ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – Long considered INDYCAR’s iron man, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Tony Kanaan holds the reputation as one of the most physically fit and durable drivers in the sport.
In his 20th Indy car season, Kanaan holds the record for most consecutive races started – a streak that began 16 years ago today. Assuming he starts Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America, the Brazilian will notch his 275th straight start in his 336th overall race. The impressive run began June 24, 2001, on a soaking wet day at Portland International Raceway.
At the time, Kanaan was driving for Mo Nunn Racing alongside Alex Zanardi. Kanaan and Zanardi qualified 21st and 26th, respectively, and the race result was just as frustrating.
“I remember I did not finish that race,” Kanaan said. “I had just come back from an injury. I had a concussion in Detroit the week before (and did not start the race), so I was coming back. Actually, me and Zanardi crashed (on) Lap 1. It was raining pretty bad and we got caught in an accident on the first lap.”
Kanaan (shown at right in 2001) slipped off course at Turn 7 and collected his teammate after making contact with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Memo Gidley when returning to the track. It took all three out of the race. Kanaan was scored 24th in his worst finish of the season. Now 42, Kanaan has competed in every Indy car event he’s been scheduled to race since.
At the other end of the scoring pylon that day was Max Papis, Kanaan’s longtime friend who led 69 laps in a Team Rahal entry en route to his second career win on the soggy afternoon.
“I actually have a very clear memory of Portland,” recalled Papis. “We practiced in the dry and we qualified in the dry, and it was a bit of an upset (to win the pole). I remember at the end of the second qualifying session, I remember Tony and Alex coming over and congratulating me. I have an awesome picture with both of them.
“Then we woke up the next morning and it was a downpour. It basically rained from Lap 1 to the last lap. It was one of the most draining races that I’ve done.”
Papis, now an INDYCAR race steward, has enjoyed watching his buddy transform from an up-and-comer to one of the sport’s most beloved drivers. It started with an unpleasant moment two years before.
Kanaan’s first Indy car win came at Michigan International Speedway in 1999, when Papis dominated and looked certain to score his first career victory, but ran out of fuel on the last half of the last lap. Kanaan won by 0.032 of a second over Juan Pablo Montoya.
“Back then I had a bit of a mixed feeling because I was expecting a little different reaction from someone that is one of my best friends,” Papis said of Kanaan’s emotions after the Michigan race. “And from that day on to today, I’ve seen Tony becoming a complete person.
“He’s always been a super-fast driver,” Papis added. “He’s always been very intense, and now I can definitely see his development as a human being. I really see my friend as a complete person, where before, without racing I don’t think he would have been a complete person. Racing does not define who a guy is today, like it was 20 years ago. It just completed the person that he is, so it’s really special for me to see.”
Kanaan will make his 275th consecutive start on Sunday from 16th position in the No. 10 NTT Data Honda. The next-best streak is also current, with Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon set to start his 217th straight race in the KOHLER Grand Prix. Kanaan knows it wasn’t just skill that has kept him at the sport’s forefront for two decades.
“I’ve been extremely lucky since (Portland) – knock on wood – that we haven’t missed a race, or I’ve always kept my job,” he said. “I don’t keep count on how many races I run, but every race it goes, we keep extending the lead on the record. Pretty remarkable.”