This feature first appeared in the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season preview issue of RACER magazine.
It’s not hard to find parallels: Two guys with histories of being quick around Indianapolis, large trophy collections, shared passions, long stories and short fuses. An ironman, and a man of iron.
But the strongest bonds between A.J. Foyt and Tony Kanaan are the ones that brought the veteran Brazilian into the legendary Texan’s employ. Kanaan and AJ Foyt Racing are each looking to reset after frustrating 2017 campaigns –
and longer term, they’re both looking to add another successful chapter to their respective stories at the Brickyard.
“We’d been talking for the past two or three years, and it finally worked out where he was open and we were open, so we put it together,” says Foyt. “Tony’s been here in IndyCar for a few years, so he knows his way around.”
The Indy 500’s first four-time winner has spent decades refining his list of desirable qualities in a racer, and Kanaan suspects he might have shown up on Foyt’s radar because “Super Tex” sees a lot of himself in his new lead driver.
“One of the things A.J. told me when we were talking over the years, even before I signed with him, is that he sees a lot of resemblance between me and the way he was in the past,” Kanaan says. “A pure racer, I can get hot-headed pretty quick, I’m very outspoken – you’ll know whether I like you or not right away. And that’s A.J., too, right? So, personality-wise, we’re probably very similar. He respects me, I respect him.”
It’s tempting to wonder how that mutual respect might have manifested itself had the pair ever competed wheel to wheel. Foyt has little doubt which era he’d prefer to see Kanaan in from a safety standpoint. “These cars today are about 1,000 percent safer,” he says. “That’s a good thing. We carried about 75 gallons of fuel, and if you made a mistake it was like a bomb. Now you carry 18 gallons. Hell of a difference.”
But how about pure speed? What kind of threat might Kanaan have posed to Foyt’s victory tally had he been racing in the 1960s or ’70s? “That’s hard to say,” grins Foyt diplomatically.
“Yeah, hard to tell,” echoes Kanaan. “But according to him, I’d have been a badass – in his words – back then.”
Despite his own vast store of experience, Kanaan views Foyt not merely as a boss, but as a resource.
“He’s been retired for a long time, but there are some basics in racing that don’t change,” says the 2004 IndyCar Series champ and ’13 Indy 50 winner. “He sits on my pitstand, and at the test at Phoenix he’d say, ‘Back in the day, this is what worked.’ And you’ll think, ‘Yeah, good point,’ and I’ll go and tell my engineer. So there are a lot of things that I can benefit from, for sure.”
That’s good news for Foyt, because for all the mutual admiration between he and his new star driver, the reality is that a happy and fast Kanaan is the first step in a masterplan. In the short term, Kanaan’s role is to refocus a team that was in danger of losing direction, and also to flatten the learning curve for Matheus Leist, the rapid rookie and fellow Brazilian with whom he’ll share the garage. Tick those boxes, and only then will all that combined experience and energy be channeled toward performance targets.
“The first thing is to turn the team around,” Kanaan says. “Before we can say we’re ready to go out and win, A.J. knows better than anybody exactly what we need to achieve. My commitment to him was to help rebuild this team as fast as we can, because racing doesn’t wait. And then we go and concentrate on our strengths in the first year; the second year we go for everything. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Anyone who saw the smile on Foyt’s face at the pre-season Phoenix test, where both cars showed encouraging pace, can tell he senses his team is on an upward swing. ”We’re working at it,” he says. “We’ve got some good people, and when you go racing, you never know what’s going to happen. I won a lot of races I shouldn’t have, and lost a lot that I should have won. That’s racing.”