INDIANAPOLIS — Tony Kanaan announced on Thursday morning that the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season would be the last that he pursues a full time seat in any series. While it’s not ideal, he says it’s time for the next wave of drivers to take over.
He cautioned though, that this is “retirement” per say. See, Kanaan isn’t ready to be done racing full time. He’s more fit now than he ever was when he started off as an Indy Car driver as a wide eyed 23 year old rookie back in 1998. He said he could race the Indy 500 now, come into the pits, hop into another car and run another 500 miles and have no problems doing so whatsoever.
He’s not blowing smoke either.
Kanaan, competes in triathlons. He’s a well known fitness guru. His body can very easily withstand the rigors that go into racing an Indy Car at the highest level. In fact, Kanaan says that he has no doubts that he could race well into his 50’s.
So why is he stepping away then? Why are so many drivers lately walking away earlier and earlier? Jimmie Johnson in NASCAR is retiring at seasons end. Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., etc, have all said enough is enough and retired from full time competition in their 40’s recently too.
If you look at the old days, well known drivers would race well into their 50’s. Why in this day and age, do drivers who are fitter than ever before, racing in equipment that’s never been safer, going around race tracks that have never had more safety equipment in place than ever before, walking away a decade earlier? Seems like this would prolong careers, not shorten them.
Kanaan, well he has a different perspective on why.
“I am definitely in much better shape now than I was in in ’98, I can assure you that,” Kanaan said to me laughing following his press conference at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “Now, we just start earlier. It’s different times too. I mean look at this generation, it’s so premature. You’re making it to IndyCar when you’re 18. That’s hard.”
In terms of how AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, etc raced into their 50’s, Kanaan notes that most of the time, they were driving for their own teams. These days, it’s too hard to own a team and race full time too. Plus, those guys weren’t competive at the end. They overstayed their welcome.
In IndyCar, there’s been 15 season champions that were 40 or older, but none since 1993. Since 1999, there’s been 13 champions that were actually 26 or younger. The ideal shelf life for a competitive season isn’t much older than Kanaan is now.
“It’s a different mentality,” Kanaan continued. “I mean you look at those guys, they are legends. But, when you look at their careers at the end, they weren’t as competitive and they kept racing because either they owned the team. Now a days, there’s no more room for that. I mean, you have Ed (Carpenter) but he’s not full time as a driver either. Your team owner will now decide for you. Unless you own your own team, which isn’t as common anymore when you think about it.
“Even percentage wise, it’s not as much. AJ had his own team, he’s not going to fire himself. Petty’s the same way. Michael (Andretti) was the same way. Those decisions are not made by us anymore because I can assure you, look at me, look at Dixon, look at the guys that are up in their 40’s, we are in the best shape of our lives. Can we do 10 more years? 100-percent. I can finish the ‘500 and jump in a car and do another ‘500 the same day. But that’s not the case anymore because we don’t control that. That’s why you don’t see us racing that long anymore. I’ve heard people say it’s quite unique for what I’ve accomplished. I’m going to be 46 this year and doing this for 23 years, lately in the last two decades, that’s not very common.”
So, while Kanaan says that this decision was not by choice and that he was actively pursuing a full time sponsor, he ran out of time and will step back and race in five events for 2020, all on ovals.
I asked how they came to the decision on ovals. I mean, there’s 17 races on the schedule, why pick five of the same? The answer is fairly obvious though. Kanaan, has 17 career Indy Car wins to his credit, 13 of which were all on ovals.
“Well it was no secret that when you look at the stats, coincidentally enough, which is funny because I didn’t grow up racing on ovals, I came here to race on them,” Kanaan said to me on if picking all ovals was based off his success on them compared to road/street courses. “Coincidence or not, I don’t think it was a very hard conversation.
“I’ve always felt like on teams that I raced, that I was a part of the team. I always tried to remove myself and think about letting me put myself in the owners shoes. What decisions would I make? I tried not to be selfish. I tried to be fair. When looking at the stats and looking at the situation, this is the race (Indy 500) I want to do. We started with the Indy 500 only. With ABC coming back for the ‘500, I was like ‘can I do that? They said well why don’t we try to do all of the ovals because you go back to stats, which I hate, but at the same time you have to face it, the stats on the ovals, my stats on them last year, it’s kind of obvious. On other tracks, people are like ‘oh you’re not so good’ for that I disagree, but the results on the ovals are better and how can we maximize the results and that’s how we came to the conclusion. When it came to the time that we weren’t going to do the whole season, that was obvious.”
