There is no more popular figure at Indianapolis Motor Speedway than A.J. Foyt. The first four-time winner of the Indy 500 is as revered for his fiery temper and personality as he is for his ability behind the wheel of a race car.
Since 2002, Tony Kanaan has enjoyed a career at the Indy 500 that has made him the most popular contemporary driver at that race. In many ways, Kanaan’s personality is similar to Foyt’s. Although he can engage the fans with his smile and a friendly word or two, that smile can quickly turn into a steely glare if things aren’t going well.
It’s Kanaan’s ability on the track and his nearly annual contention for victory that make him a fan favorite.
Finally, in his 12th attempt, Kanaan won the Indy 500 in 2013.
Combine the most popular team owner in Indianapolis 500 history with the most popular driver at the Indianapolis 500 and the Foyt/Kanaan pairing has all the makings of being a fan favorite when practice begins for this year’s race.
“Probably, but that is not something that we think about,” Kanaan said. “We are trying to build something popular because we are winning; not because of who we are.
“But that is a strong combination of names.”
According to the 43-year-old Kanaan and the 83-year-old Foyt, it was only a matter of time before these two joined forces. When Kanaan was winning races and the 2004 IndyCar championship for Andretti Green Racing, Foyt was impressed by the Brazilian’s driving ability. His time at KVSH Racing took him to victory in the Indianapolis 500.
But after a disappointing four seasons at Chip Ganassi Racing with just one victory, Kanaan and Foyt finally joined sides.
In Kanaan’s mind, it was the right time to join Foyt.
“I feel honored,” Kanaan said. “We love the sport. Dario Franchitti and I are the two out of our generation that really appreciate the old-timers. We would have wanted to race those cars back in the day, if we were there. I’ve had a very long career in IndyCar and I’m extremely grateful for that.
“Driving for A.J. Foyt is one more thing that I can say how fortunate I was in my career,” Kanaan added. “Look at the team owners in my career and they are all big names. I love that. It’s something that I get satisfaction out of.”
The Foyt/Kanaan combination would have been unlikely in the beginning. Foyt was a loyal supporter of the Indy Racing League while Kanaan started his career racing in the Champ Car World Series.
“This combination probably wouldn’t have worked in the early days because he was this hard-core IndyCar advocate and we came from what they called ‘the other side,’” Kanaan admitted. “There was some resistance. But that’s just A.J. He’s a softy. He plays tough but when he likes you, he really likes you.
“Over the years, I’ve heard from him, he admired the way I am; the way I love the racing part and how fiery I am. I think I remind him of the way he was when he was my age,” Kanaan noted. “My respect for him was always there. I never cared where he raced. He was always A.J. to me. But over the years, the relationship developed and the respect became even greater and we were able to finally join together.”
From afar, Foyt admired the fierce determination and attitude Kanaan brought to the race track.
“I like Tony a lot,” Foyt said. “I like the way he runs. Last year at Texas, they blamed him for the accident and it was not his fault. I told him at Le Mans it was not his fault. It was the guy outside that caused that wreck. It wasn’t Tony. I like the way he races. He races fair. He’ll chase you all day long.
“When we were ahead of him, I’d be scared to death because in a lap or two he would get by us because he is that type of charger,” Foyt added. “I like somebody like that. Tony and I have been talking for the past couple of years, but we finally got it to work.
“I think Tony is happy and we are happy.”
Off the track, both men have a time and place when they are approachable.
“I’m very approachable but you know me, when I don’t have time, I don’t have time and I will tell you. I’m not going to fool you,” Kanaan said. “Personality- wise, I knew him from what I watched, but now that I’ve spent time with him, it’s amazing how similar we are.
“A few years ago when we were flying from Texas to Phoenix on the plane, and I could picture myself when I’m 83 being exactly like him. He is going to do what he wants to do and that is it.”
Foyt the driver had a laser focus on his job and never appreciated being interrupted in his pursuit at the track.
“When I was driving, I thought about racing,” Foyt said. “And Tony doesn’t want to be screwed with when he is not running good because he is here to race. That’s how I was. Let me get my race car running, then I’ll talk to you. Until then, don’t screw with me.
“Tony is like that at the track.”