Best of Luck, Tony Kanaan!

Arguably, the most popular Indianapolis 500 driver over the past twenty years will be calling it a career when the checkered flag flies for the 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 this May. This past Wednesday, Tony Kanaan announced that he will retire from IndyCar after this year’s race.

Many fans responded with we’ve heard this before, or I’ll believe it next May when he is not in a car. That’s fair. But like with Tom Brady; this time I think it’s for real. He had previously announced retirement plans before the COVID year of 2020, when everything got so strange and that year’s race was run in August in front of empty grandstands. Who would want to end a great career on that note?

Kanaan’s career has been winding down for a few years now. His last year to drive fulltime in the NTT IndyCar Series was 2019 at AJ Foyt Racing, when he was teamed with fellow-Brazilian Matheus Leist. Budgetary reasons in 2020 dictated that Kanaan would drive a limited schedule on the ovals in the No. 14 car, splitting time with Dalton Kellett and Sébastien Bourdais.

No offense to the Foyt team, but it seemed to be winding down in a sad way. In the six races Kanaan ran in 2020, his best finish was a ninth at Gateway. He finished a very forgettable nineteenth in what was assumed to be his last Indianapolis 500 in front of no fans. Kanaan appeared to be destined as one of those athletes that hung around a little too long. I’m old enough to remember how strange it was to see Colts great Johnny Unitas limp through his last NFL season in a San Diego Chargers uniform. Joe Namath as a Los Angeles Ram was equally disturbing. More recently, many probably remember how odd it was to see Joe Montana as a Kansas City Chief, or Michael Jordan in a Washington Wizards uniform.

Other than Montana, none of these greats did anything of significance with their last teams. I was afraid Tony Kanaan was going to suffer the same loss of dignity. Here was a former series champion and an Indianapolis 500 winner, slogging through the final seasons of his career with a team that had seldom been more than a back-marker for over a decade.

But unlike those other athletes that held on too long, Tony Kanaan’s career was thrown a lifeline for the 2021 season. He was tabbed by Chip Ganassi to drive the fours ovals of the season in the No. 48 car that Jimmie Johnson drove on the non-ovals. The results of those four ovals were not great, but they weren’t bad either – earning a Top-Ten finish at Indianapolis.

For 2022, Kanaan returned to Ganassi – a team he had parted ways with after the 2017 season, in not such an amicable fashion. It was to be one race only – the Indianapolis 500, driving the No. 1 car. He qualified sixth and was in a position to win, but finished a close third – just behind eventual winner and teammate Marcus Ericsson, and Pato O’Ward.

Many wondered if Kanaan would call it quits, after such a strong finish for someone his age. It would have finished his career on a high note. Kanaan made it clear early on that he would like to come back. It appeared he was waiting to see what Jimmie Johnson was going to do, and what might be available at Ganassi. But Zak Brown at Arrow McLaren signed Kanaan for the 2023 Indianapolis 500 before anything was settled at Ganassi.

I am hopeful that this gives Kanaan his best shot at another 500 win in a decade. We all know that Arrow McLaren is considered a strong team. They seem to have an endless supply of resources, and they have expanded heavily for 2023. With Alexander Rossi moving to a third fulltime car this season, and Kanaan in a fourth car at Indianapolis – their roster is compiled of drivers that finished second, third, forth and fifth in last year’s Indianapolis 500.

While they look strong on paper, they aren’t perfect. Their drivers only finished seventh and eighth in last year’s season championship. While logic would tell you that Rossi should be a factor in a McLaren car in most races this season, we can’t assume that. I have heard that McLaren sets their cars up much differently than most teams. That’s why Felix Rosenqvist had such a hard time adjusting going from Ganassi to Arrow McLaren. Kanaan may have the same difficulty as he moves from Ganassi to McLaren.

Assuming he qualifies, this will give Tony Kanaan his twenty-second consecutive Indianapolis 500 start, which would rank him third on the all-time list. He would trail only AJ Foyt (35) and Helio Castroneves, who will be going for his twenty-third consecutive start this May. Kanaan would surpass Al Unser, who he is currently tied with at twenty-one consecutive starts. That’s some lofty company that Kanaan will be joining. For those wondering, Scott Dixon will be attempting to make his twenty-first consecutive 500 start this May.

This is as good a move for McLaren as it is for Kanaan. Between Felix Rosenqvist and Pato O’Ward, they have seven Indianapolis 500 starts between them. Alexander Rossi brings seven more Indianapolis 500 starts as well as a win to the table, but Kanaan has triple the starts as Rossi and another win. In my book, experience in the 500 is just as important as raw speed. Kanaan can really bring a lot of experience and wisdom to this team.

While I’m sad that we will no longer see Tony Kanaan on the grid of the Indianapolis 500 – I am happy he gets to go out on his terms and with one of the top teams in the business. Kanaan is one of the most popular Indianapolis 500 drivers ever, and when he is introduced on Race Morning, his reception will eclipse the other thirty-two drivers by a mile.