While Kanaan is open to still race in the future in literally anything he can get his hands on, he is ruling out being full time.
“It will be a new challenge. I think like I’m preparing for this day, I’m going to have to prepare myself for the first race when I see that green flag dropping and I’m not around. It’s been 23 years that I’ve been doing this.
“Excited for the future. It’s the unknown, what’s going to happen, opportunities that will come, and we’ll see. I mean, I still have a job to do. I still get to race in this place. You know, five more, and we’ll see what’s going to happen.
“I don’t want anybody to think I’m retiring and I’m disappearing. First of all, I still can drive. We’ve been in talks. Five years or so in this room we started it; we’ve been in talks with IMSA and a bunch of other series. Even Formula E, you talk about stock car in Brazil. People are like, so what are you doing, what are you doing next year, and I think this will open an opportunity for me to do — Tony Stewart is like, ‘When are you coming back to Eldora?’ Now I think I can do all those things.
“I think I will enjoy it a lot. I don’t want people to get the impression that this is it, and this is not it in INDYCAR, either, but like I said, that’s all I can say right now. Hopefully, we’ll surprise you guys through the year with some different stuff.”
What he definitely wants to do for the future is to groom younger talent. Kanaan, knows that if he continues on in his role for another decade, he’s taking a spot from someone else. He hopes by stepping out, someone else would take his advise and thrive.
“I think it’s time. I think you’ve got to look — there’s always the up-comers. This series has been extremely competitive, and I think in the last decade, we, the old guys, are still dominating, that you still see Dixon, Power, people that are upper 30s, almost 40s, some of us, Sato. And we’re still delivering. And when you hang on to that, then you’re not giving a chance for the new generation to come up. That’s great for us, but I don’t think it’s good for the sport, either. Like I got my chance; why — I’m not saying I’m giving people a chance, but in a way, yes, you’re trying to open up a seat for a new talent to come up and build the series.
“When I started racing, all I wanted to do was race, win, beat everybody. I wouldn’t talk to my teammates like before I came here. They were my first rivals, and that was it. That’s all that matters. And growing up, I wanted to be an IndyCar driver and I wanted to win the Indy 500. I wanted to do this. And that was being extremely selfish.
“As you get older, I don’t know if you get softer or wiser, whatever you want to call it, and you start thinking about what else can I do to give back to the sport, what this place — I mean, this place made me. There is no question about it. It’s not a cliché. I’m not saying that because it is.
“You know that. I think the people in this room know that. And if anybody goes around this town with me, it’s mindboggling — it’s like, OK. All right.
“So to me, it’s like you get to a point that you say, you know what, let’s try to get this new guy. Who is it going to be? Is it going to be Pato (O’Ward), is it going to be whoever that guy is. The same thing if people asked Steve Horne back then, who is this Brazilian guy who can barely speak English. Actually, there were two. Maybe you guys know who the other one was.
“And then you go to a different role. I think my mindset is I’m extremely happy with what I’ve accomplished in my life. Now maybe it’s time instead of thinking about winning all the time, it’s like, how can I give it back? how can I inspire this kid, that actually, yes, you can race 20 years. If you wake up at 4:30 in the morning to do your first workout and then you do your other chores and you just be committed that 100 percent of what you want to do is to be a race car driver, it’s possible. I’m actually the perfect example of that. I had no money, my parents did not have money to do it, and it happened.
“This will be actually something that inspires me to make that decision and say, you know what, how about — you’ve heard the role, instead of trying to beat everybody, now let’s try to inspire other people and make it happen.”
With that being said, what would the 45 year old Tony Kanaan tell the 23 year old Tony Kanaan who was just started his 23 year career back in 1998?
“Actually, man, I would tell the young Tony Kanaan to just do what his heart wanted to do because that’s all I’ve done in my life. I have no regrets.
“I think no regrets the decisions that I made. There is always the pro and the con. But probably actually the one thing I would say is Tony, don’t listen to anybody, just listen to yourself. Everybody is going to have an opinion about you, good or bad, but that doesn’t matter. It matters what you want. It’s what you think is right, and it’s what you think you can do in life. Everybody else, they’re always going to have an opinion.”