Does Tony Kanaan Want A Do-Over?

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As we have reached the halfway point in the season, we find Tony Kanaan mired in seventh place in the IndyCar standings. To say this season has been a disappointment for Kanaan, would be a major understatement. Although he put himself into the fence at Iowa, his team has let him down with some poorly prepared cars at several tracks this season. That’s an odd way of paying someone back for showing such loyalty last year, when he turned down a chance to join Target Chip Ganassi Racing by re-signing with Andretti-Green. If given the opportunity to re-think that move, I wonder what he might do.

Tony Kanaan has had an interesting racing career to this point. He came up through the usual karting ranks in Brazil, and then went off to Europe for more seasoning.

Kanaan came to the US in 1996 at the age of twenty-one, driving for Steve Horne’s Tasman Motorsports in Indy Lights. His first year saw him win two races, earn Rookie of the Year honors and finish second in the championship. The next year, he returned to Tasman, this time paired with his childhood friend who was at that time known as Helio Castro Neves. Helio later hyphenated his name (Castro-Neves) and finally changed it to Castroneves as the American press kept referring to him simply as “Neves”. That year Kanaan won the Indy Lights championship, barely beating his teammate for the title.

For 1998, Kanaan was tabbed for Tasman’s ride in CART, replacing the departed Andre Ribeiro who had moved on to Penske. He had no wins but did have two podium finishes on his way to ninth in the standings and earning 1998 CART Rookie of the Year. In 1999, Horne had lost the LCI sponsorship and Tasman was absorbed into Gerry Forsythe’s team. Kanaan drove the McDonald’s Drive Thru Crew Reynard to his first CART victory, winning the 1999 US 500 at Michigan.

The following year saw Tony move to Mo Nunn’s new team, driving the #55 Reynard-Mercedes. It was not a good move. Nunn’s team proved unsuccessful in CART. In 2001, Alex Zanardi was added as a teammate to Kanaan but he did not reclaim his earlier success and lost his legs in a late season crash in Germany. For 2002, Mo Nunn ran Kanaan in CART and Felipe Giaffone in the IRL. Kanaan ran as a teammate to Giaffone in the 2002 Indianapolis 500, where he qualified fifth and actually led for several laps as a rookie before crashing while leading on lap 89.

Everything changed in 2003 for Kanaan. Michael Andretti and Kim Green arranged backing from Honda and together they bought Team Green from Kim’s brother Barry, and moved the team from CART into the IRL. Dario Franchitti made the move with Michael, and they recruited Kanaan to join the team. Michael and Kanaan both drove 7-Eleven entries for the first four races, then Michael was to permanently step out of the cockpit following the 2003 Indianapolis 500 – leaving Kanaan to pilot the sole 7-Eleven liveried Dallara. The year went well as Kanaan finished fourth in points, although he crashed at Motegi, breaking his wrist.

The following year was Kanaan’s breakout year. He collected three wins in 2004, but more importantly he racked up eight more podium finishes on his way to the championship. He had the coveted Honda power, but Kanaan was still the man to beat each week. He followed up his championship with a runner-up year in 2005, finishing second to his teammate Dan Wheldon.

These were heady times at Andretti-Green. They had won back-to-back championships and had just won the Indy 500 with Wheldon. The chemistry between the AGR foursome of Bryan Herta, Franchitti, Wheldon and Kanaan was unrivaled. They were the class of the field.

The following year saw Wheldon leave and 2006 was pretty much a miserable year for AGR and Kanaan, who finished sixth in points. He and the team both rebounded in 2007 as Franchitti won the championship and the Indy 500 while Kanaan finished third in the points. However, another teammate was lost as Bryan Herta was shipped off to the ALMS team to make way for Danica Patrick. At the end of 2007, Franchitti was gone as well.

Suddenly, the kid with so much promise with Tasman Motorsports in Indy Lights was the veteran in his prime. He and the team struggled in 2008. Kanaan fought harder than ever to scrape out a single win at Richmond. Still, he managed to finish third in points. The beginning of 2009 looked promising as he was leading the points after three races heading into Indianapolis. Less than a month later, Kanaan was stuck in seventh. The crash at Iowa was his fault, but a toe-link broke at Indy sending him hard into the wall. Then a fuel line came loose at Milwaukee, which set his car on fire. A similar occurrence happened after four laps of practice at Richmond causing him to miss the entire practice session, which undoubtedly contributed to his seventeenth place qualifying effort.

