When it Comes to Winning, Experience Matters

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I am a little late to the party on this, but that’s what happens when you take off a few days around a holiday. By now, it’s old news that Tony Kanaan will be the one piloting the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 48 car on the ovals, while Jimmie Johnson will drive it on the non-ovals.

I know from previous comments on here that not everyone will greet this bit of news enthusiastically. Most of you also know that I am very happy about this. It’s not that I have a thing for Brazilian drivers, but two of my favorite drivers of all time are Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves. We learned in November that both will be returning to the series in 2021, albeit on a limited basis for both.

Part of it is because I like their driving styles, while part of it is also that I like their personalities. There may be another factor in play here. I’ll fully admit that as I realize I’m reaching old fogy status, I find it comforting to know that there are still a couple of drivers in IndyCar that were driving while I was still in my thirties. They both began their IndyCar careers in the spring of 1998. I didn’t turn forty until October of that year. I know, it’s a stretch – but it’s still true. I enjoy familiarity. Remember…Change is Bad!

But my personal feelings aside, I feel like this is a good move all the way around. It’s good for Tony Kanaan, it’s good for Chip Ganassi and it’s good for the NTT IndyCar Series.

Kanaan has a few detractors here, so I am assuming that is indicative of the fan base. Many feel that his time has come and gone and that owners should be giving a look at younger drivers. That’s fair.

But if you were a car-owner and needed to find someone to drive only four oval races next year and one of those races was the Indianapolis 500 – can you think of anyone out there who is available and better than Tony Kanaan?

Tony Kanaan has won seventeen races over his IndyCar career. His first win was at Michigan, while driving for Gerry Forsythe’s McDonald’s Drive-Thru team in 1999. His most recent win was at Fontana in 2014. Fifteen of those seventeen wins have come on ovals, with Sonoma and Belle Isle being the lone non-oval exceptions. One of those fifteen oval wins came in the 2013 Indianapolis 500.

I have always been one to think that experience matters. I saw somewhere where someone was trying to make the case that Ganassi should have hired either Spencer Pigot or Zach Veach, instead of someone old like Tony Kanaan. Were they serious? Pigot and Veach have a total of nine Indianapolis 500 starts between them, with a combined best finish of fourteenth – earned by Pigot in 2019. They have no Indianapolis 500 wins, no oval wins and no IndyCar wins between them both. The only thing they have on their side is youth, and personally – I don’t really see that as a plus.

Fans sometimes forget that it is not up to car-owners to provide an avenue for young drivers to reach their dreams. Car-owners, especially those with the top teams, have one goal in mind – winning. They owe it to their sponsors and their crew to hire the best driver available that gives them the best chance of winning.

I think Ganassi is going out on a limb enough to have a third-year driver (Marcus Ericsson), a second-year driver (Alex Palou) and a NASCAR conversion project in Jimmie Johnson. Add in the fact that Scott Dixon is trying to tie AJ Foyt’s all-time record in championships, and that shows how Ganassi didn’t need another project in their oval specialist for the No. 48.

Kanaan last drove for Chip Ganassi Racing in the 2017 season. As his time in the No. 10 was winding down, I was hearing whispers that three of the four Ganassi drivers (Kanaan, Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball) were getting frustrated because they felt that all of the money they were bringing to the table was being thrown at Scott Dixon’s car, because it was the only one in contention for the championship. While that may be completely legal and even accepted in the racing world, I kept hearing rumors that none of them were happy and they would all three be moving on after the season.

Whether that was really the case or not, I have no idea. But all three drivers did move on. Kanaan went to Foyt and Chilton and Kimball went to Carlin. Kanaan and Kimball were both partial teammates at Foyt this past season, while Chilton and Carlin remained together for the non-oval season in 2020.

If there was any bad blood between Kanaan and Ganassi, both were big enough to put it behind them as they looked at the big picture for 2021. Kanaan needed as much racing as he could get, so long as it included the Indianapolis 500 and Ganassi needed a proven talent on ovals that required little or no ramp-up time. Most of the engineering staff knew Kanaan and he was very familiar with them. As I said earlier – familiarity is very comforting as you get older.

