MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Tony Kanaan was prepared to say goodbye to the NTT IndyCar Series and he was prepared for the next chapter in his life.
Although he was only racing in the oval races on the 2020 schedule for A.J. Foyt Racing, it was supposed to be a chance for Kanaan to have a proper sendoff and enjoy it with the fans who have supported him and cheered him throughout his career.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the season and led to many of the races, including the 104th Indianapolis 500, to be contested without spectators, Kanaan was determined to return in 2021. He believed he owed it to the fans.
Problem was, he didn’t have a ride lined up for next season.
The 2013 Indianapolis 500 winning driver and 2004 NTT IndyCar Series champion was looking for a part-time ride, specifically so that he could get a chance to celebrate his career with fans.
Instead of one last season, Kanaan found an opportunity that will keep him in the series for several more seasons. He will drive the oval races in the No. 48 Honda at Chip Ganassi Racing. Kanaan shares the car with seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, who will compete in the street and road course events on the schedule.
“The sole decision to come back from day one was because it wasn’t fair for the fans,” Kanaan said. “Never in a million years did I thought I would come back for two more times, which became a pleasant surprise because then I give myself another caution that if it’s not sort of a normal year next year, then I have hopefully for sure a normal year in 2022. But that was the only reason really.
“I’m going to go back to a team with my best friend Dario Franchitti, my other best friend Scott Dixon, and now Jimmie Johnson,” Kanaan added. “How cool is that to write a story afterwards when it’s all over? I feel blessed. I can’t thank everybody enough for pulling all this effort together, my family, my wife. She kind of knew that I wasn’t giving up. I guess she’s okay to put up with me for another couple years like that.”
Kanaan was successful in convincing some of his longtime sponsors to join him. Those include NTT Data, Bryant Heating and Cooling, 7-Eleven and Big Machine.
“That was step one, getting the sponsorship,” Kanaan said. “Step two, it was trying to find a place that would fit right, that would make the right decision and so and so, and that was a little bit more complicated. There were a few sleepless nights and talking to Jimmie every day.
“If you think about it, look how many pieces of the puzzle we had to put together.
“Jimmie had to get his deal first, which we didn’t even know if it was going to be Ganassi at the time. The deal happened really quick, but we’ve been talking about this on and off for quite a while. But in the beginning, I really said, ‘Argh, this is never going to happen’ That was the pessimistic side of me thinking it was going to be impossible to pull it off.”
Perseverance paid off for Kanaan as the pieces of the complicated puzzle started to come together. It’s also a testament to Kanaan that he is able to return to Chip Ganassi Racing, a team he raced with from 2014 to ’17.
Kanaan’s last IndyCar Series win came with Ganassi in the final race of the 2014 season.
“That shows how much respect and good terms I’ve always been with the teams that I’ve worked with,” Kanaan explained. “I’ve never closed a door. I spent four years there and I told Chip at the time I didn’t think I delivered as much as I should have and I needed to go, and we went away.
“To be honest, coming back, having an opportunity like this in the last two years of my career, it’s something that I’m not taking for granted,” Kanaan added. “I talked to Chip, and we have one goal. It’s to make this team win the Indianapolis 500. Chip just told me, I added another big chance to do so with you, and that’s my role, and that’s what I’m here for.
“I feel very humbled that I have these eight races in the next two years to do it. I don’t think commitment is a problem with me. I think you guys have been following me for quite a while. I think I’m in shape and I’m ready to do so.
“Arguably some people said my best results came on the ovals, so let’s please the people that think that and let’s go win another 500. To leave on a high note, that would be great. I will do everything I can to do it.”