Tony Kanaan What's next
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Tony Kanaan looks toward 2021 with eye on driving, media and coaching

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Tony Kanaan doesn’t think he has started his last NTT IndyCar Series race, but he also knows the decision on what’s next isn’t entirely up to him.

“I want to come back, but that doesn’t mean anything,” Kanaan said Saturday before qualifying at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway. “Me wanting something doesn’t mean that’s what is going to happen. I still have to find a car and find a sponsor.

“I’ll have the whole winter toward finding a ride and a sponsor that might give me a chance to run again. If not, I’m OK with it. I had an awesome run.”

The 2004 series champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner treated a 19th-place finish Sunday as if his 383rd start were the finale of a 23-year run as an IndyCar driver.

With 17 victories and 15 pole positions in 383 starts (ranking second all time to Mario Andretti’s 407), Kanaan isn’t ready to say goodbye after hardly getting the chance during his “Last Lap” season that was marred by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“I definitely want to come back after a weird year for all of us, so it’s going to take a lot of work, which I don’t mind,” Kanaan said last month on Indy 500 qualifying weekend. “I’ve done it before. I’m going to regroup with my sponsors to see what we can come up with. I’m probably in a good position if I can gather the funds and say, ‘All right, where am I going to go?’ ”

Tony Kanaan jokingly tried to fit a mask last month on his sculpted bust from his 2013 Indy 500 victory on the Borg-Warner Trophy, which he also outfitted with its own mask (Photos by Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports).
(Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports)

Kanaan expects to spend the next two months knocking on doors to cobble together a budget that he then can shop to teams for at least racing in the 105th Indy 500 in May. The meetings about his ’21 prospects began this week.

“I have not talked to any teams yet,” he said. “I think the best approach was going to be let’s see what kind of money I can raise, then I can go talk to the teams. I think all my sponsors are on board as far as wanting to talk to see what extent they can do something, if they can do something. The next two weeks I probably will know something, then we’ll start talking. But we’ll see. It’s going to be really hard.”

His goals are flexible – anywhere from a one-off Indy 500 start to the five ovals he had planned to run in ’20. He is “100 percent certain” it won’t be a full season.

The primary objective is a proper farewell that will allow the interaction with fans that the popular Brazilian was robbed of enjoying during this star-crossed season, which also saw the end of his record streak of 318 consecutive starts.

“We had so many plans to do it with the fans,” he said. “I hinted at (racing in 2021) and got bombarded by my fans that I need to do this, so the response was pretty cool.”

Tony Kanaan prepares to race the No. 14 Dallara-Chevrolet at World Wide Technology Raceway last weekend, his final starts of the 2020 IndyCar season (James Black/IndyCar).

His ideal schedule would be at least 10 races – five in IndyCar, plus the inaugural season in the Superstar Racing Experience series started by Ray Evenrham and Tony Stewart. Kanaan signed a letter of intent in mid-August with the series and jokes “there is life beyond IndyCar!” – and it might not be behind the wheel. He has plans to branch out into media (he has dabbled in Indy Lights broadcasting).

“I have a lot of talks to do some commentary and podcasts,” Kanaan said. “That would be something I’d be really interested in doing. I’m not the type of a guy who says I need the time off.”

He is intrigued by the idea of coaching two or three up and comers in the IndyCar ladder series — as he already was a natural mentor for teammates throughout his career.

“I’ve done that all my life literally in IndyCar,” said Kanaan, whose legendary dedication to workouts and ease with interviews provide a good foundaiton for teaching the rigors of a driver’s life off the track. “And I could help these kids, not just on the driving side, but to tell them, ‘This is how you should behave with the media. This is how to treat sponsors. You’re going to work your ass off every morning like I did.’ Just guide the kids. I haven’t talked to anybody, and I don’t have a kid in mind, but  I have plenty of time to look at the ladder series of IndyCar. That’s something I’d love to do.”

But of course, he’d love nothing more than to race again in IndyCar, too, particularly after feeling good about his six starts in 2020 with A.J. Foyt Racing. He was a season-best ninth Saturday at Gateway and was contending for a top 10 in the Indy 500 before a miscue on his last pit stop.

“It was a very consistent season, if I can call that a season,” he said. ““It was nothing like I had planned. I had a lot of plans to enjoy with the sponsors, the fans, everybody else. I would say the highlight was just to be a part of it. I had a good run. I made good friends.”

That was evident by the receiving line of team members and drivers who greeted Kanaan before what could be his final start.

“It was weird, man,” Kanaan said. “I mean, it was really tough. I wasn’t expecting that. I think I kind of had forgotten without the fans, I thought it was going to be a lot easier because there would be less people.

“It was tough. Especially when you have the adrenaline kicking in right before the race. You try to concentrate. I obviously got extremely emotional. But it’s nice. I didn’t expect that. I didn’t plan it. It was really cool.”

James Hinchcliffe on Andretti: ‘It’s certainly the place I want to be’

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Since before the start of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season, James Hinchcliffe tirelessly has worked to ensure the future would include a full-time return in 2021.

And with an opportunity to run the final three races this season with Andretti Autosport, there seems a surefire (albeit unlikely) path.

“If I go out and win all three,” Hinchcliffe joked with IndyCar on NBC announcer Leigh Diffey in an interview Friday (watch the video above), “it would be hard for them to say no, right?”

Regardless of whether he can go unbeaten at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course next weekend or the Oct. 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida (where he earned his first career win in 2013), Hinchcliffe will have the chance to improve his stock with the team that he knows well and now has an opening among its five cars for 2021.

All three of Hinchcliffe’s starts this season — the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, July 4 at the IMS road course and the Indianapolis 500 — were with Andretti, where he ran full time in IndyCar from 2012-14.

“Obviously, the plan from January 2020 was already working on ’21 and trying to be in a full-time program,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed being reunited with Andretti Autosport, and everybody there has been so supportive. It’s been a very fun year for me on track. It’s been kind of a breath of fresh air in a lot of ways.

“It’s certainly the place I want to be moving forward. We’ve been working on that, working on those conversations. Genesys has been an incredible partner in my three races. We’ll be representing Gainbridge primarily, but Genesys will still have a position on our car in the last three.”

Gainbridge is the primary sponsor of the No. 26 Dallara-Honda that was vacated by Zach Veach, who left the team after it was determined he wouldn’t return in 2021. Hinchcliffe can empathize having lost his ride with Arrow McLaren SP after last season with a year left on his deal.

“You never want to earn a ride at the expense of somebody else in the sense that has happened here with Zach,” Hinchcliffe said. “I feel bad that he’s not able to see out the last three races of his season. I’ve got a lot of respect for him off track. He’s been a teammate this year, a colleague for years before that and honestly a friend for years before that. I’ve got a lot of time for him and his family. I understand a little bit of what it’s like in that position and what he’s going through.”

Hinchcliffe is ready to seize the moment, though, starting with the Oct. 2-3 doubleheader race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had been hoping to add the Harvest Indy Grand Prix to his schedule and had been working out for the possibility.

“Then last week I had given up hope (and) was resigned that wasn’t happening,” he said. “I told my trainer, ‘I think we’re done for this year.’ Three days later, this call comes. I’m glad we didn’t make that decision too early. I feel great physically.

“I look at it as a great opportunity to continue to show I’ve still got what it takes and should be there hopefully full time next year on the grid.”

Watch Hinchliffe’s video with Leigh Diffey above or by clicking here.