Tony Kanaan on track Indy 500 practice

INDIANAPOLIS – As the sun rises, Tony Kanaan takes his first laps on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval with the local BGI Trek cycling club.

The 44-year-old Brazilian is an ironman in more ways than one — he’s started a record 305 consecutive Indy car races and still enjoys the triathlete training of riding a bicycle, running and swimming. These days, riding is a perfect stress relief for a proven racer who needs to keep his mind clear and not dwell on his 22nd-place points standing after five NTT IndyCar Series races this season.

Tony KanaanEven Kanaan admits his season has been frustrating, to say the least, but there’s something about being back at this track in the month of May that enables him to start anew. The 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner is always a contender in this race, and this year should be no exception — his No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet is one of the quickest cars on the no-tow list after three days of practice for the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 26.

“We had a very tough beginning to this season, but I’ve always been good here,” said Kanaan, who has eight top-five finishes in 17 career Indy 500 starts. “I had no doubt that we were going to be competitive. What that leads us to, I don’t know, but we’ve been strong. Overall, we’ve been in the top four in the no-tow. If that puts us in the Fast Nine (Shootout in qualifying), that’s awesome. I’m happy with my race car.

“I’ve been around this place a long time. I feel confident, and I feel comfortable.”

Kanaan rationalizes that his proven track record on the IMS oval is one of the biggest reasons Foyt hired him before 2018. In addition to his one Indy 500 victory while driving for KVSH Racing, Kanaan also has placed second, third twice, fourth twice and fifth twice in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Those who focus on Kanaan’s struggles on road and street courses should remember this race on the famed, high-speed, 2.5-mile oval is different. And it matters more than any other to the team boss as well as the driver. Foyt, the first four-time Indy 500 winner, reminded in the offseason, “You guys have got to be good at Indy.”

Scott Harner, recently hired to be Foyt’s vice president of operations, has known Kanaan for a long time – they worked together at Chip Ganassi Racing from 2014-17 – and is convinced the driver is as motivated now as he’s ever been. Kanaan said he doesn’t listen to doubters who suggest he’s over the hill. Neither does Harner.

Tony Kanaan and Scott Harner“I don’t see it that way,” Harner said. “I’m sure he’s heard that plenty. Nobody can stop Father Time. Nobody can. But I honestly believe he’s in the best shape of his life. He’s training harder than he ever has. He’s working on everything he can work on harder than ever. Do we need to be better as a team? Absolutely.

“We need to unload (at the start of a race weekend) better. Right now, we’re unloading and swinging and swinging and swinging. For the 500, a lot of our offseason stuff was obviously focused here. The changes have been really good, and Tony is comfortable. He thinks the car is fast. I think we’re OK.”

Teammate Matheus Leist provided a much-needed boost with a fourth-place finish in the INDYCAR Grand Prix last Saturday on the IMS road course, the best Foyt finish since Takuma Sato was second at Detroit in 2015. The best Kanaan finish this season has been 12th at Circuit of The Americas in March. That doesn't sit well with the 2004 series champion who expects to contend for race wins, but he still exudes confidence and positivity.

“It’s funny how he can still be so motivated and so into it after so many years,” the 20-year-old Leist said of his mentor. “Although we’ve struggled for much of the season, he’s always out there staying up late working with the team. He’s really, really dedicated to make this team go back to where it belongs, running in the top five.”

Leist is amazed by Kanaan’s daily routine. When the second-year series youngster showed up for a morning engineering meeting and asked Kanaan how he was doing, Kanaan advised that he had already worked out in the gym and completed a 50-mile bike ride. That’s a good start to a day by 9:30 a.m.

After they drove on track for much of a seven-hour practice session Wednesday, Leist wanted to debrief with Kanaan at his motorhome. When he entered, a sweaty Kanaan was furiously pedaling on a stationary bike. He had been riding for an hour already.

“You should have seen his eyes,” Kanaan said of Leist’s startled reaction.

The understudy coming off a career-best series performance couldn’t admire Kanaan more.

“I want to win as much as I want to see Tony winning again,” Leist said.

They were quick for last year’s Indy 500, qualifying 10th and 11th, before each encountered misfortune in the race as Leist finished 13th and Kanaan 25th. They expect to be quick again for qualifying this weekend, then be serious contenders on race day.

“I really don’t get affected by people’s comments. I obviously don’t like to hear them, but I’m not the type of guy to agree with someone who says I’m washed up,” Kanaan said. “I’ve won everything I’ve wanted to win, but I still enjoy what I do. I understand the position that I’m in.”

Count on T.K. to stay positive and optimistic. That starts with clearing his head on that morning ride at IMS.

“It’s the best,” Kanaan said. “I’m not trying to sound like I’m meditating here, but you hear the birds, you see the sun coming up, the track is quiet. It’s awesome.”

There’s no place Tony Kanaan would rather be for a race.

“To come here in a place he loves, where he can shine and we have a fast car,” Harner said, “he can show everybody he’s still T.K.”

Friday’s final full day of practice before qualifying runs from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. ET and streams on INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold.

First-day qualifying airs from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday on INDYCAR Pass and from 5-6 p.m. on NBCSN. Second-day qualifying airs from noon-3 p.m. Sunday on NBC and features the Last Row Shootout and Fast Nine Shootout.

Coverage of the 103rd Indianapolis 500 begins at 11 a.m. Sunday, May 26 on NBC.