to the race shop for dinner. There sat the 1977 Gilmore Coyote (a back-up to the winner which is in the Foyt exhibit at the museum) right next to the beautiful Borg Warner trophy.
The dinner—which did not feature fried chicken—rather beef filet and salmon, was followed by several presentations. Larry Foyt presented a commissioned painting by Timothy Raines featuring a pensive Starne looking over the Coyote, Nancy Foyt a shadowbox of his Copenhagen crew uniform from the mid-80s, and Becky presented the decals that will be featured on all the AJ Foyt Racing cars this month. A.J. IV said there will be a permanent photo display in the Vault along with a plaque with this quote from A.J.:
Foyt echoed those same words when he presented Starne with an 18k gold Rolex President watch saying, “Jack’s been like my brother. It’s been wonderful. All I can say is both of us worked hard together, had a helluva lot of fun, and won a few races, so what else can you say? I’ve got something I want to give you Jack, something you’ve always wanted, and I hope you enjoy it.
“We didn’t always agree on everything, but when it came race time we did. We worked night and day, and Billy [Woodruff] can tell you and the boys that worked with us – it wasn’t nothing for us to work til 2 or 3 in the morning. Times have changed, that don’t happen anymore but I think that’s what made us win a lot of races – only thing I can say. All in all Jack, you don’t know what you’ve meant to me. Without you, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. God bless you.”
The last words belong to Starne who always shunned the spotlight but last night his words were as authentic as they were emotional:“I really don’t know what to say to you all but I really appreciate every one of you coming this evening. I didn’t realize I had this many friends to be very honest. I’ve kind of been a loner throughout my life, I did my own thing. I try to help people as much as I can. And I hope they respect me for that and from the turnout this evening I think y’all do. And I really enjoy seeing some of my old crew guys here, Billy [Woodruff] and Billy [Spencer] and Steve [Jordan] and Cecil [Taylor] and his wife. I mean it completely blew me away. I had no idea. I came here for a birthday party for Anthony [A.J. IV}. And I guess y’all know what I said when I walked in the door and I will not repeat it. Just one of those things.
"I’ve really enjoyed my 50 years of working with A.J. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs and we’ve been through an awful lot of tough times, grinding times, we’ve won an awful lot of races. And it’s just dedication and I think he understands that and I understand that part. And if we didn’t win a race, we were back the next day after Sunday because we’ve got to get back on the top--you know we couldn’t be at the bottom of the list. To be very honest the way the race cars are and stuff nowadays – I enjoy the races but then again I don’t really enjoy the cars as much because they don’t impress me that much. I mean nowadays you go across the street – and I mean nothing against Dallara – but back then we had to build everything ourselves, do drawings ourselves, Billy will tell you the same things. We did drawings like this car here – it was all re-drawings from the ’73 car so it’s not basically a ‘73 car which everybody thinks it is – it’s all been changed believe me when I tell you. And it was fortunate enough to win the fourth race and A.J. was fortunate enough to win and I’m very proud of that.
“And another thing I’d like to say – I’m very impressed with the Borg Warner [trophy] being here with me this evening. I don’t think I’ve ever been this close to it to be honest with you so I’m really, really impressed. I just want to thank every one of you for coming this evening and I really appreciate it. It was really a shock to me. And the race team boys – I hope you do good tomorrow. It’s getting close to 10, y’all better get out of here ‘cause you’ve got to get up early in the morning. Thank you guys and like I said, I’ve always told every one of you guys that worked for us, I’m here to help you if you want my help. A.J., Lucy, Larry, Anthony, Tony and my wife [Betsy], Nancy, Kelly and Casey I love all of you. I thank every one of you very much. I really appreciate you letting myself and my wife be part of your family.”