INDIANAPOLIS — NTT IndyCar Series drivers are some of the most fittest athletes in the entire world. While saying that, one car on the grid in 2021 will feature a pair of current 45 year old drivers which will also be the two oldest drivers in the series as well. But, both of the drivers will also be two of the best in shape drivers too. In fact, one could say that no one is as athletic as the duo sharing the ride at Chip Ganassi Racing over the next couple of years.
Jimmie Johnson will join the series for all 13 road/street course races in the No. 48 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. That though left four races open, as Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, won’t be racing on the four ovals on the schedule next year. CGR needed a teammate for this car to pair with Johnson still.
The obvious choice was one driver — Tony Kanaan.
But, it wasn’t that simple says Kanaan. The deal was done and it didn’t come easy in the process. The surface said this pairing was obvious but below water, it was far from it.
First things first though. Kanaan, will drive on all four ovals in the split ride with Johnson in 2021 and again in 2022. Kanaan’s “Last Lap” will take two more trips around three ovals (Texas, Indianapolis and World Wide Technology Raceway).
So, how did this deal come about? What was the process?
It was all made possible by Johnson and his sponsors Kanaan says.
How we got to Monday’s announcement started a while ago and didn’t gain traction until last week at that.
See, Johnson called Kanaan a while ago while the fan favorite was riding his cycle. Kanaan, thought Johnson was inviting him to a triathlon or to train somewhere seeing that both share the common off track activities. Instead, it was Johnson calling to tell Kanaan that he wanted him to share a seat with him in 2021.
“That phone call — you know what is one of those things that you remember exactly the day, the clothes you were wearing, where you were and so on?” Kanaan said of how this deal came about. “I was actually on my bike working out, which is not a surprise, here at home, and the phone rang, and it was Jimmie. I’m like, whoa, I thought he was going to invite me to do a triathlon or something like that, and he popped the question, and I said, are you joking? I don’t think we can pull this off.”
Kanaan, notes that he was floored by the call and happily obliged. But, they still had some work to do if this realistically was going to happen though. Kanaan, 45, obviously wanted to drive again next season, but they still needed funding to make it realistically happen.
Kanaan admitted that he only talked to a few teams in the paddock about a possibility of 2021 and that this in turn could work if they could secure some sponsorship dollars. The other and yet main aspect was that Johnson needed to find a team first too.
“Although people would think different that this has been going on, this was obvious, it was never obvious,” Kanaan said. “It took a lot of work from a lot of parties to make it happen.
“Bryant has been with me since 2003. NTT has been with me since I’ve joined Ganassi, and since I left Ganassi they came with me, as well, and now they’re back.
“You know, I have to blame a lot, if there is somebody to blame, number one, it would be my sponsors that when I came back saying maybe we should come back next year, David from NTT and then Justin and Margo from Bryant said, why not.
“The two biggest ones were NTT and Bryant really that made this happen.
“I was lucky then, but then that was step one, get the sponsorship. Step two, it was trying to find a place that would fit right, that would make the right decision and so and so, and that was a little bit more complicated. There was a few sleepless nights and talking to Jimmie every day, like come on, what’s happening, and trying to — if you think about it, look how many pieces of the puzzle we had to put together.
“Jimmie had to get his deal first, which we didn’t even know if it was going to be Ganassi at the time. Yeah, the deal happened really quick, but we’ve been talking about this on and off for quite a while. But in the beginning I really said argh, this is never going to happen. That was the pessimistic side of me thinking it was going to be impossible to pull it off.”
One team that Kanaan admitted that he talked to outside of the Johnson deal was Ed Carpenter Racing. Still, he and Ed Carpenter wanted the same thing — to race on ovals only. It wasn’t going to be a viable option for him in the long run. AJ Foyt Racing was the most realistic but a second stint back with Ganassi made the most sense but needed a lot of work though too.
With Johnson’s blessing and long time sponsors like Bryant, NTT Data and 7-11 willing to fund this deal, Kanaan had a new contract in place waiting for him.
He’s now back with Ganassi and will be hoping to win another Indy 500 in the process.
Kanaan also said that if not for the pandemic, 2020 would have honestly been it he says. He said that even with COVID didn’t ensue in 2020 and Johnson still called, he likely would have turned the offer down. Everything above would have never happened then.
But, 2020 and a pandemic did happen and Kanaan wasn’t going to go out like this. He owes his gratitude to this fan base and he wasn’t willing to go out with half of his races run in 2020 being behind closed doors — most notably the 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500.
“I would say probably if it wasn’t for the pandemic, I wouldn’t probably have changed my mind,” said Kanaan. “There were some talks about doing the 500 and on and off and this and that, but I wasn’t clear.
“And then when I said, this is not the way I want to go, I was fully aware that this was what I wanted, but that didn’t mean that’s what was going to happen.
“But like anything in my life, it never came easy, and I made the decision, and if it didn’t go through, I was going to have to own it. I put my head into it. I said, oh, well, I’m not going to give myself an option, I’m going to make it work.”
So, back Kanaan will come knowing that he still has enough left in the tank to contend. With that said, being in a Ganassi car again though does exhibit some challenges in that there’s no excuses needed. That car he’s driving is ready to win now.
“As a race car driver you want to race for the best team, for the winning team. They have proven on and off that they are one of the top teams to beat, and as a race car driver, being selfish, that’s where you want to be. It doesn’t matter who you want to. You want to be on a winning team and a big organization that has a lot of resources and so on.
“It’s not a hard decision; know what I mean? It’s like you’re asking a kid if he wants to go for an ice cream. It was obvious.
“I have a lot of friends there. I kept a lot of friends there since I left, so it’s just — like I got so many texts this morning from the boys in that shop, and it’s just like, hey, welcome back, and we just started talking. I talked to Barry. Barry Wanser, which is the team manager there, our sons Leo and Robert are best friends. Robert spends sleepless nights here at the house when Leo is here for holidays and stuff, and it felt like I never left really. The relationship and the respect was always there, so it’s not new, I guess.
“I think — my entire career was racing under pressure, and I think I perform better when I’m under pressure. It adds a lot to it. The enjoyment, it’s always going to be there. Once you’re driving a race car, in my opinion, you always enjoy it, but you enjoy it even more when you’re winning, and you add the pressure to it, I think it’s — for me it’s the best combination. I mean, Chip is in the business to win races. That’s all he cares. I mean, and he won’t save you if he has something to tell you.
“To me it’s a great problem to have, that butterfly in your stomach from now on. It’s like, wow, now I have to do it. I have some tough teammates there that I’m going to have to be on top of my game because the team is going to give me everything I need with no excuses to win races.
“Been there before a few times, and I think it’s totally manageable.”
Now, he and Johnson will try and prove everyone wrong too.
“Jimmie just said let’s make a dream team and let’s make history together. We’re two 45-year-old guys that some people believe we can do it but a lot of people believe we can’t, so let’s prove them wrong.“