Kanaan says the 2023 Indy 500 will be his last, my feature on the popular Brazilian driver and how he endured several heartbreaks to land a successful career

In a sport to where a lot can go wrong, Tony Kanaan has always brought forth a million-dollar smile and a positive outlook. He was just happy to be here. Kanaan grew up racing in Brazil with his dad. They bonded over the sport. Unfortunately, he lost his father, his best friend. It didn’t stop Kanaan. Instead of racing with his dad, he raced for him.

When his dad passed, Kanaan was just beginning life as a teenager. The night before, Kanaan’s dad had three requests, take care of your mom, take care of your sister, don’t give up racing.

That’s been a motto for Kanaan almost his entire racing career. He’s done all three an accomplished a hell of a lot more than he ever could have dreamed up. While doing so, he’s also lost a lot of friends along this journey. That grieveing process has never slowed Kanaan’s passion for racing. Instead of walking away prematurely, Kanaan has always had unfinished business and the infectious personality that Kanaan is, he’s graced us with 26 years of his presence chasing it.

“I mean, if I was going to follow what people told me when I was 13, on April 8th of 1988, when my dad passed, that I had to go back to school to become somebody because that dream was over,” Kanaan said. “I was probably going to be, I don’t know, an accountant, a lawyer, something. I just put my head down and I said, I’m going to chase my dream. Whatever is going to come out of it is going to come out of it. But at least I will sleep at night thinking, You know what, I did what I wanted to do.

“Since the day I was born, my dad always told me, You’re driving a go-kart, you have to be physically and mentally ready to drive a Formula 1 or an INDYCAR because you never know when the opportunity is going to come.”

That brought him here to the United States. No dream too big could ever get in his way. The motivation that his dad gave him was pulsating through Kanaan’s veins. Nothing was going to stand in the way of him from accomplishing his boyhood dreams of being a race car driver.

Now, on an unseasonably warm Wednesday afternoon in February at Indianapolis, Kanaan is announcing that the 2023 Indianapolis 500 will indeed be the final lap. Three years after the fact that he announced “TK’s Last Lap” Kanaan has run a few more.

“It’s been a wonderful journey,” Kanaan said on Wednesday afternoon. “Somebody said, Do you think you’re going to regret? Lauren (his wife) asked me all those tough questions this morning.

“I don’t think ‘regret’ is the right word to say. I’m going to miss it every day of my life. I miss it now. Mario Andretti drives a two-seater just because.

“I’m fine. I think I’m fine.

“End of May, I think it’s going to get more difficult from now on. I’m at peace in my decision. I have a great team behind me. I think I had a great career. I have a really good shot of winning this thing. If I win, might be sitting here again next year. You never know (smiling).”

The joke now has become, how long is this lap going to be?

“I always said, you want to retire, you don’t want somebody to retire you,” he said from INDYCAR content days on Wednesday morning.

“But after 25 years in the series I don’t think I could be — I have the right to be upset if I don’t find a ride if I want to race next year. It’s been a great ride.

“Honestly, it’s the hardest — you see it. You see it in every sport. Not many times top guys retiring came back, because you don’t know how to let it go. Then you have examples like me and Helio who are 48 and Dixon who’s in his 40s and still, I want to come back, I know I can do this.

“But I’m really, really — I was at peace with myself three years ago when I made that decision, so now I’m just riding it because, hey, I’m a race car driver. Going to give me a race car to drive, I’m jumping in.

“But no, it won’t — I won’t be sad if this would be my last one.”

Kanaan will return in 2023 for his third and “final” lap. He’ll announce that this is it. His final one. It will come with Arrow McLaren for the 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Before we land at the checkered flag, lets start at the green and go through an emotional journey fit for a Hollywood ending. If you made a movie production of Kanaan’s racing career, it would rival Drive to Survive because there’s so many plot twists, accomplishments and unfortunately horrible moments that will have you at the edge of your seat, slumped down in your seat crying and back up again clapping at the end.

“I’m not going to sit here for people to feel sorry or to appreciate more or less,” he says. “Everybody has their destiny. To me, could I imagine all that? No. Could I imagine I’ll be running for this long in INDYCAR? Once I made it, fine. Then it took me 12 years to win this race. Probably that was going to be my last year 10 years ago when Jimmie and I and Kalkhoven, we had no sponsors, nothing. That changed my life. 10 years later I’m here deciding I don’t want to do this any more.

“There’s so many variables, so many things that we could sit down and talk about. Yes, is it worth a book? Probably. Maybe a documentary? Probably.”

