The first thing Tony Kanaan said after concluding his press conference Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway summed up his inner conflict.
“I didn’t cry,” he said to his wife, Lauren.
For 30 minutes Thursday, Kanaan poured out his heart, saying he didn’t want to step aside from NTT INDYCAR SERIES races after five more starts in the upcoming season, but reality dictated it.
Kanaan is 45 years old and couldn’t muster the sponsorship necessary to compete in the other 12 races this season for AJ Foyt Racing. He also didn’t want to be a distraction amid the momentum the series has been building since the announcement of Roger Penske’s acquisition of INDYCAR and IMS.
Plus, Kanaan said he has accomplished everything he ever wanted from motorsports, starting with the knowledge that he’s made his late father proud. He also has a season championship (won in 2004 when he completed all of the races) and an Indianapolis 500 victory (in 2013).
“How many things in my life that I wanted that I didn't get?” he asked. “If you asked me that question 15 years ago, I was going to say, maybe I got the short end of the stick. But after 23 years I can't really say that.
“It's not even my right to believe that I'm entitled of having that.”
Still, it was difficult to concede he’s coming close to an illustrious career that’s included 17 wins and 15 poles over those 23 seasons. The proof was in his response to the first question from the media after he made his announcement.
The response to the difficulty in coming to the conclusion it was time to hang it up was 833 words.
“You've got to look back and think about how long I've been around,” Kanaan said. “You talk about when you come into the series, you're the rookie back in '98, then you're racing against Bobby Rahal, Al Unser Jr., Michael Andretti, and then all of a sudden they decide to retire, then you look back and say, you know what, when I started to think about that -- let me go back and see how many years Bobby raced. Not even close to 23 years. Michael, the same thing. Michael was actually 41 if I'm not mistaken when he decided to retire full-time because I remember him telling me that five years ago, whatever that was that he was my age when -- Bobby is the same thing.
“So it's like, you know what, I think it's time. I think you've got to look -- there's always the up-comers. This series has been extremely competitive, and I think in the last decade, we, the old guys, are still dominating, that you still see (Scott) Dixon, (Will) Power, people that are upper 30s, almost 40s, some of us, (Takuma) Sato. And we're still delivering. And when you hang on to that, then you're not giving a chance for the new generation to come up. That's great for us, but I don't think it's good for the sport, either. Like I got my chance; why -- I'm not saying I'm giving people a chance, but in a way, yes, you're trying to open up a seat for a new talent to come up and build the series.
“When I started racing, all I wanted to do was race, win, beat everybody. I wouldn't talk to my teammates like before I came here. They were my first rivals, and that was it. That's all that matters. And growing up, I wanted to be an IndyCar driver and I wanted to win the Indy 500. I wanted to do this. And that was being extremely selfish.
“As you get older, I don't know if you get softer or wiser, whatever you want to call it, and you start thinking about what else can I do to give back to the sport, what this place -- I mean, this place made me. There is no question about it. It's not a cliché. I'm not saying that because it is. You know that. I think the people in this room knows that. And if anybody goes around this town with me, it's mindboggling -- it's like, okay. All right.
“So to me, it's like you get to a point that you say, you know what, let's try to get this new guy. Who is it going to be? Is it going to be Pato (O’Ward), is it going to be whoever that guy is. The same thing if people asked Steve Horne back then, who is this Brazilian guy who can barely speak English. Actually, there were two. Maybe you guys know who the other one was.
“And then you go to a different role. I think my mindset is I'm extremely happy what I've accomplished in my life. Now maybe it's time instead of thinking about winning all the time, it's like, how can I give it back, how can I inspire this kid, that actually, yes, you can race 20 years. If you wake up at 4:30 in the morning to do your first workout and then you do your other chores and you just be committed that 100 percent of what you want to do is to be a race car driver, it's possible. I'm actually the perfect example of that. I had no money, my parents did not have money to do it, and it happened.
“This will be actually something that inspires me to make that decision and say, you know what, how about -- you've heard the role, instead of trying to beat everybody, now let's try to inspire other people and make it happen.
“So far I think that I did that. I mean, I have a big responsibility starting at my house with four kids, to try to set the right example, which I think I'm doing okay. The other day, Deco, our 5-year-old, for his birthday I got him this stationary kids bike, and every time obviously he wakes up, I am home on my bike at the gym - and you caught me the other day - which I wasn't, and he sees that. Now every morning he wakes up he asks his mom to bring his stationary bike right beside mom and he does 15 minutes with me. So that's what I want, if I can get that from my house outside to the kids that want going to be race car drivers. This sport gave me everything I had.
“I am who I am. I met my wife in this sport. I mean, it's just everything. My life, it's that. To answer your question, which is way too long, it wasn't that hard.”
Kanaan’s record streak of consecutive NTT INDYCAR SERIES starts will end at 317. He still plans to attend races to promote the sport through his sponsors, including NTT, and he will see what opportunities are available in other forms of racing. He’s already won a 24 Hours At Daytona in 2015.
He will compete on the NTT INDYCAR SERIES' five oval tracks this season: IMS (May 24), Texas Motor Speedway (June 6), Richmond Raceway (June 27), Iowa Speedway (July 18) and World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (Aug. 22) in A.J. Foyt's No. 14 Chevrolet, which will carry different livery to highlight various sponsors.
“Tony is a champion,” said Mark Miles, President and CEO of Penske Entertainment. “In every way when I think about Tony, there's a lot of thoughts that come to mind that are warm and about friendship and the like, but ultimately he's a champion in life, and that was certainly true on the track, as it is certainly true off the track, but in so many other ways.”
“I don't want anybody to think I'm retiring and I'm disappearing,” Kanaan said. “First of all, I still can drive. We've been in talks. Five years or so in this room we started it; we've been in talks with IMSA and a bunch of other series. Even Formula E (and) stock cars in Brazil.
“I think this will open an opportunity for me to do -- even Tony Stewart is like, when are you coming back to Eldora (Speedway)? Now I think I can do all those things. Hopefully we'll surprise you guys through the year with some different stuff.”