INDIANAPOLIS — “What INDYCAR made me, I’m an INDYCAR driver, and I always will be,” Tony Kanaan said on an unseasonably warm afternoon this past winter 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 a 48-year-old, and you get to where we are on now. His final Month of May as a driver. Kanaan said that he’s committed to this decision still and has had such a good month, that he starts ninth on Sunday.
“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.”
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.