By the time the series reached the Kentucky race in 2008, the AGR family had become increasingly dysfunctional. Marco and Danica seemed to be causing dissension, newcomer Hideki Mutoh spoke nary a word of English and was just trying to survive. Kanaan found himself playing a combination role of elder statesman, team leader and baby-sitter while trying to somehow win a championship. Meanwhile, his contract was up at the end of the year.

Rumors were swirling that Kanaan had reached a deal to move to Ganassi for 2009, as Wheldon was apparently about to be shipped out. Apparently an agreement was reached, but the only problem for Chip Ganassi was that a contract had not been signed. There are those that say that Kanaan purposely leaked information about an agreement to Robin Miller so that word would get back to Michael Andretti. Whether by design or coincidence, it worked and Michael did what it took to get Kanaan back under contract through 2013, when Kanaan will be thirty-eight and clearly nearing retirement age.

Unfortunately, the 2009 season has quickly unraveled for Kanaan and Andretti-Green Racing. Danica is having a decent season but keeps everyone guessing as to where she will land next year. Even Mutoh is unsettled as his Formula Dream sponsorship is rumored to be going with Takuma Sato to Gil de Ferran’s new team. Meanwhile, Marco keeps being Marco.

Tony Kanaan clearly looks frustrated and miserable, although he is too much of a class act to bad-mouth his team. He has locked himself into a traveling soap opera that seems to have its best days behind them. He is in the heart of his prime and has willed bad cars to decent finishes this year – that is, when they are prepared well enough to not fall apart in mid-race. He continues to soldier on, but you can clearly see doubt in his face. By the time his contract is up, he will be way past his prime and his career will likely be over. You have to feel for him and wonder…if he had it all to do over again, would it be Kanaan and not Dario Franchitti driving the #10 Target car and sitting atop the points right now?

George Phillips

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6 Responses to “Does Tony Kanaan Want A Do-Over?”

  1. “…if he had it all to do over again, would it be Kanaan and not Dario Franchitti driving the #10 Target car and sitting atop the points right now?”

    In a word, yes!!

  2. While I respect and admire loyalty, as someone who’s followed Tony since he came to Lights, last year I wished that he’d left Daddy Day Care to team with Scott in a smaller operation that won the 2008 championship. Many months later…. I wish, as last year, that he’d signed a one-season contract! Dario’s always worked on one-year contracts so that he’s not stuck…

  3. James O. Says:

    The article brings up something I’ve wondered about for awhile: Dan Weldon’s short tenures. He’s undeniably talented, but he doesn’t stay with a team very long, not even a top tier team like Ganassi. I see that and it makes me wonder what goes on behind the scenes, because God knows you’ll never hear Jack Arute ask him on tv.

  4. Dandy Dan raced for Panther until AGR wanted to run him at Indy. Signing with Chip, ostensibly for more dough after winning a championship with AGR was really strange, I thought, and I disliked his disloyalty.
    But Dan would still be racing for Chip today, earning a sizeable salary and bonu$e$ when winning races, except that Chip wanted to make room for Tony. That simple. Contrary to the story that Dan spun about volutarily leaviing his top-tier team for a greener pasture in a one car team so that all engineering efforts would be focused on his car alone, Chip had told him to seek employment elsewhere, because he had Tony on the hook. If Tony didn’t seal the deal, he could get Dario or Will or Oriol or Justin or …

  5. Seeing as how the Universe is continuously flogging him w/ a stalk of sugar cane, I’d say yes. He wants a do-over.

    (I feel like I’ve contaminated your fine site, George, just by commenting here. Like hosting a strip-show inside the British Museum or something. Please accept my apologies.)

  6. John McLallen Says:

    TK is one of the classiest guys in racing. I was very disappointed for him when he went out in this year’s “500.” I would like to see him back in a competitive car and get his likeness on the Borg Warner Trophy.

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