“What INDYCAR made me, I’m an INDYCAR driver, and I always will be,” Kanaan discusses retirement and why this truly will be his last Indy 500

“What INDYCAR made me, I’m an INDYCAR driver, and I always will be,” Tony Kanaan said on an unseasonably warm afternoon in Indianapolis. This was his second retirement announcement of his career. The last came back in January 2020 when Kanaan said his part-time gig for the upcoming NTT INDYCAR Series season would be his last. It would be dubbed, “TK’s Last Lap.”

A lot has occurred since then to bring him back to these hallowed grounds to make another announcement. A pandemic, an Indy 500 without fans, Jimmie Johnson coming back and most importantly, a third place finish in what was going to likely be his last Indy 500 last May.

Combine all of that and being 48-year-old and you get to where we are on Wednesday.

“I don’t know. It’s kind of weird,” Kanaan said on if he was ready for this. “Lauren (Kanaan, Tony’s wife) asked me this morning, if I was prepared. What does that mean? You know what I mean? You talk about a race that you guys, I mean, I see everybody here in this room knows the story, so I don’t think I need to repeat the story. But I started when I was six years old with my dad. This has been the place that I wanted to be. I’m fortunate enough that I was able to accomplish everything I did.

“To wake up this morning, we were talking before the interview started, that I didn’t think it was a big deal because I think it was kind of obvious. I’m 48. People keep saying I’m bald, I’m old, my nose is growing because it is the only thing that will never stop growing in your body, and your ears. My friends are making fun of me.

“The post went out. We’ve been preparing this for quite a while with the Arrow McLaren team. Lauren and her team have been pretty awesome. I actually held up pretty good.

“9:02 my phone started to blow up. That’s when it actually hit me….”

Kanaan said that he’s committed to this decision still.

It’s been a wonderful day since the word got it this morning. He calls it a wonderful journey of a career.

“Somebody said, Do you think you’re going to regret? I don’t think ‘regret’ is the right word to say,” Kanaan continued. “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).”

Which is why the question comes back up, “is this truly it or if he does well again, does he come back in 2024?

“Well, let me put it this way. We’re in the sport that you have to perform,” Kanaan said. “Unfortunately or not, we’re all judged by our last result. That can drive you up or can drive you down, right?

“Let’s be real here. If I hadn’t done what I did last year, probably would have been my final one. That’s why I didn’t make any announcement. That was exactly what I thought.

“Then you go out and you fight for the lead and you fight for the win until the last lap, then you’re on a high. People actually are demanding, Why don’t you come back? Then you get an invitation from a very good team to do it.

“Chances are you’re playing with the odds here, you don’t know what’s going to happen. I didn’t want to wait. I said, You know what, if I win, Zak is going to have a problem, but also I can look around and say, All right, well, I said it was the last one. I’m happy with that. I’ll just come back here the following year to grab my Baby Borg in front of everybody and say, Guys, have fun.

“That’s why. I’m 48, although we keep saying we’re young. I’ve been doing part-time races for the last four years now. Let’s face it, I’m not going to get a full-time job in a top team right now. We have some young guns, these kids are unbelievable. I know people kept saying that for years and years. The old guys are still performing, which is good for us. Every time Helio wins, trust me, as much as I hate the guy, but we fought our entire lives, it’s good, because it shows we can still do it.

“The time is coming. It’s not something that, Now if I win, I’ll get a full-time ride in 2024 at McLaren. I mean, who could they have there? I look at Penske, all the teams now.

“That’s why. I think it’s in the wall and it’s fine.

“As much as people make fun of me, I think even if I win, I think it will be a good way to go home.”

Tony Kanaan and wife Lauren on pit road during qualifying for last year’s Indianapolis 500. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

We know Kyle Larson is already committed to the team for this seat in 2024. Chip Ganassi Racing’s door is now closed. The only competitive team left to go run for is Team Penske and we know they’re not going to expand to a part-time Indy only ride.

Which is why this more than like, is truly it for Kanaan. As he said, last year was supposed to be it and he wasn’t just going to return in 2023 to race. He wanted to win it and if he was going to win it, it had to be for a big team.

“You’re never ready for this. But you got to weigh your options,” he says. “I went from a full-time to a part-time. You’re 48. You had a great career. As much as you don’t want to go, it’s there. If you’re smart, you make the right decisions at the right time.

“I came to this sport to win everything I could and to do the best I could. I would hate to be coming to this place just to participate. So you weigh your opportunities.

“Last year was a really good one. When I finished that race, I was ready, if nothing, because it was a two-year deal that I announced my retirement two years before. The question was asked, Do you think you can do it again?

“I think I can do it again for 10 more years the way I take care of myself. But that’s not the point. Am I going to get the chance to do at the right place again, to win it.

“Zak (Brown at McLaren) called and I look at the results. The two teams that dominated was the one that I was in and the one that I was calling. So you can’t refuse that.”

Kanaan says that he first approached Ganassi on a possible reunion for another go at it for 2024. When it didn’t pan out, he called Brown back to get this deal done for one last go.

“Well, I think Zak — to be fair, we tried to make it work with Chip,” Kanaan admitted. “Chip just couldn’t make it as far as the sponsor. Jimmie (Johnson) was leaving. The deal was a three-year deal. That was that. Then when Zak called, I said, Zak, look, we got to wait a little bit. I think I owe that to Chip. We did that.

“It was obvious that it was not going to happen. I said, Hey, Zak, do you want to talk?

“So that was it. Then honestly it was funny because the conversation was a WhatsApp text saying, I’m ready.

“Me too.

“The next one was, Do we have a deal?

“I said, Yes.

“That was it. We didn’t discuss anything else. He sent me the deal, I signed it, sent it back. It was very simple. That’s how it happened.

“But, yeah, if it wasn’t for the result, I don’t think I would be here today saying I’m racing my last one. I’d probably be here doing something else.”

Kanaan’s not. He’s here announcing that he will race one more time. In the No. 66 Dallara-Chevrolet, a number that not only is synonymous with McLaren, but with Kanaan as well.

“No. 66. Bruce McLaren and McLaren won their first race in 1966. Mark Donohue was here in ’72. My first go-kart number was No. 6. I picked that. My entire go-kart career, I won five championships of that,” said Kanaan.

“One of the races that I couldn’t race the 6, I raced 66. When Zak told me the story, the number, it’s just perfect. That’s what we’re rocking on. I love it. I can’t wait. I’m excited we have also a lot of sponsors. One of our biggest sponsors is SmartStop. They’re jumping in as a main sponsor. Excited about that.”

Ahead is the walkoff now. We’re 102 days from Kanaan’s final start at Indy.

“I mean, I’m probably going to be wearing sunglasses, a hat, crying like a baby on driver intros. That is expected. It’s emotional enough when you’re not retiring just to be part of this energy and this day, this race, let alone knowing it’s your last time you’re doing it. Once you put the helmet on, it’s game on.

“It’s going to be emotional when I get out of the car, regardless of position I finish. If I win, awesome. If I don’t, I still think this entire place will be supporting me for it.

“I mean, no, 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.”

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