Q&A with Jack Starne
JACK STARNE has worked with A.J. Foyt since June, 1967. Now the General Manager of A.J. Foyt Racing, Jack started as a mechanic, became the crew chief in 1976, and eventually came off the road in 1989. Jack has been there when A.J. was on top and when A.J. suffered some of his hardest times. As close to A.J. as a brother, Jack Starne has seen it all. We asked him a few questions…
Q: How did you find your way from a Southern California hot rodder to A.J.’s race shop?
JS: “At the time I worked for Bruce Crower Cams & Equipment. He was taking care of two Indy cars for Jim Rathmann, Gordon Cooper & Gus Grissom. In ‘67 we went to Indianapolis with two drivers, Rick Muther and Bobby Johns. We didn’t make the race, but we had a lot of entertainment with the astronauts—they were pretty funny guys. I was ready to go back to California because I had a job there. But all of A.J.’s guys, after he won the race in ’67, they all quit. He said they made too much money. Bill Yeager worked for Rathmann at the time. I think Yeager told A.J. how fast I worked. A.J. came around the garage corner and introduced himself to me and asked me if I wanted to help him out when they ran the races in Canada. I thought, well I’ve never been to Canada before so this is probably my only chance, so I’ll go for it. From there I just went to work for him. Came from Indy and moved straight to Texas, never went back to California.
Jack Starne (rear) tightens fuel cap on A.J.'s 1968 dirt car.
Q: How did AJ change from the time his dad worked with him in the race shop to the time after his dad stopped working, due to health issues, and after Tony passed away?
JS: “A.J. and his dad were very close. A.J. worshipped the ground that his daddy walked on—we all did. They argued an awful lot but both of them always wanted to win races. That was the only reason he was in there – Tony was behind A.J. 100 percent on everything he did. No matter what it took, Tony was on it. When Tony started slowing down and getting sick, A.J. started to slow down a little too. He wouldn’t go to some races. He was very, very concerned about his dad. And then when Tony really got sick, he had to do radiation treatments and A.J. and I would share taking him back and forth. It just kept eating on A.J. and he lost interest in racing altogether. When his dad passed away it was really so sad for all of us. As time went on, A.J. started coming around a little bit. It might have taken him two or three years to get back into the groove a little bit. He still misses his daddy to this day. It was very hard on him and very hard on him when his momma passed away too. It hit A.J. very, very hard. She was sick for quite a while before she passed. He still talks about them all the time too. Both of them were tremendous people. Back then we were more like family.”
A.J. and Jack in 1985 when A.J. was getting back into racing.
Q: What did you learn from working with Bob Riley on the Coyote chassis design that was pretty dominant in the mid 70’s?
JS: “The biggest thing was to have everything nice and neat, have all the body parts fit nice and neat. Try to make everything aerowise as nice and tight as possible, be sure that everything is tidied up. A good example of that is when a mechanic named Bob Dickson came to work for us, we were running dirt cars back then. We ran an Offy in the dirt car and Tony [Foyt] always ran two ground wires off of the coil. Bob said you don’t need two wires on it. We only did one and needless to say, that one broke and we didn’t win the race so that was a bad day for us.
"I learned an awful lot from Bob Riley—a lot about suspension, a lot about aero, a lot about ground effects cars which I think all of us learned together –A.J., myself and Bob. The first ground effects car we built had more ground effects than we knew what to do with—we worked to try to relieve it. We kept trying to relieve it because it kept sucking the whole car right down to the ground. We didn’t snap to what was going on. Back in the old days the cars used to run pretty soft springs. When the ground effects cars came, you didn’t get all the movement like you did with the other cars, with these cars you needed to run it a lot stiffer and a lot lower to the ground. It took us a little while to figure that out but once we did, we were alright. As time goes on, you learn.”
Q: What were the best and worst aspects of working for A.J. for almost 55 years?
JS: “The best part? The whole 53 years! We always had fun, we worked seriously and if we got in trouble, we worked our way out of it. We never gave up. I can’t pinpoint just one thing. And I don’t think there was any worst part. I know we would always have some disagreements along the way. He’d cuss me and I’d cuss him and it’d be over with in 30 minutes and we’d get back to work and start winning races again. It was all good all the way around believe me.”