Who is the biggest winner in all of this? The fans. Tony Kanaan is still one of the most popular drivers in the paddock; not only with other drivers, but with the fans. Fans love his sense of humor and the way he connects with them. A few fans here have commented that they approached TK in the garage area at IMS on qualifying weekend and he blew them off. Well, if things weren’t going my way as I prepared for the biggest race on the motorsports calendar – I would probably blow you off to. But if you ever approach Kanaan in a more relaxed setting, you would be hard-pressed to meet a more personable driver.

And who doesn’t enjoy seeing those patented Tony Kanaan oval starts and re-starts, where he passes six or seven cars in one lap. Not only do we get to witness that in every oval race of 2021, Kanaan has even been signed through the 2022 season, when he will be forty-seven. Will he call it quits after that? Who knows? That’s for him to decide, not us.

The time will come for Veach, Pigot, Oliver Askew, Kyle Kaiser and the slew of unemployed young talent out there. Me personally, I’m happy to see Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan doing battle for a couple of more years. It makes me feel young again, and experience matters.

George Phillips

8 Responses to “When it Comes to Winning, Experience Matters”

  1. I am so over Tony and Helio and the fanbases that demand them be in a ride every year for decades, which ironically are also the same vocal fans that want Hilderbrand or Pigot in a ride also. You can’t have it both ways, there are so few Indycar rides out there.

    Ok to be fair, yes, I think both deserve a fair final 500 with fans and all that, I hope they get that this year.

    Along with that, I am ok, I guess, with Helio’s ride this year, it will probably help the team out. Anyone saying he will come close to contending for a win is delusional.

    Tony though, man, it’s beyond time. Helio gets more of a pass from me because he was a better driver, Kanaan backed into a lot of wins being a product of the great AGR team when it was at its height. It’s a shame Askew will be watching on TV while Kanaan rides out in 12th place.

    Sorry to be so bold and i know it’s unpopular to say all of this, I know everyone loves these guys but it’s beyond their time to go.

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      Wonder what A J , Mario, Rutherford, Jones, etc. must be muttering …… “….it’s beyond their time to go.” ? ?

      • I will say too, I know a lot of people like Tony and Helio. I also know that there was a time when AJ, Gordon Johncock, Al Sr, etc rode around out there into their 50s. I just don’t think this era of racing fits that, there aren’t enough seats out there to have guys riding around in retirement tours forever. But then on the other side of it, the young drivers who are actually good aren’t having luck getting in seats because of money. But maybe some of that money being spent on Tony and Helio would flow their way. I don’t know, I am just firm in the unpopular belief that drivers need to go away for new fan favorites to come out. Who knows, would we even know Tony Kanaan if Mauricio Gugilmin or Mark Blundell had hung around to rides int he back of the pack? Are those guys keeping us from knowing a new hero in 15 years?

  2. Nat Krieger Says:

    Happy for TK. And it’s a great move for CGR too.. CGR hired a part time driver and part time driver/series coach for JJ. This will free up Dixon to do what he does without that distraction. Personally I think TK still has something left but suffered being in Foyt equipment these past few years. I give TK a better than average chance to get his 2nd 500.

  3. James T Suel Says:

    Iam a fan of TK, I also belive he can still get it done on a oval, at Indy to be exact! Experience counts big time at the Indianapolis 500. He is still very popular, and will be a plus for everyone.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    I am happy for Kanaan because last year’s farewell mini-tour was largely devoid of fans, and I think it would be ideal to have fans present for his send-off, especially at Indy.

    Though he’s no young up-and-comer, J.R. Hildebrand would have been an interesting (if entirely unlikely) choice for this seat. His record at non-Indy ovals is nothing much to write home about, but at Indy he has quietly completed all but 1 lap in the last 7 500s and dragged Dreyer & Reinbold’s bump-bait sleds into the top 20 in the last 3 500s.

  5. The team has chosen the best available driver for this job. It’s as simple as that. This is a combination that can win races and has proven to do so before. Those are high expectations for sure, yet they can meet them. Here’s wishing lots of success to TK and his team.

  6. Chip really surprised me with his driver choices for 2021. Definitely not his usual pattern, but hurrah for the drivers and the fans. I have followed both TK and Helio for ages and admire their continued passion for racing. I hope the best for both them and their teams next year.

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