Kanaan first shined in Indy Lights in finishing second in points as a rookie in 1996 and winning the title a year later in 1997. He graduated up to CART for 1998 and instantly grew close with Greg Moore, Dario Franchitti and Max Papis. He was already friends with countrymate Helio Castroneves too.

At the end of the 1999 season, Moore, Kanaan’s teammate, was tragically killed in a crash at Fontana. Kanaan would move to Mo Nunn Racing in 2000. A year later, another teammate, Alex Zanardi, lost his legs in a frightening crash in Germany.

Kanaan, two years later, would come over to the NTT INDYCAR Series and join Andretti Green Racing. It’s at this point, to where he made a name for himself.

A win at Phoenix in his second race in, a front row starting spot in his second Indy 500, a third place run in that Memorial Day classic and a fourth-place finish in the championship. A year later, no tragedy struck. In fact, it was a career year. Kanaan won three races and the championship. It was a magical season to which he had 15 top 5 finishes in 16 races. He was unbeatable.

Kanaan found a place here. It was peace for once. His name was on the map. He had close friends in Franchitti, Dan Wheldon and Bryan Herta as teammates and they were thriving.

Kanaan stayed with Andretti through 2010 before finding a new home with friend Jimmy Vasser with KV Racing in 2011. That’s also the year that tragedy struck again. The season finale at Las Vegas, his good friend, Dan Wheldon, tragically passed in a frightening crash.

Another heartbreak.

At this point, it was the end of 2011 and Kanaan had lost his dad, seen his teammate lose his legs and lost two best friends to crashes in season finales. He’s also endured several heartbreaking moments at Indy as well.

In his rookie ‘500 in 2002, he led 23 laps and was leading on Lap 90. That’s when Jimmy Vasser and Bruno Junqueria each slowed with car troubles. Oil was on the track and no one noticed. Kanaan found it and crashed in Turn 3 while leading the race.

Tony Kanaan tests at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Two years later, he led 28 laps and in a position to win. He’d gamble but it was the wrong call. He handed the lead off to Buddy Rice and severe weather then struck ending the race slightly prior to the 200 lap mark.

Two years after that Kanaan took over the lead on Lap 183 but needed a quick stop for fuel. A caution came out on Lap 191 and he lost the lead as a result.

A year later, rain kept Kanaan out of victory lane again. He was in the lead on Lap 113 when rain began. A red flag ensued. The race however, would later resume. On the Lap 156 restart, while leading, Kanaan came up on a lap car and lost control and spun at pit entry. It cost him another chance at sipping the milk.

The next two years, while running in the top 5, he crashed in Turn 3. In 2008 it was an issue with teammate Marco Andretti forcing Kanaan off line and the next year a drive shaft broke down the backstretch making Kanaan a passenger.

In 2010, he crashed in Turn 1 on pole day. He couldn’t make a qualifying attempt. On Bump Day, he crashed in the same manner in the same spot on the track, in his backup car. He narrowly made the field in starting last.

Now, after the 2011 season, he was so close many times of winning Indy. Now, he was 0-for-10. In the process, he had a front row seat for good buddy Dan Wheldon who won twice. Another good friend in Dario Franchitti also won twice at that point. Another friend in Helio Castroneves had won three times.

While Kanaan was 0-for-10, his friends were 6-for-10 in that same span. After all this heartbreak, he could have just walked off in the Fall of 2011 and called it quits.

That’s not in Kanaan’s DNA. Despite all these challenges, he felt like an Indy win was coming.

It nearly did. Again in 2012.

Kanaan went from fifth to first on a bold maneuver with 14 laps remaining. He’d hold onto the lead for the next seven laps. However, on Lap 194, he was passed and once again, he watched Franchitti score another Indy 500 win.

His friends won 70% of the Indy 500’s that Kanaan had entered. Kanaan had 5 top 5 finishes in those races and crashed out or spun while running inside the top 5 in four more.

For the 2013 season, magic struck. In the most competitive Indy 500 ever, Kanaan finally found his glory. Kanaan passed Ryan Hunter-Reay, an Andretti car mind you, with two laps remaining. Good buddy, Franchitti, crashed behind ending the race under caution.

Kanaan was filled with joy. In his 12th attempt, he finally won Indy. Unfortunately, that Fall, Franchitti was injured in a back crash at Houston. Another friend hurt.

Franchitti wanted 1 driver as his replacement – Kanaan.

Franchitti retired that offseason and in came Kanaan with Chip Ganassi Racing in his place. Kanaan would win in Franchitti’s car in the 2014 season finale at…Fontana of all places.

