Where Did The Time Go?
As I grow older, I become more and more amazed at how quickly time passes. When I turned fifteen, it seemed like it took another ten years to pass before my sixteenth birthday and the driver’s license that went along with it. Conversely, when my kids were born, it seemed like they were ten in the blink of an eye. At my current ripe old age, the years are passing by like weeks used to. I like to assume that I’ll live to be at least eighty-five, which is another twenty-seven years away – but something tells me those twenty-seven years will pass by at light speed.
It was a shock for me to see that Graham Rahal turned twenty-eight on January 4. It seems like he was a nineteen year-old winning IndyCar driver just a couple of years ago.
I saw another such reminder the other day that demonstrated what I was talking about – a graphic called TK20, which commemorates Tony Kanaan’s twentieth IndyCar season. That can’t be! Wasn’t it just a few years ago that Kanaan and his fellow countryman Helio Castroneves were two young up and comers in Steve Horne’s Tasman Motorsports Indy lights team?
But a look at the graphic tells you it’s true. Kanaan graduated from Horne’s Indy Lights team and moved up to CART in 1998…twenty seasons ago. That’s a long time ago if you think about it. Titanic won Best Picture at the Oscars. Bob Dole would try to unseat Bill Clinton from the White House. Top pop acts were Céline Dion, Shania Twain and Next. Seinfeld was in its final season. Mark McGwire would break the season home run record held by Roger Maris. The Denver Broncos would win their second straight Super Bowl, and most importantly, the Tennessee Volunteers would win the National Championship in College Football.
But when you think about Tony Kanaan’s career as a whole, it doesn’t really seem that long. As mentioned earlier, he started in 1998 after winning the 1997 Indy Lights championship, by just four points over second place finisher Helio Castroneves. After earning five Top-Five finishes on his way to a ninth place finish as a rookie, Kanaan moved on to a hybrid team with McDonald’s sponsorship for Forsythe Racing, after Tasman lost the LCI sponsorship. It was an up and down season for the young Brazilian, as he won a race at Michigan, but suffered through many DNF’s and low finishes.
For the 2000 season, Kanaan made the ill-fated move to Mo Nunn Racing, which was saddled with the woefully inept Ilmor-Mercedes engine. Kanaan struggled to a nineteenth place finish in the points, with a best finish of eighth on three different occasions. After the season, the German manufacturer left CART and the team switched to Honda power for 2001. Although Kanaan did not win a race, the 2001 season was a marked improvement and Kanaan finished ninth in the points.
The 2002 season was a mixed bag as the team started out running the Reynard chassis, but switched to Lola after only three races. It seemed they spent the rest of the season chasing the setup, although he did score five Top-Five finishes near the end of the season. One item of note from 2002 was that Kanaan was leading late in his first Indianapolis 500 before getting caught up in the oil from someone else’s crash. It was a sign of things to come between Kanaan and the historic oval.
2003 was the year that would change Tony Kanaan’s career. Michael Andretti was on the verge of retiring from CART. He had driven for Team Green since 2001. For 2003, Andretti bought the team away from owner Barry Green, along with his new partners Kim Green (Barry’s brother) and Kevin Savoree to form Andretti-Green Racing (AGR). Team Green driver Dario Franchitti was brought along to the new team along with newcomer Tony Kanaan. The three car team would be moving over from CART to the fledgling IndyCar Series.
The plan was to run Franchitti and Kanaan fulltime, while Michael Andretti would drive the first few races through the Indianapolis 500 before stepping out of the cockpit for good and turning his car over to rookie Dan Wheldon, who would also be driving in the “500”.
The new team had the dominant Honda engine that only a handful of teams had, but AGR was the team that had financial backing from Honda. With Franchitti sidelined by a motorcycle accident for most of the 2003 season, Kanaan quickly became the star of the team. He finished fourth in points his first season and won the series championship in 2004. He followed that up with a second place season in points as his teammate Dan Wheldon won the2005 championship and that year’s Indianapolis 500.
Kanaan was quickly becoming a fan favorite at the Indianapolis 500. He had many strong finishes after leading but was always on the wrong end of luck at the end. As the years went on and his popularity grew, many fans (myself included) feared that he may be the latest version of Lloyd Ruby and his boss Michael Andretti – great drivers who led a lot of laps, but never seemed to be in the lead when the checkered flag fell at Indianapolis.
It looked as those fears may become reality. Andretti-Green morphed into Andretti Autosport as the team fell into a slump. Wins were suddenly hard to come by. By the end of the 2010 season, the economy of the times and the lack of results finally caught up with Kanaan as his longtime sponsor, 7-Eleven, pulled out of IndyCar racing. Andretti could not find a sponsor for Kanaan, so the popular Brazilian was given permission to seek other opportunities.
Kanaan was a late signee to KV Racing Technology for the 2011 season. Kanaan ran a car trimmed in Lotus livery similar to Jim Clark’s 1965 winner. The car even carried Clark’s No.82. Kanaan delivered a strong fifth place finish in points and a fourth place finish at Indianapolis. For 2012, Kanaan got back his familiar No.11. he finished ninth in points that season, but third at Indianapolis.
A disappointing finish to the 2012 season led to lowered expectations for 2013. Kanaan was thirty-eight going into the season. Although he was still competitive, he had not won a race since Iowa in 2010. Many had assumed the window for Kanaan to win the Indianapolis 500 was closing quickly – especially since he was driving for a team that had never won a race. That’s why it was so sweet to watch Kanaan cross the yard of bricks ahead of everyone and finally take that checkered flag that had eluded him for so many years. The career of the driver so many had been cheering for was finally complete.
Some speculated that Kanaan may hang up his helmet and call it a career. Those that had said that were wrong. Instead, he joined his best friend and former teammate, Dario Franchitti at Chip Ganassi Racing for 2014. Unfortunately, Franchitti suffered career-ending injuries in a crash at Houston before the end of the 2013 season and the duo never got to race together at Ganassi. Instead, Kanaan was moved into the No.10 car previously occupied by Franchitti and was teamed with Scott Dixon and Charlie Kimball for 2014.
In his three years at Ganassi, Kanaan has finished seventh, eighth and seventh respectively; and has won once. But this past season, he was one of the hottest drivers in the second half of the season (except for the final two races).
As Tony Kanaan heads into his twentieth season, he is still with a Chip Ganassi Racing team with some questions to answer. Will their switch to Honda hurt or help their chances at most tracks? Was their dip in performance in 2016 an anomaly or a sign of things to come? Can Kanaan continue the momentum he found starting at Indianapolis last season?
But keep these things in mind about Tony Kanaan. He seems to have found the perfect blend of wisdom and experience that comes with age, coupled with a heart that still wants to race hard. I still see Kanaan as a threat to battle for the championship. With the worries about the Honda package at most tracks, there is no doubt that they’ve figured out Indianapolis. Don’t be too surprised if he sneaks in one more Borg-Warner trophy this season before the common body kit comes into play in 2018.
Tony Kanaan has had quite a career in the last twenty years. I just don’t know where the time went.