There wasn’t enough money for housing. The slim budget to send him away from home and family for the first time to race in Italy would only cover the racing, so he slept on the shop floor. Unfamiliar with American customs, he rode his bicycle to his new team’s Ohio base in the dead of winter. Not on surface streets, of course. On the icy highway.
At risk of losing his European junior open-wheel seat and flaming out, three-time Formula 1 world champion Ayrton Senna paid the team owner a visit and proclaimed ‘He’s better than I am.’ Seat secured. He ate fried monstrosities at the Indiana State Fair with Robin Miller. Multiple times. And lived to tell about it. He became known as our Iron Man, not only for his penchant for grueling triathlons, but for his streak of consecutive starts. Already the favorite adopted son of the Midwest, he won the 2013 Indianapolis 500 and became an icon.
And now, after a few starts and stops, Tony Kanaan’s Last Lap will reach its conclusion in May with Arrow McLaren when the Brazilian contests his 390th and final race.
“When he talked about retiring the first time, I don’t honestly think he was ready, but there weren’t a lot of great options in front of him so I kind of understood,” Kanaan’s close friend Dario Franchitti tells RACER. “But then he got this chance with us [at Ganassi, in 2021] and he worked his ass off and showed there was a lot of life left in the old dog. And then last year, he easily could have won the 500, and he’s with a different team now, but this year’s no different.
“As his friend, I’m kind of glad he’s going out in style. But at the same time, I’ll be sad not to see him again in IndyCar. Although, let’s be honest. It’s T.K. — you never know what he’s going to do. This is, after all, the second time he’s said he’s retiring. There could always be a third!”
Fresh to North America and the Indy Lights series in 1996, Kanaan arrived with prodigious talent and a personality to match. By the time he reached the CART IndyCar Series in 1998, a certain Scot — new to CART the year before — found a boisterous and kindred spirit to embrace.
“My introduction to T.K., long before we became teammates, was as a kid that just came out of Indy Lights,” Franchitti says. “And he just had that massive personality; he’s just very hard not to like. He became an instant part of our group in very early days and he makes me laugh, but he’s a hell of a competitor.
“So in that situation, nobody’s sunshine and rainbows the whole time. But he pretty much is, and when we became teammates, he had a great trust. That was one of the things we had, I think, from day one. I knew if I helped him in a race, if roles were reversed, he’d do the same. That really became the case at Andretti in ’04 when he won the championship, and when I was running for the championship in ’07, he paid back the favors I did him in ’04. And then even when we weren’t teammates, we would gang up on people on the track!
“It was an odd relationship from the point of view that we wanted to beat each other, but we always went above and beyond to take care of each other, regardless of what team we were on. You know, Scott Dixon and I are incredibly close off the track, but on the track, I was always well aware that his number one goal was he was there to win. It was a slightly different relationship with Scott, and it wasn’t about favors like T.K. and I.”
The three-time Indy 500 winner likes his pal’s chances in May when he straps into the No. 66 Chevy.
“He’s always that guy that can pull something out of the bag,” Franchitti says. “I know one thing — if he takes the lead, you’ll be able to hear it in outer space because the cheers will be so loud. This is not a guy that is just showing up here for a paycheck. This is a guy that’s hungry and this is a guy that could win. He still has the ability. And keep the Kleenex nearby. I gotta imagine there’s not going to be a lot of dry eyes in the house.”
With Kanaan’s final IndyCar outing on the horizon, there’s also a sense of sorrow — an end of an era — for some of us who were involved in CART in the late 1990s when vibrant and playful “Brat Pack” held our imaginations.
Veteran photographer Michael Levitt captured iconic photos of the quartet with Max Papis, Kanaan, Franchitti and ring leader Greg Moore on their scooters, and with his farewell announcement, it wasn’t lost on Kanaan or Franchitti of how the upcoming Indy 500 will also mark the final lap for the four brothers.
Papis retired from driving in 2015. Franchitti, forced out of the cockpit due to injury, retired in 2013. And Moore, lost in a crash at the 1999 CART finale, has been at rest for more than 20 years. It leaves Kanaan and 500 miles of immense possibilities to close the chapter for the foursome.
“He sent me a text that said, ‘I guess I’m the last of us,’” Franchitti says. “That made me proud of him in one way, and that made me sad the other way. But we can’t race forever, can we? When he gets to that last lap, you’ll be crying and I’m sure I’m sure Papis will be crying. I’ll be keeping my sunglasses on. I mean, he is universally popular with the fans, with the drivers, young and old. Everybody loves the guy.
“He’s never forgotten where he came from and what he had to do to get where he is. That’s why he’s the same guy with the same attitude; he’s never been afraid to be the butt of the joke or to have fun with people. He’s gone about his career and life in such a great way. And people love him for it.”
I feel bad for the other 32 starters at the Indy 500. They don’t stand a chance at the driver introductions or once the race gets underway. Indiana’s adopted son. A boy who made his name in the heartland, spoke to the greater Indianapolis area on a nightly basis as a TV co-host during the month of May, became one of their own. What a gift we’ve been given all these years with a son who’s spent his life trying to make his late father proud and achieved far more than they could have dreamed.