What Should Tony Kanaan Do?
Word started getting around on Sunday that 7-Eleven was ending their longtime relationship with Andretti Autosport as Tony Kanaan’s primary sponsor. By Monday, it had become official and the speculation was already in full-swing as to what would happen to Tony Kanaan, who has carried the 7-Eleven livery since 2003. In fact, 7-Eleven was instrumental in building the foundation of Michael Andretti’s team.
The connection between 7-Eleven and what is now Andretti Autosport (AA) can be traced back to 2002. That was the year that Team Green ran the Indianapolis 500 with three cars, in addition to their full-time CART schedule. Michael Andretti had his Motorola sponsorship from CART; but due to tobacco legislation, Paul Tracy and Dario Franchitti were prohibited from carrying their KOOL tobacco sponsorship to a series other than CART. Enter 7-Eleven, whose color scheme was similar to the familiar green & white KOOL liveries of Tracy and Franchitti. Of course, shortly thereafter Franchitti’s KOOL car took on a silver and blue hue, but that’s another story.
Later that season, it was announced that Michael Andretti, Kevin Savoree and Kim Green would purchase Team Green from Kim’s brother Barry Green, and move to the rival IRL in a new association with Honda, as the Japanese automaker moved from CART to the IRL as well. The team would be known as Andretti-Green Racing (AGR). Their drivers would continue to be Michael Andretti and Dario Franchitti along with rising star Tony Kanaan, who would happily leave the fledgling Mo Nunn Racing team in CART, where he had been languishing for the previous three seasons.
The plan was for Michael to drive the No. 7 car carrying 7-Eleven sponsorship for all of the races leading up to the 2003 Indianapolis 500, when he would step out of the car and into retirement. That ride would be transformed into the No. 26 with Dan Wheldon and Jim Bean Sponsorship. Meanwhile, Tony Kanaan was assigned to the second 7-Eleven car and would carry those colors after Andretti’s retirement.
After three winless seasons with Mo Nunn, it didn’t take Kanaan long to find the winner’s circle at AGR – winning in only the second race of the 2003 season at Phoenix. Kanaan finished third at Indy and had several top-five finishes on his way to finishing fourth in the championship, despite breaking his wrist in a crash at Motegi.
The 2004 season was even better. Andretti-Green was one of only a handful of teams that had access to the powerful Honda engine. Kanaan made full use of the power advantage en route to a second place finish at the Indianapolis 500 and a dominating championship season. Along the way, TK developed a very loyal following and his green & white 7-Eleven livery quickly became synonymous with him.
The next year was Dan Wheldon’s turn. Wheldon won the championship that year, with Kanaan finishing second. But Wheldon bested Kanaan’s effort at Indianapolis, by giving Michael Andretti his first trip to Indy’s victory lane, albeit as an owner and not a driver. Kanaan won two races that season, but he also had three second-place finishes along with four thirds. Nine podiums in a season is nothing to complain about.
Life was good at Andretti-Green. They had expanded to a four-car operation, awarding Bryan Herta a full-time ride in 2004, after he did such an admirable job filling in for an injured Dario Franchitti in 2003. Winning was commonplace for the team and the camaraderie among its four drivers was unprecedented – almost to the point of being nauseating as they kissed each other on the cheek after victories. I can’t imagine George Snider planting one on AJ Foyt back in the sixties, but hey – times change.
In 2006, things started to change at AGR. Wheldon left for greener pastures at Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Michael’s son, Marco, was thrown into the deep end at age eighteen and was named Wheldon’s replacement in the No. 26 car. He had to swap sponsors with Franchitti, however, because Marco wasn’t old enough to drive a car sponsored by a liquor company. Marco provided the only memorable moments for the team that season. He came within a few hundred feet of being the youngest driver to ever win the Indianapolis 500. Later that season, he became the youngest winner of an IndyCar race when he won at Sonoma with a little team help from Bryan Herta. Marco showed flashes of great potential and finished seventh in points. Kanaan won but one race in 2006 and finished sixth in points. Franchitti and Herta failed to win a race and finished eighth and eleventh respectively. Wheldon, meanwhile, finished the 2006 season tied for first; but lost the championship in a tiebreaker to Sam Hornish.
The 2006 season results for AGR would have been welcomed at other teams. Two wins, a near-miss at Indy and three drivers in the top eight isn’t bad. But this was a team that had come into the IndyCar Series and dominated from the start. Part of the reason for their slide was that their biggest advantage was gone. The coveted Honda engine was now sitting in every car on the grid. Not only was there no difference in power between them and their competitors, but the financial boost that Honda had been providing since 2003 was also gone. They would have to rely on their engineering skills and driving talent.
The team rebounded somewhat in 2007. Dario Franchitti had a magical season by winning the rain-shortened Indianapolis 500. Had the race been called after the first rain-delay, Tony Kanaan would have been declared the winner – but that’s life. Franchitti chalked up four wins that season and had a total of eleven podium finishes for 2007. Kanaan had five victories on the season but a couple of poor finishes brought him a third place finish in the points. Marco regressed and finished eleventh in points. He finished second at Iowa and had a couple of fourth place finishes, but also found himself in self-inflicted crashes, parking cars he was scared to drive and tearing up half-shafts.
There was also a new teammate for 2007. The ownership group convinced Michael’s former CART sponsor, Motorola, to bankroll Danica Patrick to the tune of $21 million for three seasons. Bryan Herta was relegated to Andretti-Green’s ALMS ride.