On a personal note, some say that Kanaan’s popularity is a myth, and he is only kind to fans when the cameras are running. I’m here to say that is not true at all. Tony Kanaan is one of the few drivers I can really say that I know. I’m not bragging, but I need to make this point. I’ve known Tony Kanaan since a mutual friend introduced us at Barber in 2011. Susan and I got to spend about twenty minutes with him that day. Susan’s son, Eric, has been a fan of Kanaan, since he won the championship in 2004 – the first year her son attended the Indianapolis 500 with us. Susan texted Eric and his friend, telling them to get to where we were quickly. Tony was kind enough to stick around until Eric got there, giving him a personalized autograph and posing for pictures.


Since then, Susan and Lauren Kanaan have become relatively close friends. We even got to visit with her within an hour after Tony won the 2013 Indianapolis 500.

When Susan was diagnosed with cancer back in the summer of 2020, Tony sent her a personal hand-written note through regular mail to our home address, giving her encouragement as she was going through chemo. When he saw us a year later in the paddock at the first Music City Grand Prix, he went out of his way to come over and give her a big hug. There were no cameras running, and there were no PR people there to witness it – just us. He didn’t have to do that. He just did it out of the goodness of his heart. So if you hear anyone say that Tony Kanaan is a phony; they either caught him having a very bad day, or they simply don’t know what they are talking about.

Like everyone, I have teams and drivers that I pull for more than others. I really don’t pull for certain drivers to lose, but I definitely have my favorites. Tony Kanaan has always been one of my favorites in each of the 500s he’s been in. But I have to admit, I may be pulling for the papaya orange No. 66 car just a little more than any others this coming May.

Best of luck, Tony! Enjoy your retirement. We will miss you!

George Phillips

Please Note:  My office is closed for Presidents Day, so I will be enjoying a day off. Therefore, I will also take a day off from this site on Monday Feb 20. I will return here on Wednesday Feb 22. If you are off like me, enjoy the holiday. If not, well…try to enjoy Monday. – GP

8 Responses to “Best of Luck, Tony Kanaan!”

  1. Hard to believe it’s been nearly 10 years since he won the Indy 500. It would be very fitting if he won again in his last Indy 500. I’ve been following him for a long time and would not be upset if her were to become a two-time winner.
    I helped Lauren and his friend Benito follow him and Vitor Mira at the 2011 Ironman in Hawaii, and that was where he got his nickname of the indycar “Ironman” from.
    Will be sad to see him go…. just like I was sad to see Mario and AJ call it quits. Sadly, this is how life goes and everyone gets older, and a little slower with age… except in the heart where we still will always want to go fast!!!

  2. One of my favorite drivers for sure. The unofficial mayor of Indianapolis. I’ve never met Tony, but I know others who know him a little or have met him. Their experiences echo your sentiments. He’s the real thing. For me, that 2004 champiopship season when he teamed with Dario, Bryan Herta, and Dan Wheldon… all-time favorite driver lineup! Count me in as someone hoping to see the #66 take the checkered flag at 16th & Georgetown this May!

  3. Bruce Waine Says:

    The support for Tony overwhelms the racing engine noise at the 2013 INDY 500.

    As we sat in the stands on the front straight back in 2013 on those final laps, you could not hear the cars racing on the track above all the fans cheering Tony on to win.

    What a day that was for Tony & his fans ! !

  4. billytheskink Says:

    A tremendous career! I was thrilled for him when he won his first race at Michigan, a young driver I had seen in person on the podium at Houston the year before. I was glad he finally broke through and won the 500, and a thrilling 500 at that.

  5. Been a fan since his first 500 and he is a big reason I started watching the entire season and not just the Indy 500. I’ve met pretty much every driver and team owner but other than a quick autograph where he hardly looked up and a selfie Zach took we haven’t yet really been able to meet him. Some might say that proves he isn’t great with the fans or as nice as he is on camera but I’ve never felt that way. Tony is at these races working, racing needs to be his first job. I just haven’t been in the right place at the right time to be able to have an interaction with him. I’m sure he is spread pretty thin on race weekends and he can only greet so many fans. I think who we see on TV is genuine and I will miss him. Hopefully he hangs around the tracks and finds a place to continue as a driver coach or something. Arrow McLaren is not my favorite team but I will be cheering for them at this years 500.

  6. Good blogging, George.
    Last Sunday I listened again to the 2018 Off Track with Hinch and Rossi interview in which Kanaan, in his first season in A.J. Foyt Racing) was asked when/how he would decide to retire
    (before a racing season, during a good or bad season, after a successful or unhappy season, after a triumphant or terrible Indy 500).

  7. Tony is still one of my favorite racers. I’ve followed him since he came to the states. Meeting him at my first LBGP was a thrill and the thought of that day still makes me smile. He could not have been nicer. Both he and Lauren have always been kind when I have talked with them at races. I will miss him not being in the field and wish him well at the 500.

  8. Thanks for sharing these stories. It’s great that some of the IndyXar drivers are so close to the fans. I get the feeling you don’t have that near as muchin most other professional sports.

    TK’s 3rd in the 2022 was mightily impressive, as was the performance of the whole Ganassi team. He will be a great addition to the former AMSP / Sam Schmidt-Rick Peterson Motorsports / FAZZT Race Team. This team has come a long way.

    All the puzzle pieces are in place, now it’s time to go racing – and winning. It’s always great to see another entry which is a real contender.

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