In 2017, Jack was honored for his 50 years working with A.J. with a party in Indianapolis during the month of May. Here are a few of the people who came to pay tribute to the man and his career. Jack is seated between his wife Betsy and A.J. in the first row.
Q: Over the years what was the worst time with A.J. for you?
JS: “The worst time? There were three of them that bothered me. When we were at Du Quoin [a one mile dirt track in Illinois], and he came in and we had to refuel the car and it caught on fire. He jumped out and the car ran over him and broke his leg—twisted it around. He ran for the lake because he wanted to get in the water because he was still burning. He tripped over the guardrail and fell into some bushes that were there. Tony ran after him and then I got there and another guy got there and the guy kept yanking on the top of A.J.’s uniform around his neck and I shoved that guy out of the way. I had a knife or something and when I cut open the uniform, it just went whooff—like it was burning inside and it relieved it. Then we got him in the ambulance and went to the hospital with him. His foot was all the way around backwards which was not a good sight. The assistant in there was trying to undo his uniform and she was struggling with it. I said, give me your scissors and I cut it off of him for her.
On fire from a refueling accident at DuQuoin, Foyt leapt from car which then ran over his leg and broke it.
“And the next one was at Michigan when he crashed and hurt his arm real bad. I remember at the hospital, I went in to see him just before he went in for surgery. They had his arm hanging up on a hook—kind of like in the meat market, and blood was just pouring out of his arm. An aide was mopping it up with a mop, I couldn’t believe it. But everything turned out fine. Then there was the time he got that car upside down at Daytona. They brought him into the hospital and they had his arms on his chest and one of them fell on the side of the stretcher and was dangling down and I thought ‘Oh no, school’s out.’ That was the first thing that went through my brain. Those were the three worst ones and I always hated to call Lucy. That was tough. But he came out of all of them. He’d come to the shop and have his IV bag hanging in the car window and come in. He’d have a cast on, and after about three weeks we’d cut the cast off and go racing again. Those were the worst times but we made the best of it we could.” [Starne was not at Foyt’s accident at Road America in 1990]
Q: And what was the best time – does one race stand out?
JS: “I’d say all of them stood out. Since I went to work for him we won 23 races or something like that? [Actually the record book shows A.J. won 34 IndyCar, 2 Silver Crown, 31 USAC stock car, 2 sprint car and a one midget race.] All of them stood out, like winning four Indy car races at Pocono, but I think the best one was Indy because the car was built here in Houston, the engine was built here in Houston, I think that was a big accomplishment.
The day after winning the 1977 Indy 500. Jack is kneeling at front of the car. Billy Woodruff is standing to left of crewman with cowboy hat.
Q: For you to build it, that must be a real source of pride?
JS: “Well I didn’t do that by myself. We had myself, Billy Woodruff and Eddie Kuzma. Luji Lesovsky wasn’t working with us in ’77 but I learned an awful lot about fabricating from him and Eddie. Learned to weld aluminum, to hammer aluminum, build radiators, I learned to build everything. Those guys were real craftsmen. Get a sheet of aluminum, cut it up, bend it up, weld it together and you have an upright.”
Q: Were you a fabricator before coming to A.J.’s team?
JS: “I was from the hotrod days and dragster days, chopping up cars and making custom cars.” [Note: Jack started working as a fabricator at an aircraft company after graduating high school in Southern California.]
Q: So they gave you the Master Class in fabrication then?
JS: “Yeah, that sounds about right.”
Q: What is one of your favorite A.J. stories?
JS: “In ’74, we built new cars and the body had been changed from ‘73, but we struggled with the car and struggled with it. He’d say go measure the old one, then measure the new one, and we’d cuss and argue back and forth. I kept telling him, just try the other car. And he’d say, ‘No this is wrong and that’s wrong’ on the new one. I said, ‘We’ll just take it back to the shop, put it on the fixture and see what’s the matter with it. Maybe I missed something somewhere.’ He walked out of the garage and I followed him down to Gasoline Alley and I said, ‘A.J. we’ll just take the car home and see what’s wrong with it!' And we are yelling at one another, okay? And he turned around to me and said, ‘It’ll be ok. Don’t worry about it.’ And the next day he set it on the pole. We argued for two weeks!”
