Tony Kanaan’s Last Lap

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In the interest of full-disclosure, I wrote most of today’s post yesterday during lunch. Then yesterday afternoon, we got word that John Andretti had lost his battle with cancer at the age of 56. I was torn between scrapping what was a timely and meaningful post or neglecting to pay proper respect to John Andretti. I will try to avoid doing both.

When I heard about John Andretti, it was not a huge surprise, but that didn’t make it any easier to hear the news yesterday. John Andretti had been open and very transparent about his illness since he was diagnosed with colon cancer almost three years ago. When he had a good day, he shared it. When he had a setback, he shared it. He kept his fans updated on every step of his treatments – the good and the bad. The last post I recall seeing from him was when he asked for continued prayers because he was not responding to the latest treatments.

Andretti wasn’t doing this for sympathy or his own interests. He was campaigning for everyone to get a colonoscopy by the age of fifty. By his own admission, John Andretti waited until he turned fifty-four to have his first colonoscopy. By then, it was too late. Most likely, had he undergone the procedure at age fifty – it would have been caught in time. It was a mistake that ultimately cost him his life. He didn’t want anyone else to suffer the same fate.

Not to get too personal, but I had my first colonoscopy at fifty. They removed a polyp that was not malignant, but it was the type if left alone, can become cancerous. I am now on the five-year plan and had one just a few months ago. When I was told it was time for another, I hesitated to schedule it, but I remembered John Andretti. I had it done and another benign polyp was found. I was glad I did it. If you are approaching fifty, please get it done.

John Andretti was always my favorite member of the Andretti clan. I wrote about that very topic back in 2009. He was a talented and versatile driver, but he was an even better person. Despite his racing pedigree, he was one of the most humble drivers you’d ever come across. And his work with the Riley Hospital for Children was legendary. Please keep the entire Andretti family in your prayers.

John Andretti

On Thursday, fans of the NTT IndyCar Series got confirmation of what many had suspected for some time now. 2020 will see Tony Kanaan drive in the five oval races on the schedule, including another appearance in the 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500. He also announced that 2020 will be his final year as a primary driver in the series.

This season has been dubbed the “TK Last Lap”. He will again be in the No. 14 for AJ Foyt Enterprises – the same car-number made famous by the team’s namesake. ABC Supply will return as the primary sponsor for the Indianapolis 500; but all of Kanaan’s personal sponsors, which include 7-Eleven, Bryant Heating and Cooling, NTT Data and Big Machine Vodka, have all stepped up to make it happen for the four remaining ovals in Foyt’s car.

He made it clear that this wasn’t his choice, but the timing of ABC Supply’s withdrawal as the team’s primary sponsor put Foyt’s team in a bind. Like so many other driving careers, Kanaan’s came down to funding.

Kanaan also made it clear that he was leaving the door open for future appearances in the Indianapolis 500, but not for another partial season in the NTT IndyCar Series. I’m glad to hear that, so long as he can nail down a good ride for the “500”.

Sometimes drivers hang around for too long it was painful to watch great champions like Johnny Rutherford and Gordon Johncock try to needlessly prolong their careers by accepting any ride out there. I’m hoping that Buddy Lazier has finally realized he can be more useful in shepherding his son’s fledgling career than adding to his stats by running around in another Indianapolis 500 in a very uncompetitive car.

Some of the older drivers that have thrived in part-time roles are Al Unser and Gary Bettenhausen. However, when Al Unser showed up in 1994 with an outfit called Arizona Motorsports, it didn’t take him long to realize just how uncompetitive of a ride that was. He immediately announced his retirement at the age of fifty-three.

I hope Tony Kanaan can have the same fate going forward. As bad as the Foyt team has been recently, they’ve still been competitive in the Indianapolis 500. If Kanaan can land a one-off at Andretti or McLaren in the next couple of years at Indianapolis, I think he can still get the job done.

This will be Tony Kanaan’s twenty-third IndyCar season, which began in 1998 with Steve Horne’s Tasman Racing. As a CART rookie, Kanaan had five Top-Five finishes and finished ninth in points. The next season, his team was absorbed by Gerry Forsythe and he won his first race in 1999 at Michigan.

After three up and down seasons with Mo Nunn, Kanaan made the jump to the IRL when Michael Andretti bought Team Green. With Honda backing, Andretti moved the team from CART to the IRL in 2003. Chip Ganassi did the same with his Target team just one year after Roger Penske moved over full-time in 2002.

Kanaan won in just his second race with the newly named Andretti-Green Racing (AGR) at Phoenix. He had six podium finishes that season and finished fourth in the championship.

It was in 2004 when everything came together for Kanaan. He had already become a fan favorite, but he took his on-track accomplishments to a new level. He won three races (Phoenix, Texas and Nashville) and also earned eight other podiums. His worst result was an eight-place finish in the season-opener at Homestead, and never finished worse than fifth after that. As far as I can remember, he was the last IndyCar driver to clinch the championship before the final race of the season – but that was before they started awarding double-points in the season-finale.

