GLENDALE, Arizona – It wasn’t that long ago, 10 months to be precise, that Brazilian buddies Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves were honored in Phoenix for two decades of Indy car racing excellence.
As Verizon IndyCar Series teams return to this area for preseason testing this week, there’s just T.K.
It’s an odd feeling not seeing the energetic Castroneves, who is driving sports cars for Roger Penske on a full-time basis but will return to the Verizon IndyCar Series in May for the two races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“Yeah, I kind of feel left alone here,” Kanaan admitted during Wednesday’s INDYCAR media day ahead of the series' open test today and Saturday at nearby ISM Raceway in Avondale. “We knew that time was going to come at some point. Too bad he’s not here still. It’s all good, man. We had great years together. Now he’s obviously doing something that he’s having a lot of fun.”
Kanaan is still going at 43 because he landed a multiyear contract with AJ Foyt Racing to drive the No. 14 ABC Supply Chevrolet. He intends to reward his 83-year-old legendary boss by boosting the relevance of a team that has one series victory since 2003.
But what of the inevitable big picture for Kanaan? Although they will race against each other again in May, when Castroneves returns to Team Penske to try for a fourth Indianapolis 500 victory, is his absence from the regular routine a reminder that Kanaan’s career is nearing an end?
“I’m living in the moment,” Kanaan said, smiling. “We have a big challenge ahead of us on the team, trying to step it up and give them the results that they deserve. For me, I really don’t think too much about it. When it’s time, it’s going to be time. Hopefully it will be on my terms and not somebody else’s terms.”
That said, he’s human. It’s not like he can block out the reality.
“It’s not that I don’t think about it,” Kanaan said. “But whatever I say now, it’s so unpredictable. If it’s going to be next year, two years from now, three years, you never know. It’s so hard to make a prediction like that.”
Whereas Castroneves has enjoyed a celebrated career with 30 Indy car victories, which ranks 12th on the all-time list, and most notably the Indy 500 triumphs in 2001, ‘02 and ‘09, Kanaan has savored his share of success, too. The highlight in his 17-win resume is a 2013 Indy 500 triumph, but he also achieved something that his friend didn’t: a 2004 Verizon IndyCar Series championship.
The competitors since childhood have teased each other about their respective accomplishments. Castroneves liked to contend that Kanaan would give up that series title for another Indy 500 win or two. Kanaan would counter that Castroneves wanted nothing more than a series title, even at the expense of an Indy 500 win or two.
Both, of course, denied the other’s assertion. Even before last year’s Phoenix ceremony, where they were roasted and toasted with tributes and video recaps of their careers, they laughed about their differing opinions on resume comparisons.
“Every year, once in a while somebody would want to talk to us about the rivalry,” Kanaan said. “We’ve been here for so long. We’re still talking about it but now he’s not here.”
If nothing else, Kanaan still acts like he’s young at heart. He impersonated his 19-year-old Brazilian rookie teammate Matheus Leist by donning a thick, curly wig on Wednesday to mimic Leist’s hairstyle (see the video below supplied by NBCSN reporter Katie Hargitt). When he walked from room to room for interviews and photos, Kanaan asked about his snug new white racing suit – “Does it make me look fat?”
Truth is, he looks and feels good and is confident his driving skills are still sharp.
“The day that one of those things kind of falls off, then it might be time for me to think about (retiring),” he said. “For now, I’m ready to go.”
Last season, Foyt’s team had one top-five finish in 35 starts among three cars (Conor Daly placed fifth at Watkins Glen). The year before, the best results in 34 starts were a pair of fifths by Takuma Sato.
Kanaan, in his final season of four years with Chip Ganassi Racing, finished second at Texas, fifth in the Indianapolis 500 and fifth at Pocono in 2017. He’s convinced he can change Foyt’s fortunes.
“That’s why we accept this challenge,” Kanaan said. “The No. 14 car and the history A.J. has as a four-time Indy 500 winner. Can you imagine? I can’t. Sometimes I can’t even think about that. I will work as hard as I can to make him proud and bring that name that was so successful in racing when he was racing, to make it successful as a team owner.
“I’m not here just to make it to the grid. I’m here to win. We’ll try everything we can.”
As he mentors the rookie Leist, Kanaan is reminded of lessons learned from his lengthy career. The kid will get used to being told to “chill” because Kanaan has developed an enlightened perspective on what’s important and what isn’t.
How much longer will he drive? That’s not something to worry about.
“I don’t anticipate things anymore or get anxious,” Kanaan said. “I worry about things that I can control, not the things that I can’t. Before, you would worry about things you don’t know. Who’s going to be good? What’s going to happen? What about this or that? You just waste time.”
However much time he has left, Kanaan won’t waste it.