The same spot to where 15 years prior, in a season finale, his teammate and good friend Greg Moore was killed. Now, Kanaan, in good friend Franchitti’s car, in a season finale to where he’s lost two friends in the final races of seasons, 1 at Fontana, won.

He’d score a pair of Top-5 finishes in four Indy 500 starts with Ganassi before moving to AJ Foyt Racing in 2018. He’d run two years full-time before that 2020 announcement that it would be his last year.

Ovals only.

Then came a pandemic.

Kanaan felt it wasn’t right to go out that way. His fans deserved more. So he came back in 2021. The catch, it was with Chip Ganassi Racing.

Jimmie Johnson had no interest in racing on ovals and in order for him to make this work, he needed a partner to take over the reigns for him on the high speed tracks. Kanaan was a perfect fit. The thing is, Johnson had a multi-year deal so it meant Kanaan had a couple more “final laps.”

But, with Johnson wanting to race ovals in 2022, where did this leave Kanaan?

One more shot.

He’d finish third in last year’s Indy 500 and made the decision that he wasn’t ready to call it quits. However, where could he land.

McLaren wanted to expand and Kanaan was the perfect fit.

“To win the 500. Very simple,” Kanaan said on what Zak Brown asked him to do when he hired the popular Brazilian driver.

Kanaan says that in racing, you’re only good as your last result and his last result was pretty good.

“When you start coming up to my age, which is 48, by the way, people ask you that question. People doubt you. People say, maybe is it time, all those questions,” he continued.

“The only way to reassure even yourself, because I’m not going to say that you don’t question yourself, is it time or am I still up to — and then you have a result like we did last year and it’s like, wow, you know what, come on, I know I can do it.

“That weighs a lot, also, in a lot of my decisions going forward.

“I know anything can happen in the 500, but as long as I have it in my head that I am competitive, it doesn’t matter if I finish third or if I could add one, but if I think I still have the possibility to win, I will keep trying.

“But also I need other people to see that, sponsors and — let’s face it, I’m not going to get a ride if there is one seat that is going to be a one-off. I’m not coming back to do a full season again anyway.”

However, we already knew Kyle Larson is coming into this seat in 2024, so we speculated if this was going to be it. Kanaan was non committal during media days but now he is.

This will be it.

This is what he said a few weeks ago about this possibily being his last.

“That’s a good question because Dixon makes fun of me until this day. This is the last, last, last, last lap, the very last lap, what it is,” said Kanaan. “So the answer honestly will be I think I will definitely make a decision, which is not just all up to me.

“I mean, it’s up to me if I say this is it, but if not, I think I’ll make the decision when we cross the start-finish line on that Sunday. When I win, if I win, I’ll put everybody on the spot and I’ll say, I’m coming back. This is exactly what happened last year.

“Right now I think the focus is this 500. Again, I don’t know if — it wasn’t a mistake, but we announced something two years ago and then a great opportunity came with Jimmie’s — I’m not going to put out there this is what I’m doing. It’s just, let it be.”

Kanaan said then that while he didn’t necessarily want this to be it, he won’t do it just to do it. If he’s going to race in the Indy 500, it has to be a legitimate opportunity.

“Let me put it this way: You are totally right, and no disrespect for any teams because I think we have a pretty good group of teams that can win the 500. But at this point, if I don’t think it’s the right opportunity for me then I wouldn’t do it. I don’t want to be at the 500 just to participate,” he said.

“Actually even last year that was part of my decision when I said, I want to come back this year.

“Yeah, I mean, winning, it’s all. I would rather see a young gun coming in, taking place for his first Indy 500, than me just participating just to add a car.”

“I always said, you want to retire, you don’t want somebody to retire you.

“But after 25 years in the series I don’t think I could be — I have the right to be upset if I don’t find a ride if I want to race next year. It’s been a great ride.

“Honestly, it’s the hardest — you see it. You see it in every sport. Not many times top guys retiring came back, because you don’t know how to let it go. Then you have examples like me and Helio who are 48 and Dixon who’s in his 40s and still, I want to come back, I know I can do this.

“But I’m really, really — I was at peace with myself three years ago when I made that decision, so now I’m just riding it because, hey, I’m a race car driver. Going to give me a race car to drive, I’m jumping in.

“But no, it won’t — I won’t be sad if this would be my last one.”

On Wednesday, he left us with one more lasting quote.

“I’m not ready, but it’s not a sad story. It’s a really cool one. It’s nice to see how many people appreciate, which I kind of get surprised. You never think about how you set examples. You have your 15-year-old kid saying that, Proud of you. The story, you can inspire so many people, the fans.

“What INDYCAR made me, I’m an INDYCAR driver, and I always will be.”

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s