In two seasons, the team went from Wheldon, Kanaan, Franchitti and Herta to Kanaan, Franchitti, the boss’s son and a princess with an entourage. After Michael publicly took Marco’s side in an incident at Sonoma that almost cost Franchitti the championship, Franchitti was gone after the end of 2007.
For 2008, two of their three champions were gone. Rookie Hideki Mutoh was hired to fill Franchitti’s seat. Tony Kanaan and his familiar green 7-Eleven car was the only link to the team’s glory days. While trying to fill the role of team leader, Kanaan spent most of his days as a baby sitter to the childish ways of Danica and Marco. He managed to carve out one win at Richmond, while Danica got her lone win at Motegi.
Following the 2008 season, Kanaan’s longtime engineer, Eric Cowdin, left the team to become Ryan Briscoe’s engineer at Team Penske. Although Cowdin had been with Kanaan since their Indy Lights days at Steve Horne’s Tasman Racing team, I would imagine it was a two-second decision to go to Team Penske from a team where the wheels seemed to be coming off.
As a result, Kanaan and the entire team went winless in 2009. In the meantime, Ryan Briscoe had an outstanding season – due primarily to Cowdin’s efforts and consistency in giving Briscoe a great car each week. Had he not had a late season brain-fade, Briscoe would have won the championship.
More changes came for 2010. Michael Andretti bought out his two partners and re-named the team Andretti Autosport. Supposedly, having three owners with a voice was slowing down any decision-making. Now Michael was fully in charge. Danica was re-signed after a lengthy and way too public ordeal. After two unspectacular seasons, Mutoh moved on. Through a piece-meal sponsorship deal with IZOD that was not settled until halfway through the season, AA signed Ryan Hunter-Reay
On the track, this past season was better than 2009 for Andretti Autosport, but about on par with 2008 – which was considered a disaster at the time. Hunter-Reay started out strong by winning at Long Beach and Kanaan finally won again at Iowa. Marco was his usual inconsistent self and Danica seemed unhappy and distracted for most of the season. Her on-track results were mostly dismal – especially on road courses, as she tried to sprinkle in some ill-fated NASCAR appearances throughout the IZOD IndyCar season.
So this brings us up to this week. On Sunday, we learned that 7-Eleven is no longer Kanaan’s primary sponsor. By confirming this on Monday, we also learned that they will stay on as an associate sponsor for Danica only. On Tuesday, Curt Cavin reported that the IZOD sponsorship for Ryan Hunter-Reay is also leaving AA.
Kanaan signed a reported $3 million contract for five years with Andretti Autosport near the end of the 2008 season. With 7-Eleven out, it is unlikely that Michael Andretti will find a replacement sponsor that will be willing to cover that contract. Kanaan has been told he is free to look elsewhere.
What should he do? Kanaan will turn thirty-six on New Year’s Eve – past the age that most would consider a racer’s prime, even though Dario Franchitti is at the top of his game at age thirty-seven. He has won two races in the past three seasons and did well to finish sixth in the points this past season.
There is one side of me that would like to see Kanaan stay in the No.11 car until he retires. When Tony Kanaan was pursued by Chip Ganassi in 2008, he ended up staying with Michael Andretti out of loyalty, much to the detriment of his own career. Now it’s time for Michael to show some loyalty. But I’m not sure that is what’s best for Kanaan. I think that Andretti Autosport is about to implode. My impression is that this team has always been a three-ring circus that was hidden by good drivers, what used to be a good engineering staff and the Honda engine. This past season, Kanaan and Hunter-Reay brought a sense of calm to what I think is a team in turmoil. Quite frankly, I think they have always been in disarray and it has gotten worse since Marco’s arrival. Danica and her theatrics haven’t helped matters, but when nepotism is thrown into any type of professional organization – it’s never a good thing.
Another side of me wants to see Kanaan get a fresh start somewhere else; far removed from all the drama that enshrouds Andretti Autosport. The problem is; where would he go? There are no seats available at Penske or Ganassi. I would hate to see Kanaan become one of those drivers who starts bouncing around from team to team, just to keep racking up miles. There is a long list of legendary drivers that drove way past their prime and lost their dignity along the way. Names like AJ Foyt, Al Unser, Jr., Johnny Rutherford and Gordon Johncock come to mind. I wish more drivers could take their cue from Rick Mears and walk away gracefully while still very competitive. If Kanaan can’t land a top ride, I would prefer to see him protect what’s left of his legacy and walk away, rather than see him become less and less significant. I don’t doubt that the skill and desire are intact, but there’s just so much a driver can do in inferior equipment. Just look at his record over the last three seasons at AGR/AA.
With all of their problems, however; AA is still generally considered the third best team in the paddock. Just below the Andretti team is Dreyer & Reinbold and Panther Racing. Dreyer & Reinbold was supposed to be much improved this past season, but I didn’t see it. But Panther has made significant strides and seems to be on the brink of winning races again. Dan Wheldon seemed as good as gone a few weeks back, but it sounds as if they both looked around and realized neither party could do any better. Now that Kanaan is available, they could have the opportunity to deliver a stout one-two punch. It would reunite Wheldon and Kanaan from the glory days at AGR. Either driver gives them an excellent shot at winning the Indianapolis 500. Panther has finished second in the Indy 500 for the past three years. They obviously have the place figured out.
If I am Tony Kanaan, do I stay at a team that appears to be spiraling out of control; or do I go with a team that has already seen the bottom and is back on their way up? If I’m Tony Kanaan, I move to Panther and don’t look back. Tony Kanaan has been a class act throughout his entire career. This would allow that to continue.