Indianapolis: For all the success Tony Kanaan has had inside an Indy car, from winning the series title to his long-sought Indianapolis 500 triumph, you’d think he would have landed with one team for good.
Instead, one of the sport’s most popular drivers has always been searching for stability.
The 43-year-old Brazilian began his open-wheel career in the US with small, underfunded teams in the CART World Series. Then came a eight-year run with the Andretti team, where he never finished outside the top six in points and won the 2004 championship, only to be let go before the 2011 season.
He spent the next three years with a small team founded by Kevin Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser, then four more with Chip Ganassi Racing before he was forced to look for another ride this year.
Kanaan landed with AJ Foyt Racing, uniting two of the sport’s iconic names for the first time.
“I never thought of that,” Kanaan said of his roller-coaster career, “but I drove for Michael (Andretti) and Mario (Andretti). I learnt their experience. And now being with AJ, it’s kind of cool. It’s something I didn’t expect to happen in my career but now that it’s happened, I’m taking advantage of it. And at the end of the day, I’ll have a lot of stories that I drove or three legends.”
Foyt had tried to hire Kanaan years ago, but he wound up signing elsewhere. But the multi-year deal they agreed upon this past off-season represented a fresh start for both sides.
The iconic Foyt name struggled last season, failing to land on the podium with Conor Daly’s fifth-place finish at Gateway the team’s best result. Kanaan only graced the podium once in his worst season in nearly two decades, and his winless skid hit 49 races going back to the 2014 season.
Progress has been slow so far this season, the team landing in the top 10 just twice through the first five races. But things seemed to turn when the team arrived at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, that old grey lady that Foyt has made a second home — some would argue first home — over the years.
Kanaan was fast in practice and just missed qualifying in the fast nine, putting him on the inside of the fourth row for Sunday’s 102nd running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
“Ah, for sure, it would be a big thing if we could do this,” Kanaan said with his trademark grin. “The speedway is going to have to do some repairs because people will tear this place down, between my fans and his fans. It would be crazy. I don’t even want to think about it.”
Foyt signed Kanaan to be more than just a driver, though. He also wanted the sagely veteran to be a mentor to 19-year-old countryman Matheus Leist, who will start right next to him on Sunday.
“He’s a legend here,” Leist said, “and to be working with him, it’s one of my biggest dreams.”
Leist, who remembers watching Kanaan as a little boy in Brazil, has actually been teammates with him before. They worked together during a 500-mile kart race a couple of years ago, though the stage is a little different when there’s 300,000 people lining the racetrack.
“I couldn’t ask for a better teammate right now. I’m just so happy. We can talk our language, discuss stuff. It’s been very good,” Leist said. “You have to listen to someone like him.”
Foyt thinks Kanaan has at least a few more years left in him, and a solid run on their most important day all season would go a long way toward providing proof. Both of them think they have a car that can make magic happen, especially given how unpredictable things have been throughout May.
And while the teams have changed over the years, and success has been both easy and fleeting, one thing has never changed: Kanaan wants to win at Indianapolis more than anywhere else.
Just like Foyt did on his way to four Indy 500 wins.
“Once you get a taste of the win, you want to do it again,” he said. “This is a race that anybody wants to win. You win it once or twice or three times, you want to win it more. I’m as hungry as ever.”