The Two Biggest Names of Silly Season
I’m always a little surprised when the silly season gets going. It usually seems like the season is in full swing and teams and drivers are already making plans for next season. But when you think about it, this is the time of year when presentations are being made to potential sponsors for the next season. Budgets are being drawn up, so it only makes sense for driver lineups to be part of a team’s discussion.
Robin Miller had a very good synopsis in Sunday’s pre-race show about who was in play for next season, who was confirmed and who was all but officially lined up for 2014. By far, the two biggest names in play for next season are James Hinchcliffe and Indianapolis 500 winner and former series champion Tony Kanaan. The future of one of these could determine the fate of the other. The question is; will either driver leave their current team, and if so – where would they go?
If I had to lay money on which one would be most likely to leave their current situation, it would be Tony Kanaan. KV Racing Technology has always been somewhat of an enigma. Kevin Kalkhoven, the “K” in KV, is an extremely wealthy man. One would assume that he would have either the resources and/or business connections to come up with proper funding for his team. Instead, they always seem to be operating from a deficit. To make matters worse, Kalkhoven doesn’t run his team as a business like Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi run their respective teams. Instead, he treats it like a hobby or one of his toys. Even further complicating the situation, Kalkhoven appears to have grown tired of his toy over the last couple of years.
I don’t think for a moment that this has escaped Tony Kanaan. I feel quite sure that the uncertain future and constant lacking for sponsorship has worn thin on TK. Kanaan will be thirty-nine on New Year’s Eve. He has a limited number of years left in his racing career. The Indianapolis 500 victory that he has long coveted is now in his back pocket. His career is now complete, but he is not ready to hang it up – nor should he. However, he does not want to be another version of Buddy Rice – a recent Indianapolis 500 champ who can only get a ride with a mid-pack team. With a spot cleared for his “Baby Borg” on his bookshelf, he now has opportunities that would not have come his way without his triumph in May. And with all due respect to the 2004 winner, Tony Kanaan is a lot more popular.
Reading Curt Cavin’s story in The Indianapolis Star last weekend that Dario Franchitti is now confirmed to return for another year at Target Chip Ganassi Racing, it sounded pretty certain that Kanaan was headed there to drive the fourth car vacated by Graham Rahal at the end of last season. There, he would be reunited with one of his best friends – Dario Franchitti, who was a teammate to Kanaan at Andretti-Green Racing from 2003 through 2007.
But there are those who think that Ganassi is just toying with Kanaan for leverage in order to sign Hinchcliffe. It makes sense. Hinchcliffe will only turn twenty-seven in December – twelve years younger than Kanaan. He is just now entering the prime of his driving career. He has had a breakout season this year with three wins, and his future looks bright – not only for next season, but for the next decade or so. Besides, I’ve read more than once that some wonder if Ganassi has fully forgiven Kanaan for spurning his offer to replace Dan Wheldon after the 2008 season.
Six weeks ago, I labeled Chip Ganassi’s team as one in disarray and needing a complete makeover. The team and drivers seemed to be going through the motions and they gave every indication that they had already given up on the 2013 season. By then, I had heard whisperings that Kanaan may be considering the opportunity to drive for Ganassi. He would either replace his old friend Franchitti or better yet – have him as a teammate. At the time, I wondered why Kanaan would even entertain the thought of going to a team that was clearly on its way down. That shows how smart I am. As we all now know, the team caught fire shortly after that. Scott Dixon won every race in July and Charlie Kimball continued the streak for Ganassi into August. Franchitti has yet to win, but he has scored three podiums in the past four races and finished fourth in that non-podium finish. Clearly, they have figured it out.
So the seat that Graham Rahal deemed unworthy of his talents is suddenly the hottest seat in the IndyCar Series. Not only have Hinchcliffe and Kanaan been mentioned as possibilities for that seat, but so has Ryan Briscoe – although most everyone says that he is destined for the full-time ride at Panther Racing.
James Hinchcliffe apparently has some decisions to make also. Just where does he land in the pecking order at Andretti Autosport, even if Michael Andretti is able to resign GoDaddy as the primary sponsor on the No.27 car? One could make a case that it is his team with three wins this season. Others are certain the team is built around Ryan Hunter-Reay. After all, he did win the championship last season and has more wins than his three teammates combined. Or is it Marco’s team? His name is on the sign in front of the building. He has also shown some much needed maturity this season and he has become much more consistent, although he has no wins this season and only two in his eight-year career. Could it possibly be EJ Viso’s team? Probably not, but there is no telling how much backing he gets from the Venezuelan government.
My point is, it’s possible Hinchcliffe could be lost in the shuffle at Andretti Autosport. If he moved to Ganassi and continued to perform, he would easily slip into Dario Franchitti’s seat whenever the aging Scotsman decided to call it quits. Scott Dixon is still relatively young at thirty-three, but Hinchcliffe and Charlie Kimball would definitely be the future at one of the most successful teams in the business.
If Tony Kanaan finally decides he’s had enough at KVRT, but finds that Ganassi has signed Hinchcliffe instead – where would the Brazilian go? Well, he could take Hinchcliffe’s seat at Andretti or reunite with another old friend, Bryan Herta. While getting back with Herta at Bryan Herta Autosport sounds like a feel-good story and returning to the team that essentially kicked him to the curb following the 2010 season sounds awkward at best; I’m thinkng that returning to Andretti might be the best move, assuming that the Ganassi seat is not an option. Kanaan sometimes wears his emotions on his sleeve and he’ll admit that he can carry a grudge. But he also knows that racing can be a dirty business. Gone are some of the major distractions that drained the life out of that team in 2010.
James Hinchcliffe is in a win-win situation. He can choose to remain with a team that has definitely hit it’s stride again after going through a major slump just a few years ago. He can also choose to be a major cog in the reloading effort at Chip Ganassi’s team. He is already a star in the IndyCar Series and will be one of the major faces of the series for years to come.
It’s also good to be Tony Kanaan these days. He has a beautiful new wife who may be the nicest and most genuine person you’ll ever meet. He has finally gotten his Indianapolis 500 win, after coming agonizingly close so many times. He now has very attractive opportunities to set up the last few years of his storied career. He can still drive – and win. He hasn’t lost a thing except for stability in the teams he has driven for in the past few years. Whether it’s at Ganassi, Andretti, Bryan Herta or even KV – Tony Kanaan is now in a position to close out the final years of his career on his own terms. Not many drivers get to do that.