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

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Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

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.”