He stayed with AGR through the 2010 season, when longtime sponsor 7-Eleven ended their relationship. Kanaan was given his release as a financial casualty before the 2011 season, in order to give him an opportunity to find something else. He eventually landed at KV Racing Technologies, where funding was always a struggle.

Throughout his career, fans were beginning to link him with Lloyd Ruby and Michael Andretti. They were drivers that were known for their prowess at Indianapolis, that always managed to stumble across some hard luck along the way that always kept them from drinking the milk. Although he had better cars in other years, Kanaan persevered in 2013 and became a very popular winner of the Indianapolis 500 – among fans, drivers and rival team owners. This year will be my twenty-ninth Indianapolis 500. In that time, I’ve never seen a driver get a bigger reception in Victory Lane than Tony Kanaan got on that day.

The following year, Kanaan went to Ganassi where I feel his talents were wasted for four seasons. It has been suggested that Ganassi was taking sponsorship dollars from the other three cars and throwing it all at Scott Dixon’s car to try and win him a championship. Is that legal? Probably. Is it a good situation to be in if you’re not Scott Dixon? Probably not. Whether or not that was actually the case, Ganassi and Kanaan parted ways and Kanaan had to settle at Foyt.

Drivers in their early forties are not in great demand and Foyt was about the only fulltime offer that Kanaan got. He looked at his time at Foyt as an opportunity to lead them out of the abyss. The team seemed to show promise last year on the ovals, but they were still lost on the road and street courses. But when lack of funding hit the team, both parties were scrambling. This is about the only solution they could come up with.

This year will be Tony Kanaan’s nineteenth consecutive Indianapolis 500 He currently has 377 career IndyCar starts. That is by far the leader among current IndyCar drivers and is only second all-time to Mario Andretti’s 407 career starts. He also has 317 consecutive starts in the series, a streak that dates back to Portland in 2001. That streak will come to an end when the green flag flies at St. Petersburg in March.

There are other IndyCar drivers in history that have better career stats. Kanaan enters his final season with seventeen wins, fifteen poles, seventy podiums, one series championship and one Indianapolis 500 win in twenty-three seasons. But the stats don’t tell the whole story. After never having to seek sponsorship for himself, that all changed following the 2010 season. The last decade has been a financial struggle for the forty-five year old popular Brazilian.

In his announcement at IMS yesterday regarding his plans for this season, they showed this video before Kanaan took questions.

Amid the struggles over the last decade, Tony Kanaan never lost sight of what the fans mean to him. Although he had tunnel-vision when he was about to climb into the car and would sometimes give fans the impression he was ignoring them – Kanaan never forgot the fans. He acknowledged how much the fans meant to him again yesterday in his press-conference, seated alongside Mark Miles. I just hope he realizes how much he means to the fans. He will be missed.

George Phillips

3 Responses to “Tony Kanaan’s Last Lap”

  1. Going to miss John Andretti! Really good guy! You know, this is me on my soapbox and hopefully not horrible to say this, but, death erases a lot of the ills in ones life, felt towards them. We started the week with Kobe, who had definitely not always been the best human in the world, but people forgot about those things in death. John Andretti though, I think this gets tossed around way too often but it is true in his case, I don’t think there is a bad thing anyone can say about the man. He seemed to be a great guy, will be missed!

    Tony Kanaan, glad he is getting a somewhat proper retirement tour but it’s on him, he should have stopped a few years ago! Even last year, that podium at Gateway would have been a wonderful way to end his oval career, I don’t see him being even remotely close to contending in 2020, hopefully he gets what he needs out of these races though.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    The thing that always struck me about John Andretti was how he never let his famous last name and popular relatives define his career. It was not simply his willingness to drive anything with wheels, but his willingness to take his career across the board instead of in step with Mario’s and Micahel’s. Spending a decade as a NASCAR driver, foraying into the NHRA, wheeling a midget, moving back to Indycars in his late 40s to drag Marty Roth’s equipment into the mid-pack and outqualifying the rest of the Andretti Autosport armada at Indy in 2011, guiding his son Jarrett into USAC sprints… these were all bold and strange decisions for an Andretti, or really any racer who had a comfortable place in one type of motorsport.

    Beyond that, though, where Mario was often fiery and pompous and Michael generally was intense and aloof, John was apparently ALWAYS affable and pleasant. He was perhaps the ultimate “good guy” in racing, generous with his time with fans, rarely getting crossways with other drivers, and pretty much never spoken ill of.

    I’m happy Tony Kanaan is getting more of a send-off than Helio Castroneves did, and I’m happy that I will get to see one of his last few races at Texas (planning to, anyways). While it is undeniable that his speed has been leaving him these past few years, his is a career worth celebrating and I appreciate that he gets to close it out on his own terms… even in this unpreferred limited extent.

  3. Due to publicity from John Andretti and Oilpressure, I got a colonoscopy and had a small polyp removed.

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