ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – When his Indy car career began, Tony Kanaan didn’t know how long it would last. More than two decades later, he still doesn’t know.
Kanaan will surpass his boss, A.J. Foyt, with the 370th start of his career Sunday when he takes the green flag for the REV Group Grand Prix presented by AMR. It will move Kanaan alone into second place all time, trailing only Mario Andretti’s 407 starts.
“The main thing for me is how long my head is still in it,” said Kanaan, who qualified 23rd on Saturday at Road America. “That is No. 1. Obviously, I’m in a position where my boss is saying ‘you decide,’ so I’ll keep doing it. Careers get cut short when owners say ‘thank you’ and then you can’t find a job. I’m in a position of me still wanting to do it and still being able to do it.”
His Indy car career began in 1998 with Tasman Motorsports, the year after winning the Indy Lights championship with the same team. It has continued with six other teams, including his current employer, AJ Foyt Racing, in the NTT IndyCar Series. Foyt’s legendary Indy car career spanned 369 races and a record 67 victories over 37 years.
In those early days, Kanaan never dreamed he’d surpass Foyt or other drivers -- Al Unser Jr., Al Unser, Michael Andretti and Johnny Rutherford -- near the top of the list for most starts.
“You never think in your wildest dreams thing you’re going to become one of them,” Kanaan said. “You never think you’re going to be better than them or run longer than them. To me, the cool thing about it is it’s not a comparison. It’s about making history in racing beyond wins. It’s about longevity.”
Now in his 22nd season, Kanaan has accumulated 17 wins, including the 2013 Indianapolis 500, and the 2004 season championship. At 44, he credits his durability with a strenuous fitness routine that includes cycling, running and swimming.
“I’ve always been extremely adamant about my physical condition, so that helped a lot,” the native of Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, said. “In the past, guys didn’t pay that much attention to fitness.”
Some racers might downplay a statistic that highlights the duration of a career, but Kanaan considers this landmark special.
“It’s almost bigger than winning a championship or winning a 500,” he said. “You’re making history that is going to last forever. It’s really rewarding. I still can’t believe it sometimes. I’m extremely fortunate that I was able to keep myself around. I’m fortunate that I landed with a team that came to me and said, ‘You quit when you want to quit.’ To me, that’s extremely cool.”
To reach Mario Andretti’s 407 starts, Kanaan will need to race deep into the 2021 season. Since he doesn’t wish to retire when the team isn’t performing the way he wants, and his head is still in it, anything is possible.
“With us struggling the way we are, I don’t feel like quitting like this,” he said. “I want to fix this before I hang it up. I can’t put numbers on it. I can tell you that I’ll be going forward and trying to beat Mario’s record. That will tell you how many years.”
Live coverage of the REV Group Grand Prix begins at noon ET Sunday on NBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. The green flag is expected at 12:50 p.m., at which time Kanaan will officially pass Foyt in the record books for total race started. He'll also extend his Indy car record for consecutive races started, raising that figure to 310.