Tony Kanaan may be 43 now, but he’s acting as if he’s 23.
The veteran IndyCar driver has been re-energized and reinvigorated with his off-season move to A.J. Foyt Racing.
Sure, this is his 21st season in Indy car competition, but Kanaan feels he’s in the right place and the right situation to not only regain some of his luster of old, but also to help turn around a team that has struggled for far too long.
“I’ve driven for a number of big names, including Michael Andretti and Chip Ganassi,” Kanaan told MotorSportsTalk. “Now, to drive for A.J., it’s been a dream come true, to be honest.
“I’m going to be one of the few drivers that can say how many motor racing legends I’ve driven for in my life. With A.J., it’s been a great experience – extremely colorful at times, I should say, because he’s A.J. (he said with a laugh).
“The best way to put it is at this stage of my career, it’s really cool I got to do this. Obviously, there are a lot more things that have to come with it, like being successful and making the team successful, but this is one of those things that I can really say, ‘Man, this is really cool that I got to do it.’”
Kanaan moved to A.J. Foyt Racing after his contract expired with Chip Ganassi Racing, for whom he had raced for the previous four seasons.
It was a tough cut for Ganassi, but he had to trim his four-team organization to just two for 2018. Some observers felt that could be the end of the road for Kanaan, who hasn’t won a race since 2014.
But Foyt threw the veteran driver from Brazil a lifeline, knowing that Kanaan could bring a great deal to the team, particularly since Kanaan has been one of the most consistent drivers in IndyCar over the years.
From 2003 through 2017, Kanaan won one championship (2004), the Indianapolis 500 (2013), finished six times in the top-five, eight other times in the top-10 and has never finished lower than 11th (including last season).
Foyt felt Kanaan still had a lot of tread left on his tires and signed him to a multi-year deal. Not only would it be good for the team to have a former champion as a motivator, he also would serve as a great mentor to young teammate and fellow Brazilian Matheus Leist (photo above), who is 19.
The pair clicked immediately, which could immediately be seen in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Kanaan and Leist were consistently among the top runners in practice and qualifying and showed great promise heading into the race.
Unfortunately, Leist got into an early crash, ending his day (finished 24th), but Kanaan soldiered on to an 11th place finish.
It was the latest chapter in the evolution of A.J. Foyt Racing. The team made a concerted effort in the offseason to not only bring in Kanaan and Leist, but invested a significant amount of capital to not only grow the organization, but to improve equipment and expand behind the scenes personnel.
All for one very big reason.
“The expectations are high, but we have to keep our feet on the ground,” Kanaan said. “As soon as I joined the team, one of the first things I told A.J. is ‘we have to turn this situation around.’
“He wasn’t happy with the results, the team wasn’t doing well, we brought a bunch of new people in, it was a huge change. But huge changes sometimes take times.
“We performed as good as we wanted to do and as we expected in the first race in practice and qualifying at least. Obviously, we can’t predict what’s going to happen in the race, racing is racing, but the expectations are high.”
Kanaan welcomes the challenge to bring the Foyt organization back to prominence. It’s been a long time coming, indeed: the last driver for Foyt to finish in the top 10 was another Brazilian driver, Airton Dare, who ended up ninth in 2002.
“For this year, my goal is to get a couple podium finishes, maybe a race win, but if we finish in the top eight in the championship, that’ll be a huge improvement from last year,” Kanaan said.
By comparison, Foyt’s two drivers in 2017 struggled. Carlos Munoz finished 16th in the final standings, while Conor Daly was 18th.
But Kanaan is also realistic. He knows he and Leist aren’t going to turn things around overnight.
“You can’t expect in IndyCar, with all the good teams and good drivers, you can’t say we’re going to come in and dominate in one year,” Kanaan said. “It’s going to take time.
“But as long as we’re moving forward and keep improving, that’s what A.J. wants and that’s what we need to do.”
His overall performance at St. Petersburg has Kanaan especially looking forward to the next two races.
In five career starts at ISM Raceway in suburban Phoenix, Kanaan has two wins (2003 and 2004), three podiums and one pole, along with an outstanding average finish of 3.0 (he’s never finished lower than sixth, which came in last year’s race).
“Phoenix is a race that I’ve done well at so many times,” Kanaan said. “We had a great test in February, so I’m expecting a lot of good things coming out there.”
His record at Long Beach hasn’t been as successful, with just one podium finish (third in 2009). But in nine overall starts on the popular street course, Kanaan – who finished 15th there last year, one lap down – has four top-fives and two other top-10s.
“Long Beach is always a fun place to go, a beautiful place to race, it’s a race that is extremely popular,” Kanaan said. “It’s the beginning of the championship that you want to start off on the right foot, so I’m expecting big things and good results at both races.
“We already had a pretty strong first race weekend, so we’re going to try and keep the momentum going.”
Kanaan is also quick to point out that he’s looking forward to spending several more seasons in IndyCar with Foyt because of the momentum the series has right now.
“You see how many more new teams we have, how many more new sponsors and our new TV package (with NBC from 2019-2021) is great for the future now,” Kanaan said. “We’ve survived and IndyCar is on the upswing, big-time, for sure. That’s what I see.”