Kanaan has a great race car for 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500, talks the race, no fans and who he’d bring as the next Brazilian star

INDIANAPOLIS — This past winter, in this very media center that I’m writing this column in, Tony Kanaan announced that the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series would be his last. It would be a part-time effort on ovals only in what Kanaan would dub “TK’s Last Lap.”

Well, instead of a checkered flag flying on his career in 2020 now, maybe it’s the white flag instead. Without fans being allowed here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Sunday’s 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (1 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network), Kanaan is interested in coming back.

“When we announced that I was going to retire, not retire from INDYCAR, I was not going to do a full season in INDYCAR again,” said Kanaan. “I never said I was not going to race. Some people probably got confused about that.

“This year, especially with the pandemic, the 500 means so much to me. The fans made me who I am at Indy, at Indianapolis, at that track. I totally think it’s unfair to them, it’s unfair to myself not to come back to do it one more time in a proper way. That’s my intention. By any means that’s what’s going to happen.”

Kanaan notes that he doesn’t have a car, a team, a sponsor or anything lined up for 2021, but he wants to be back here.

“I’m going to have to go work to figure this out,” Kanaan continued. “But my intentions are, yes, when hopefully life will be back to normal, the pandemic will go away, next May I’ll be able to do a proper, I don’t know, we can call it green-white-checkered, last lap, whatever we’re going to call it. As long as I’m able to come back, I don’t care.

This place without fans just doesn’t feel right and he doesn’t want to let the last time that they get to approach him in his firesuit, be May 2019. After all, part of the excitement for Kanaan to drive for AJ Foyt was his excitement of being in Garage Stall 1 in Gasoline Alley and have Foyt there with him.

He wanted to cherish the way the fans treated them together. Now, in the third year together, and quite possibly their last, it’s quiet.

Kanaan practices his No. 14 Chevrolet here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last week

“It’s crazy right,” Kanaan said on Sunday morning of Pole Day. “It took a couple of days to adjust. Even as the days go by, it’s qualifying day and it’s Sunday, there’s bumping and cars are supposed to go fast, and it only takes you three minutes to get to the track.

“Usually, I would never leave my bus during these days because it’s hard to get in and out. It’s stressful. There’s fans, there’s cars, everywhere. This time, I just stay at home and just leave and get here in two minutes to come in.”

While Kanaan said this is a sad times to be living in, he does want to take a positive outlook. This is the Indy 500 and if not for Roger Penske, we wouldn’t be here preparing for it.

So, he’s grateful to be in this year’s race even if it is behind closed doors. But, that emotional walk out of Gasoline Alley to his car resting on the grid on race morning, well it’s going to be different. For all the emotions that typically run through your body on race morning, you almost have to control them. You can’t get too overhyped because that’s when mistakes are made. You almost have to bring yourself down some.

I mean, when thousands are cheering your name and treating you like a rock star on your way to the grid, it pumps you up, no matter who you are.

This year, no one will be there to do that. Do you almost have to build yourself up this year?

Kanaan in his pit during practice last week at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

“100 percent,” Kanaan said. “It’s going to be so weird walking and seeing nobody there. You can feel the energy right. Every time. You’re talking about 300,000+ people in this place The energy is there. It’s a lot more quiet now. It’s eerie.

“But, I can say though once you put you helmet on, the 500 is on.”

The popular Brazilian driver says that it’s going to be weird on the first lap without seeing the wall of fans around this massive facility that span over 900 acres, but as he says, “there’s still a 500 to win.”

“Years from now, somebody’s going to ask who won the 2020 Indy 500 and it’s still an Indy 500 win,” Kanaan said. “It doesn’t matter if there’s one fan, 10 fans or 300,000 fans.”

Kanaan, says he does have a good shot of a win despite starting in the Middle of Row 8. The race pace is there and he’s confident in that.

“I’m happy,” Kanaan said of his No. 14 Chevrolet in race trim. “I’m really happy with the race car. But, so are a lot of guys. I know that if I can have a good race and if we play the strategy right and how I want to race, I think we have a pretty big chance. I’m actually really pleased with what I’ve got. I would be more concerned if I said I’m starting 23rd and I don’t have a good race car. That’s not what’s luckily going on. I’m happy.”

Being in 23rd is his worst starting spot since his 33rd qualifying effort in 2010. In that year, he passed over 10 cars on the opening lap. Does he do the same on Sunday?

“If you see the gap, I’m going to go,” he said. “You’re not going to win the race on the first lap. But, if there’s a gap like that, you can bet I’ll be in it.

“For me, I was like, Man, starting in the back there, usually you have more inexperienced guys, guys that don’t have good cars, you can actually move up a little bit pretty quick in the beginning of the race. That’s not going to be the case. You have Will Power, myself, Pagenaud, Helio. Those cars in race trim are good. We’re probably not going to go anywhere in the beginning of the race.

“You have to mentally prepare yourself for that and don’t get frustrated because you’re thinking, I have a good car, I had a bad qualifying, but I know I can run in the top 10. 20 or 30 laps into the race you’re still 20th. What’s going on? I think it’s going to be a different dynamic of race.”

Hopefully this isn’t it for Kanaan. Hopefully it’s not it for countrymate Helio Castroneves either. There’s always been a pipeline of Brazilian drivers coming through the Indy Car ranks. From Emerson Fittipaldi, Christian Fittipaldi, Ribero, Junqueria, da Matta, Gugelmin, de Ferran, Kanaan, Castroneves, Barrichello, Beatriz, etc, we’ve had a steady influx of Brazilian drivers coming through here.

Now, we don’t.

Matheus Leist was on track for that but he just never had good race cars at Foyt. There’s no one waiting to be next. Kanaan, thinks that it’s important for there to be a next Brazilian star for Indy Car. I agree with him.

There’s such a passionate fan base down there in South America and we need that driver to build the attention here for them.

“I think IndyCar has plenty of talents now,” Kanaan said. “As a Brazilian we’ve always had a Brazilian in the field for three decades, it is really important. If we can help a young kid to come up somehow. I think we need it. We need a replacement for our generation because depending on what happens next year, there will be nobody here. Hopefully we can help some out.”

Who does he think would be the best one to get right now?

“My best bet if I can bring somebody here would be Pietro Fittipaldi,” he said. “He’s showed how quick he was here with Coyne. He’s done some races. He’s been in Formula One. He’s really young. He’s the guy that if I could, I would help him out.”

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