Tony Kanaan doesn’t consider this the end. But he can see it from here if he squints. The three-year agreement he’s begun with AJ Foyt Racing likely won’t mark the very end of an Indy car career that is in its 21st season, but he reckons it will mark his last full-time deal.
Maybe, the 2004 Verizon IndyCar Series champion said, there will be a few one-off attempts to add to what now stands as one Indianapolis 500 victory. Now at 43, the 17-time winner and respected and opinionated veteran could be expected to become an even harder-charging version of the driver who interested the hardest-of-chargers Foyt in hiring him in the first place. This could be reasonably seen as the confluence of midlife and late-career crises converging to create something, if not successful, spectacular to behold.
Kanaan still wants to win. But experience has tempered his expectations for now. And as much as he wants to leave on his own terms and successful, what he leaves behind seems to be as important right now. Helping rebuild a race team that has been seemingly adrift the past several seasons is forefront on his mind, he said. And if helping to restore one of the gilded names of motorsport to modern significance is his final contribution, Kanaan will have left the sport better than when he arrived as a rookie in 1998.
“This team needs to rebuild and we’re so far behind in so many things. But what my promise to (Foyt) was, in the next two, three years we’re going to make it a winning team and we are going to have to start somewhere,” Kanaan said. “And I promised him that this year was going to be better than his last year. And his answer was, ‘It’s not that difficult.’ So, that tells you.”
Any team would struggle to replicate the performance Foyt produced as a transcendent driver whose 67 wins is most in Indy car history. But his race team has been at best inconsistent since winning two of the first three Verizon IndyCar Series titles with Scott Sharp (1996 co-champion) and Kenny Brack (1998).
Conor Daly’s fifth-place finish at Gateway Motorsports Park in August was the team’s best result last season. The organization has eight wins since the Verizon IndyCar Series debuted in 1996, but only one in the past 15 seasons – by Takuma Sato in 2013 at Long Beach. Sato won last year’s Indianapolis 500 with Andretti Autosport a season after leaving Foyt.
Fellow Brazilian Matheus Leist, 19, will team with Kanaan this season as the team attempts a step forward with an old hand and a young talent. It’s a move it had been awaiting for a while.
Kanaan, who last won to end the 2014 season at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, was contacted by AJ Foyt Racing president Larry Foyt in 2016, but instead signed an extension for a fourth season at Chip Ganassi Racing last year. Their production together continued a pattern of erosion until Ganassi opted not to exercise another option for 2018, then halved his roster to include just four-time champion Scott Dixon and second-year driver Ed Jones.
Kanaan reached out to Larry Foyt as soon as contractually able. A contract, he said, was finalized within two days. Kanaan brought four cohorts with him, including veteran engineer Eric Cowdin as a technical director/race engineer of his No. 14 ABC Supply Honda, development director Travis Jacobson and mechanics Mark Sampson and Tomihiro Takase.
Kanaan sought continuity of transition and Foyt sought expertise. Then a hard audit began of what lacked.
“Mentality, different things, new ideas,” Kanaan said. “Things that they didn’t’ do. We didn’t come in and say, ‘Oh, you’re doing everything wrong.’ We looked at the way they did it, the way we did it and we picked the best of both and went into investing more on the development side: the wind tunnel, the shaker rigs and the stuff they apparently didn’t do much of in the past.”
Kanaan said team owner A.J. Foyt, a decided old-school disciple, has been “full-on, all-in” in providing resources and necessary resources.
“We need a couple podium finishes and finish in the top eight in the championship,” Kanaan said. “That would be a huge improvement for this team. Obviously, we’re going to try to win races. Especially on the ovals, I think we can. We have a pretty decent setup that I developed for so long. (At) Indy, we have a pretty good chance. I’m not being ‘not optimistic,’ but it takes time to get everybody in sync and build everything we wanted.”
Early progress is promising. Kanaan was third fastest in last week’s open test at ISM Raceway. Leist topped the list of the five rookies there. Yet plenty remains on the to-do list.
Such is Kanaan’s lot, time dwindling personally, but time required in helping Foyt’s team reinvent itself at the same time. He can almost see both goals from here.