The respect held for veteran IndyCar race engineer Michael Cannon was on display after his driver, Scott Dixon, became a six-time title winner for Chip Ganassi Racing on Sunday by beating Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden in a thrilling showdown at St. Petersburg. Among the first to congratulate the son of Canadian Formula 1, Can-Am, and Formula 5000 driver John Cannon, was a rival both old and new.
“To get a kudos from Roger Penske, that means the world to you,” Cannon told RACER. “And I’ve been around this long enough to remember when dad and Roger used to race together, so it’s kind of neat.”
Having gotten his start in racing at home in Formula Fords under a fake name in the 1980s, Cannon moved to the U.S. and worked his way up the open-wheel ladder as a mechanic and race engineer before joining Players Forsythe Racing in 2000. Despite stops with the biggest and smallest teams in the intervening years, and coming close to the 2006 Champ Car title with A.J. Allmendinger, Cannon’s title with Dixon is his first in IndyCar.
“I’m vastly relieved,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to come into a team this good and ply your trade and have it pay off. Terrific. Very satisfying. Honestly, given the resources, and I’m talking about the people they have in place here at Ganassi, there was no reason you weren’t going to win the championship with Scott. It’s as simple as that. I mean, they did a little bit of restructuring, I did a little bit of it, but they just put so many right people in the right places.”
Among his various stops in the paddock, Cannon has mentored countless junior engineers who’ve gone on to race engineering roles. He’s also provided a fountain of humor and wisdom, as evidenced by his backwards way of acknowledging how championship-caliber success is not promised to anyone in the sport.
“So I started with Patrick Carpentier in 2000, was the assistant engineer there for two years, and it was funny; went to Homestead, which was the first race of the year, we did the first practice session where we were P1, and we’re like ‘Hell, there’s not much to this.; It was last time we were P1 that entire year…” he said with a laugh.
“But we managed to get him his first race at Michigan the following year, and got him a couple in Ohio and Cleveland the following year after that. And then Paul Tracy came along, and that also went pretty swimmingly in 2003 when we won the championship where I helped a lot, but yeah, this is my first as the lead engineer. You work your entire life for something like this.”
— Chip Ganassi Racing (@CGRTeams) October 25, 2020
Cannon has worked with an array of amazing drivers. Teaming up with Dixon in the offseason showed the new engineer of the No. 9 Honda someone and something different was in his presence.
“He’s just so flawless in so many ways, and he was just totally dedicated to this business of racing,” he said. “Very calm, nothing’s ever a problem. He and I speak very, very little, and I think it’s because we both effectively started in IndyCar at the same time, 20 years ago. I mean, he’s seen so many things and so many situations that really, sometimes, just to look across the table, we’ve pretty much said everything that we need to say to each other.
“I’m sure it was the same with when he was working with Chris Simmons, and Eric Bretzman. They had plenty of success as a group there long before I arrived here. Scott’s very unflappable. Very matter of fact guy. Very easy to work for.”
The road to the championship wasn’t always an easy endeavor for Cannon and Dixon. A few misses on chassis setup late in the season, and a rare mistake or two from the new six-timer, saw a comfortable lead in the Drivers’ standing take hit after hit leading into St. Petersburg.
“I know, it’s very, very frustrating, because you would do a practice session, and you’d be generally really happy with the car, and then something, we’d just have a minor hiccup, and often, the series is so competitive, it doesn’t take much to hurt yourself,” Cannon added. “And in Mid-Ohio, we made a mistake in qualifying with what we were doing with the tires, and we’ve paid the price there. At the Indy road circuit, we thought we were good in the practice session, then we went to qualify, we’re like, ‘oh my goodness, this thing really doesn’t like this cold air!’ And yeah, you can’t panic, you just have to figure out okay, how are we going to fix the damage we’ve managed to inflict on ourselves?
“Now there was the same thing here. (On Saturday) we were really struggling with a brake issue in the first practice, and we didn’t know what it was, and we didn’t want to go into qualifying with a mystery set of brakes, so we endured that yesterday. Swapped everything on the brake system last night, and went out in the morning warmup and the car was terrific. So it’s frustrating, but you just work through it, and here we are.”
Standing on pit lane in Sebring a few years ago during pre-season testing, Cannon contemplated his future in the sport, and asked whether it was time to retire. Thankfully, with his finest body of work culminating in four wins and yet another championship for Dixon and CGR, one of the old, wise heads on pit lane was rewarded for his perseverance.
“Everybody’s been very, very kind,” he said of the Penskes and others who offered congratulations after the harrowing race. “Yeah, I’ve been around some sidewalks, and have worked with the majority of these people in the series, and everybody’s been lovely. Such a wonderful day for all of us.”