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IndyCar 2016 driver review: Max Chilton

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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series driver-by-driver lineup. In 19th place and the third-ranked rookie this season, was Chip Ganassi Racing’s Max Chilton.

Max Chilton, No. 8 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet

  • 2015: Indy Lights
  • 2016: 19th Place, Best Finish 7th, Best Start 4th, 0 Top-5, 2 Top-10, 2 Laps Led, 13.9 Avg. Start, 16.1 Avg. Finish

Max Chilton seemed to combine the 2015 seasons of Sage Karam, his predecessor at Chip Ganassi Racing, and James Jakes, a fellow Brit who made it over to IndyCar, in his maiden season in IndyCar. It wasn’t particularly memorable, it fell short of expectations, but yet it wasn’t as bad as it seemed – it was just made worse by the fact in a super deep 22-car field, someone has to finish 19th in points.

Like Karam, where Chilton actually did best was on the ovals. He starred early at Phoenix, followed up his Iowa Indy Lights win with a career-best qualifying of fourth (but spun out of the race), did a solid job at Indy to bounce back from a qualifying day crash and made it through his first go-around at Pocono and Texas by finishing both.

Where he was underwhelming and probably underachieved – I’d imagine by his own estimation as well as mine – was on the permanent road courses that should have been his bread and butter. I’d have expected more than one Firestone Fast Six run, and at least one or two podiums. Instead, it took until Watkins Glen for him to even get his first – and only – top-10 result on said course this year. Whether it was poor luck, poor strategy, poor pit stops or a combination of the above Chilton was never in the frame as much as you would have thought.

The nadir of his year was Detroit, a double DNF weekend where a steering rack broke in race one and he was caught up in another accident on the opening lap of race two. Otherwise, the usually safe pair of hands didn’t have another DNF all season.

Chilton’s a likable guy once you get to know him. He has a good wit, a solid sense of humor and doesn’t take himself too seriously. His IndyCar-aoke routine with Matthew Brabham going into Indianapolis was a funny moment. He quickly established a good working rapport with the Ganassi team and worked to soak up every fiber of information he learned from Dario Franchitti, which was a canny move. He also appreciated the level of competition in IndyCar; qualifying well is a sign here of your ability level, and this was an opportunity he was never afforded in F1 owing to the machinery deficit.

He and I joked throughout the year about our propensity for bumping into each other in airports – usually his “adopted U.S. home of Chicago O’Hare” – but I wonder if a more permanent move to Indianapolis this year might have helped him.

I’d like to see him back, though, because he has the ability level, he’s a good teammate – that was witnessed not just at Ganassi but also with his support for his Indy Lights team, Carlin, throughout the year – and he does want to get better.

Tony Kanaan’s “New Reality” in IndyCar

Photo by Stephen King, INDYCAR
Stephen King, INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Tony Kanaan is one of the most popular drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series from the fans who love his aggressive racing style and his fearless attitude. His team owner is the most popular man in the history of Indianapolis 500 – the legendary AJ Foyt, the first driver to win the famed race four times in his career.

In 2019, this combination would rather win races than popularity contests.

Kanaan has won 17 races in his career but hasn’t been to Victory Lane since a win at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California when he was driving for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014. He left Ganassi’s team following the 2017 and joined Foyt’s operation last season.

Foyt always admired Kanaan’s attitude and racing style because it reminded him of his own attitude behind the wheel of a race car. But in 2018, the combination struggled. Kanaan led just 20 laps for the season and finished 16thin the IndyCar Series points race.

“A lot of work has been done because obviously, we struggled quite a bit last year,” Kanaan admitted. “That was the challenge when I signed with AJ was to try to make this team better. It is not an easy task, especially with the competition nowadays.

“It’s a lot slower process than I thought it would be.”

Kanaan believes the biggest keys for him is to “keep digging and be patient.” But he’s also in a results-driven business.

The driver called it a long winter, but he has helped lure some of his racing friends to the team to help improve the two-car operation that also includes young Brazilian Matheus Leist.

At 84, Foyt still has control over the operation, but has turned the day-to-day duties over to his son, Larry. Just last week, the team hired Scott Harner as the team’s vice president of operations. Harner was in charge of Kanaan’s car when both were at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“The second year, we are trying to be better,” Kanaan said. “It’s not an excuse, it’s the reality we have. There are a lot of new teams coming along so we have to step up. Otherwise, we aren’t fighting the Big 3 teams, we are fighting everybody.

“We are working on it. I like the way we are heading. AJ has been extremely open to my ideas.”

Kanaan has moved his family from Miami to Indianapolis to be near the race team’s shop. The team also has another race shop in Waller, Texas and that is where Leist’s car is prepared.

Although Kanaan doesn’t believe it’s ideal to have two different racing facilities, he believes being closer to his team will help build a more cohesive unit for this season.

At one time, Kanaan would show up at the track with a car that could win the race. No longer in that situation, he has had to readjust his goals.

“The biggest challenge is to accept that and understand your limits on equipment and on the people that you have,” Kanaan said. “Being on some of the teams that I’ve been on in the past, with four-car teams and engineers and all the resources you can get and the budget; then to come to a team with limited resources, I have to self-check all the time. With that, comes a lot of pressure as well and block out people’s opinions like, ‘Oh, he’s old or he’s washed up or the team is not good.’

“You need to shield that from your guys, because psychologically, that gets to you. You need people to work well, even if you have a car that is going to finish 15th.

“What is our reality? Racing can be lucky, but we try to make goals. We are greedy, we try to improve, but we are trying to be realistic. I have to re-set and understand this is my reality now, and I have to accept it.”

At 44, Kanaan is the oldest driver in the IndyCar. The 2004 IndyCar Series champion won the Indianapolis 500 in 2013 and if his career ended this year, it would be one of the greatest of his era.

But Kanaan isn’t ready to call it an “era.” He has more he wants to accomplish.

“The mistake I have made in my career is counting your days,” Kanaan said. “The best line I ever heard is when I signed with AJ, he told me he drove until he was 58, so why am I talking about getting old?

“In his mind, I still have 14 years to go.”

There remains one race, more than any other, that Kanaan’s boss wants to win. It’s the one that made Foyt famous.

“For my boss, winning the Indianapolis 500 is all he cares,” Kanaan said. “I could not finish a single race this year and if I win the Indy 500, that would be enough for him.

“We are not in a position to win a championship and I accept that. So, we focus on the Indianapolis 500. We had an awesome car last year and were the fastest on the second day.”

Foyt and Kanaan believe success at Indy may be in the numbers.

“AJ is all about numbers and his number was 14,” Kanaan said. “He found out Dallara was making chassis No. 14 at the end of the year. AJ bought that chassis and said that is the one we are going to race at the Indy 500. I’m not allowed to drive that car until Opening Day at the Indianapolis 500.

“That’s how big the boss is about the Indy 500.”