Q: Was it something mentally he had to get over?
JS: “I honestly don’t know but they were carbon copies believe me. He was that way. In ‘67, we built three cars and on one car the speed angle was off a little bit and he hated that car. We were at Riverside road racing and I can’t remember the driver’s name, they called him Mr. Clean. His last name was Miller I think [Al Miller]. Anyway, A.J. got tangled up with him in the race. [A.J. said: “I just had to stay out of trouble and finish the race. I went off track to avoid Miller and I still got hit!”] He came running back because we were going for the championship. He got in McCluskey’s car and he said, ‘I’m glad that goddam thing’s done, I never have liked that ^&%$ car.’ He got in McCluskey’s car and we did win the championship. He never did get in Hurtubise’s car [which they had brought as a backup car] because it broke early.”
Jack at work underneath a Coyote from the late 60s.
Q: What was your favorite race car in the history of AJ Foyt Racing?
JS: “I’m gonna have to say the ‘77 car.”
Q: Is there any race or situation that you would like to do over if you had the chance?
JS: “Yeah the year Rutherford won Indy . We just needed them to turn the green light on for half a lap.”
Q: What were the circumstances?
JS: “The rain came and we broke a front swaybar arm, so during the time we were down in the pit area, I took it back and welded it back together. All they needed to do was turn the green light on but they wouldn’t do it. About an hour and a half later the sun came out, the track dried up and it was beautiful. But it was over with.”
Q: Do you have any dreams or aspirations that were never realized?
JS: “I don’t think so. When I was a young kid I used to listen to the 500 on the radio all the time. And I always thought I’d like to go to Indy. And I always thought one place I never wanted to live was Texas. Now that was when I was a kid, maybe 6-7-8 yrs old. I ended up with both of them.”
Q: AJ loves operating his bulldozers on his ranch land, what is your favorite pastime or hobby?
JS: “I don’t really have a hobby. Sometimes I’d weld gears together at the shop and make statues out of them but I don’t really do that anymore. I just hang out. My hobby is my wife and my dog I guess. I used to like to travel – liked to go cruising. We’d go to Alaska quite often but I think that’ll be off for a while. We have friends that live two doors down that we’re close with and every Friday we go for a Mexican dinner, shoot the breeze for a couple hours and have a good time. Other people know that we go there and they’ll drop by and we’ll have a half a dozen friends there. And two weeks later, somebody different will come by.”
Betsy and Jack Starne attended the Houston Sports Hall of Fame induction of A.J. Foyt in January, 2019.
Q: Aside from AJ, who was best driver on dirt and best on pavement that you ever saw?
JS: “I’d say Al Unser Sr. On both. To me, Al thinks like A.J. does. He always knows what’s happening way out in front. I think a lot of race drivers now just drive off the front of their car. And you have Andretti, he was awful tough too. But if I had to pick one or the other, I’d have to pick Al Sr. When I first got to Indy when they did both the pavement cars and the dirt cars, I don’t think Parnelli was still driving the dirt. But he was awful good on the dirt too.”
Q: Lastly, which chief mechanic did you respect or admire the most?
JS: “I worked around an awful lot of them through the years and I’d say Clint Brawner and George Bignotti (pictured with A.J.). They were quite a bit different. Clint would do anything he could with what he had where Bignotti wouldn’t. George went more for the newer stuff and Clint probably didn’t have the budget that Bignotti had. They were both great chief mechanics and if I had to single one out, I couldn’t. If I needed something, I could go talk to them, borrow something.”
Q: What made them so good?
JS: “They knew from their experience, what to look for, where the problem was gonna be and they always took care of it. Like I said about the groundwire breaking [and not running a second as backup], they knew from experience what to do. That’s why their cars were always so good and there at the end. You’ve got to be there at the end to win the race.”
A master fabricator indeed! Jack did all of the fabrication work to restore the Maier Cycle midget, powered by two BMW motorcycle engines, and owned by Greg Klar (far right), whose father Russ drove the car with success in the late '40s. Foyt's painters Bill Spruielle and Tom Ulch restored the black beauty to her glory years. Foyt took a keen interest in the project because of the unique engine.