Tony Kanaan is usually a pretty positive person, except during some rough qualifying sessions, but nothing could have prepared the 45-year-old veteran for the jaw-dropping change of fortune he’s received for the immediate future.
“It’s crazy. It happened so fast, all in three days, and it’s just surreal,” said Kanaan after being named to team with Jimmie Johnson for Chip Ganassi Racing in the 2021 IndyCar season. “People think this has been going on for a long time but it hasn’t, and it was such a pleasant surprise. It took a lot of work from different parties to make it work, but trust me, it was never obvious.”
The 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner had planned 2020 as a farewell tour with A.J. Foyt at all the ovals, but the pandemic took all the fun out of a goodbye along with most of his fans, since race attendance was either restricted or forbidden. Kanaan had a decent day at Indy and was running eighth before a late stop for fuel, but it certainly wasn’t how he wanted to end his 22-year career.
He proclaimed after the final oval at Gateway that he wanted to come back for at least one more Indy 500, but there were very few seats and even less demand for an old man that hasn’t won a race since 2014. Kanaan had been talking to Larry Foyt about returning for the ovals, but even though Ganassi needed someone to team with Johnson in the No.48 car, he’s never been big on bringing back drivers (except Dario Franchitti).
But even though T.K. only scored one victory during his tenure with Ganassi from 2014-2017, he still had two big sponsor allies on his side – NTT Data and Bryant Heating & Cooling – and the support of a seven-time NASCAR champion.
“Yeah, if it wasn’t for them and Chip, obviously this would not have happened,” said the 2004 IndyCar champion whose two-year contract also includes help from 7-Eleven and Big Machine.
“Bryant has been with me since 2003. NTT has been with me since I’ve joined Ganassi, and since I left Ganassi they came with me, as well, and now they’re back.
“And then Jimmie making that phone call. That phone call… you know those things that you remember exactly the day, the clothes you were wearing, where you were and so on? I was actually on my bike working out, which is not a surprise, here at home, and the phone rang, and it was Jimmie. I thought he was going to invite me to do a triathlon or something like that, and he popped the question, and I said, ‘are you joking? I don’t think we can pull this off’. But yeah, without the sponsors that would have never happened. And obviously Chip giving me the opportunity to come back.”
T.K. knows it’s a rare opportunity, not just to rejoin one of the best teams in North American motorsports, but getting a final fling at Indy with a real chance.
“I mean, how cool is that; know what I mean?” he enthuses. “I woke up this morning, I feel extremely lucky, man. I’m going to go back to a team with my best friend Dario Franchitti, my other best friend Scott Dixon, and now Jimmie. How cool is that to write a story afterwards when it’s all over? I feel blessed. I can’t thank everybody enough for pulling all this effort together, my family, my wife. She kind of knew that I wasn’t giving up. I guess she’s okay to put up with me for another couple years like that.
“And my fans drove my decision to come back, because it wasn’t fair to them. Never in a million years did I think I would come back for two more times, which became a pleasant surprise because then I give myself another caution that if it’s not sort of a normal year next year, then I have hopefully a normal year in 2022. But I’ve got a chance to redeem myself and give Chip another Indy win, and hopefully I will do that. It’s one of the best, of not the best, opportunities I’ve ever had.”