Crossing Over to the Dark Side

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Although it has not been made official yet, all indications are that Tony Kanaan will be driving in the 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500. Last Friday, Marshall Pruett of Racer.com reported that the 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner would be driving a fourth car for Arrow McLaren SP in 2023.

Make no mistake; I am very happy for Tony Kanaan. But as happy as I am for him, it makes me feel almost a little dirty that I will be cheering for a car owned by McLaren. When Kanaan joined Chip Ganassi Racing for the first time in 2014, I still cheered for him, but I sort of had to hold my nose when I did it. In my eyes, Kanaan had crossed over to the dark side. Now I feel like he’s doing it all over again.

Of course, I don’t blame him one bit. I think this gives him his best shot at another Indianapolis 500 win, in years. When Kanaan won in 2013, he was driving for KV Racing Technology, a team that had not yet won an IndyCar race at the time. Kanaan started twelfth but drove a heads-up race and found himself in the lead when the yellow came out on Lap 197, allowing Kanaan to take the checkered flag under caution.

Kanaan’s first couple of years with Ganassi, I felt like he was always a contender. But when Target scaled back to only one car for 2016, and Ganassi took on Max Chilton to go along with Charlie Kimball, it seemed like all of the NTT Data money, the Gallagher money and the Novo Nordisk money was all poured into Scott Dixon’s car – to make sure he won the championship (he finished sixth).

By the end of 2017; Kanaan, Chilton and Kimball all left Ganassi in a huff. Chilton and Kimball headed to the fledgling Carlin team, while Kanaan joined Foyt. Kanaan tried as hard as he could to make the Foyt car competitive, but it wasn’t to be. By 2020, Foyt was driving the famous No. 14 only on the ovals, while Dalton Kellett drove the car on the non-ovals. Kanaan drove in three 500s for AJ, producing a ninth, an eleventh and a twenty-fifth place finish.

In an odd twist, Ganassi and Kanaan put the past behind them and Kanaan drove the No. 48 for Jimmie Johnson on the ovals in 2021. Kanaan finished tenth that year, but when Johnson decided to run the entire season including the Indianapolis 500 – Kanaan ran a fifth Ganassi car. The forty-seven year-old veteran proved that age is just a number as he gave that fifth Ganassi car a well-earned third-place finish that was no fluke.

Kanaan made it clear after the race that he was not done racing at Indianapolis. He felt he was still competitive and wanted at least one more crack at it in a competitive car.

I have been led to believe that Kanaan would have loved to have stayed with Ganassi. After all, a Ganassi car won the pole and another won the race. All five Ganassi cars were in the Firestone Fast Twelve in qualifying and they were certainly the cars to beat. But Jimmie Johnson has not announced his plans for next May, which would certainly affect Kanaan – since no one expects Ganassi to run five cars again in next year’s 500.

Zak Brown, CEO of McLaren, had already made it clear that Arrow McLaren SP planed to run a fourth car in the Indianapolis 500 and he wanted a veteran in the car. They had already expanded to a third car for Alexander Rossi, who won the Indianapolis 500 in 2016 as a rookie.

It had been sounding as if Juan Montoya was not in their plans for 2023, even though he managed finishing eleventh after qualifying thirtieth. Most figured that Brown was targeting either Kanaan or Ryan Hunter-Reay. Both were experienced veterans with an Indianapolis 500 on their resume.

I sense that Brown didn’t want a veteran simply to give their fourth car a shot. I think he was also looking for a driver to lead the team in the month of May – and to be a mentor for Pato O’Ward. From what I’ve been told, Tony Kanaan is a much better teammate and leader than Ryan Hunter-Reay. I can see Kanaan getting along with the team much better than Hunter-Reay, who is a talented driver but has a reputation as someone that only looks out for his own best interests.

Apparently Brown went after Kanaan aggressively, but wanted his answer sooner than later. Kanaan could not wait to see what Jimmie Johnson was going to do and what might or might not open up at Ganassi. This was undoubtedly a strong offer from a team that is determined to win the Indianapolis 500. Kanaan jumped at the chance and I don’t blame him.

For 2023, Arrow McLaren SP will have the second though fifth place finishers from last year’s race in their cars. Pato O’Ward finished a close second to Marcus Ericsson, Kanaan was a strong third, Felix Rosenqvist was a surprising fourth and Rossi finished fifth. All will be driving McLaren cars next May.

Many times on this site, I have written about how I don’t care for Zak Brown and the way he does business. I may be dead wrong, but he comes off as just a tad bit slimy to me. I’m thinking one of his ancestors may have been a snake oil salesman around the 1890s. Consequently, I have found myself cheering for the Arrow McLaren cars to underperform. That’s probably not fair, because they have had some likeable drivers in their cars since they bought into Sam Schmidt’s operation back late in the 2019 IndyCar season. But, that’s how I feel about Zak Brown.

That’s the way I used to feel about Chip Ganassi, but not as strongly. I never really thought Ganassi was slimy – he just came across as arrogant. Truth be told, Ganassi was just a savvy business person, who didn’t sugarcoat things. Still, for about twenty years, I considered Chip Ganassi Racing to be the dark side, especially since they won thirteen championships and six Indianapolis 500s during that time.

That’s why I found myself in strange territory this past summer, when I sided with Ganassi in the Alex Palou contract dispute. I already had strong opinions about Zak Brown before then, but the way he has been stockpiling drivers – you know not all of them will be racing in a series they originally thought they would be in. It may be legal, but it’s a slimy business practice.

But next May, I will be pulling hard for Tony Kanaan – even though I am not wild about his new affiliation. Despite my opinion of Brown, he has built a strong team and I am hopeful that Kanaan is the one who will reap the benefits of that.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “Crossing Over to the Dark Side”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    Zak Brown is even agressive in hiring Indy 500 one-offs. That’s a throwback…

    Kanaan’s track record at Indy is excellent, he’s proven he can make a bad car better and a good car great. He’ll surely be one to watch in May.

  2. I am so so so over Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves and a few others like JR Hilderbrand. But I do feel like all of those drivers have earned Indy rides over the years. At least Tony isn’t embarrassing himself for a full season like Helio!

  3. Maybe it’s Zach’s slicked back hair? lol. I don’t think he’s slimy but a ‘win at all costs’ owner. Being a retired racer also gives him more ‘street cred’ in my eyes. And most importantly he gives Tony and excellent shot at winning the 500 in 2023.

  4. Thanks for blogging.
    I don’t ‘root against’ racers because I dislike team owners.
    In May I will hope that young guns such as O’Ward and Palou win the 500 rather than hoping for a past winner such as Kanaan or Sato to repeat.

  5. I listen to JPM most of the Indianapolis 500 last May. JPM was not pleased with the car and the junior varsity pit crew on the radio most of the race. Best of wishes for TK at Indianapolis in May of 2023.

  6. While I understand the negative feelings towards Zac Brown care of his multi signings of INDYCAR drivers under what appears to be false promises I also can see the positives.

    He is a true racing petrol head. I am a fan of McLaren going INDYCAR racing when the F1 paddock generally looks down it’s nose at INDYCAR. I am a fan of ZB buying a historic McLaren motor home and then interviewing Roger Penske in it. I am a fan of Mario driving a contemporary F1 car. I am a fan of Pato driving an ex Senna F1 car. All care of Zac Brown.

    He is a hard nosed business man and makes decisions which will upset some of us however overall he adds value.

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