Tony Kanaan asks himself and his AJ Foyt Racing team a constant question as the Brazilian driver prepares for a new NTT IndyCar Series season.
“What is our reality?” he said.
As a 44-year-old Brazilian driver who has won 17 career races including the 2013 Indianapolis 500 as well as a 2004 series title, Kanaan has experienced everything in Indy car racing. He’s made a record 300 consecutive starts, too.
That wealth of experience means Kanaan – the oldest driver in the series – doesn’t kid himself about 2019 expectations. Progress was slower than he expected in his first year with Foyt and 21st in Indy cars. He accepts that his team, which includes young Brazilian Matheus "Matt" Leist as his teammate, isn’t in a position to contend for a championship.
But Kanaan was quick at last year’s Indianapolis 500, where his No. 14 ABC Supply Chevrolet qualified 10th and had the pace to run with the fastest cars. And nobody needs to be reminded what that race means to team owner Foyt, the legendary four-time winner of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
“For my boss, that’s all he cares about,” Kanaan said. “That’s the guy who lived at that place and where he made his name. I could not finish a single race this year, and if we win the 500, that would be enough for him. Same goal, right?
“We’re fully aware that right now we’re not in the position to go fight for a championship. We’re going to be extremely realistic. It’s not our reality. It can be, so we focus on the 500.”
Inevitably, Kanaan senses doubt around the paddock about his ability to win at a seasoned age with a team that hasn’t been consistently strong. But he’s always confident that it can turn around. And that age thing? It’s just a number.
“I think the mistake that I made in my career is you count your days. You’d say, ‘By then, I’ll probably be done,’” Kanaan said. “The best line I’ve ever heard was when I signed with A.J. and he said, ‘I drove until I was 58, so what are you talking about being old?’ I’m 44, so I guess in his mind I’ve still got 14 years to go.”
Kanaan finished 16th in the points last year, his lowest standing since the 2000 CART season. His best race results were at sixth at Toronto, seventh in the second weekend race at Detroit and a pair of eighths at Phoenix and Long Beach.
“A lot of work is being done,” Kanaan said. “Obviously we struggled quite a bit last year. The challenge when I signed with A.J. was to make this team better. It’s not an easy task, especially with the competition nowadays. It’s a lot slower process than I thought it would be. The biggest key for me is to keep digging and being patient, which racing is not a very forgiving sport to be patient in when it’s all about results, what are you doing and how good you do and status.”
Kanaan moved his family from Miami to Indianapolis so he could be more hands-on in the team's Speedway, Indiana, shop. He’s upbeat and confident, hoping that rubs off on his team.
“The second year, we’ll try to be better,” he said. “It’s not an excuse, it’s a reality that we have. There’s a lot of new teams coming up, so we’ve got to step up. You’re not just fighting the top three big teams nowadays, you’re fighting everybody. So you become the seventh or eighth or ninth, and those teams have two, three or four cars, and all of a sudden you’re 16th, 17th and 18th.
“Every day at the racetrack that we don’t do as well as I think we should be doing, we have to reset and wake up and say, ‘This is my reality now, and you have to accept it.’”
He’s honest about the limitations at times in what the car or his team can accomplish. The daily goal is to make the most out of what they have.
“Like every year, you’ve got to be hopeful, you’ve got to think positive and you’ve got to keep digging,” Kanaan said.
The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season begins this week with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Kanaan has six career podium finishes on the St. Pete course that utilizes city streets and a runway of Albert Whitted Airport.
A pair of Friday practices (10:45 a.m. and 2:20 p.m. ET) and a Saturday morning practice (10:25 a.m.) will stream live on INDYCAR Pass, the direct-to-consumer product from NBC Sports Gold. Sign up for INDYCAR Pass at the discounted yearlong price of $49.00 by March 10.
NTT P1 Award qualifying, consisting of three knockout rounds concluding with the Firestone Fast Six, begins at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and airs live on NBCSN and INDYCAR Pass. The 110-lap Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg airs live Sunday on NBCSN (12:30 p.m.) and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network (1 p.m.).