Last weekend, Tony Kanaan wrapped up an illustrious career in IndyCar by competing in his 22nd Indianapolis 500. The Brazilian driver finalized his accomplishments with 390 race starts, 17 wins, 4,077 laps led, one Indianapolis 500 win, and one series championship. He has done all this and more with ample amounts of class. And he has done it all his way.
From the very beginning, Kanaan has been one of the most liked drivers in the paddock. His jovial attitude and likeable personality resonated with fans and fellow drivers alike. All the while, his skill behind the wheel allowed him the opportunity to relocate to America and quickly move into the top level CART series when he was 24 years old.
His career really took off when he moved over to IndyCar in 2003. His first win with Andretti Green Racing came in just his second race with the team, and the next year he won what would be his only championship title. The good times came quickly for Kanaan, but none of it would have been possible if he didn’t take some risks along the way.
The fact that he was even racing in America at all, after having started his career with a couple seasons in European junior formulae, was the result of a critical turning point in his life. He chose to abandon one offer for another, and moved to the United States without even knowing how to speak English. Looking back, Kanaan is not sure that he would have made the same choice later in his life.
“To make the decision to come here from Italy with a contract,” said Kanaan, explaining the risks he took to get into American open wheel racing. “I had a contract almost signed with Audi for a lot of money. For a 20-year-old that was making half a million dollars a year, which the year before I made $12,000. It was a thousand dollars a month!
“To say ‘no thanks’ and come here without speaking the language, without knowing if I was really going to get the ride, you can only do that if you’re 20 years old. I wouldn’t have done that today. It was always a doubt, wondering am I doing the right thing.”
Asked if he would give his younger self any advice, he replied, “You should have learned English before you came to America, Tony Kanaan, because it was really hard. So I should have paid more attention at my English classes that I didn’t care when I was young. That is for sure.”
That moment was just the beginning of Tony Kanaan living his life his own way. He found himself surrounded by people that wanted to be a part of his successes and to help guide his next moves. Very often he turned those people down, and chose to do what he felt was right in the moment. It’s hard to argue with those decisions considering how well things worked out for him.
26 years of top-class racing led to him having one of the most publicized retirement races in recent memory. He was part of innumerable interviews leading up to the 107th Indy 500, but he kept his trademark charisma through it all. He hammed it up in silly social media videos for Arrow McLaren, he rekindled personal connections with many media members, and made plenty of time for intimate events with fans. Through it all, he kept his professionalism and reiterated how lucky he was to have been a part of it all.
Just after driver introductions on Sunday, at which Kanaan received a large cheer from the adoring crowd, he was invited back on stage again. The 48-year-old was given a chance to address his cheering fans and give a few final words to those who were at the track to witness his final race. After that, he was surprised with a sendoff message that played on the track’s video boards. Many of his friends, family, and racing rivals (those categories being in no way mutually exclusive) had kind words for the veteran before he took to the track one last time.
An emotional Kanaan failed to hold back tears behind his sunglasses as he heard the public words of praise from so many important people in his life. Such was his impact on the sport over the years, that the packed IMS grandstands did not feel overly large for the moment. It was simply what one of the greats of the sport deserved.
He then donned his racing helmet, climbed into his car, and put on a show. Just as he had done 389 times before. Despite starting in ninth and running most of the race near that position in the middle of the field, his progress was still watched closely by many of his adoring fans.
And the part about ‘putting on a show?’ He certainly did that. At one point Kanaan put all four wheels into the grass on the back straight to make a sensational pass on Scott McLaughlin. He also battled fiercely with his longtime friend Helio Castroneves on the final lap, which seemed to be a perfect send-off for the veteran.
“I told the guys before we started,” said Kanaan after the race. “It was either going to be a win, or anything apart from the win we were going to celebrate regardless. I think I would do a disgrace to almost 400,000 people that were there that made me feel the way they did to say I’m sad.
“I had to laugh. Helio [Castroneves] and I battling for 15th and 16th on the last lap like we’re going for the lead. It was like, ‘Who’s playing pranks with us?’
“We started it in ’87, and the last lap of the race we’re actually battling — my last race in IndyCar and we’re battling like it was for the lead. But I wouldn’t have it any different, neither to him.”
In truth, Kanaan was scheduled to retire from IndyCar three years ago. He debuted an entire campaign, designated ‘TK Last Lap,’ that was to be a celebration of his final year in the series. But as fate would have it, 2020 was anything but a normal year. With a global pandemic delaying all sports until late in the summer, and fans not allowed to watch the events in person, he again decided to do things his way.
He returned to Chip Ganassi Racing to run a part time schedule in 2021, then again in 2022. But a strong result in that Indy 500 meant he came back one final time in 2023 with Arrow McLaren. This year, finally, he had the send-off event that he had long imagined for himself.
“Grateful, relieved, happy, sad at the same time,” said Kanaan, thinking through his emotions. “There are so many emotions right now. But one thing is for certain. I think I sat here three years ago, and I said I’m not retiring because I don’t want to race in an empty stand. And what they did for me today puts an end of me coming back here. Because that experience right there, I don’t think I will have it ever again.
“In a way, finishing 16th will take everybody’s idea out, ‘Oh, you finished third. You should do it again.’ This is it. And the emotions are just there. I cried 400 times. This guy came to hug me, and I made [IndyCar Technical Director] Rocket cry. I mean, that is something. Yeah, it was emotional.”
An entire generation grew up loving Tony Kanaan. He was a staple in American open wheel racing, and was a legitimate fan favorite for most of his racing career. With 318 consecutive race starts, which is still the Ironman record for IndyCar, he was ever-present as well. Fans identified with a driver that could be so lighthearted off the track, yet so skilled behind the wheel.
Instead of listening to what others told him to do, Kanaan did what he thought best at every turn. Now what he feels is best for himself is to step away from a driver role, and live out the next chapter of his life. He’ll still be seen around the paddock, of course, and will have a lifetime hard card to any event he wishes to attend. It will be a long while before the legacy of TK is forgotten.
“What I would tell my young self, or what would I change? I wouldn’t change a thing. I think everything that I went through was valid. It wasn’t fun at times, but looking back, even the mistakes were a learning curve. As much as I hate them, the choices that I made felt right and then ended up being wrong, but because of that bad choice, led to a good choice later on.
“Then all of a sudden you look back and you go, ‘I wouldn’t change anything.’ What I would tell my young self is just trust your gut and do whatever is best for you. It’s really easy when you’re young and you don’t have a lot of support, and without my dad being around you don’t have a lot of people you can ask an opinion that is going to give you an honest one.
“A lot of people would approach you with, ‘Well, let me manage you.’ And they’d be thinking, ‘Well, how can I make money out of it?’ and those decisions sometimes are not the right ones. It’s just because people were thinking financially what would be beneficial to them.
“I was lost at times. I made my own decisions a lot of the times, but even when I had somebody helping – nowadays it’s really easy. Everybody has an opinion on it. We put something on social media, we’ll get a thousand replies with a thousand bloody answers of what you should be doing.
“But at the end of the day, the people around me, I always said, ‘You’re not going to make a decision for me.’ Even if you think it’s wrong, ‘I respect your decision, but I’ll do it my way.’ That’s pretty much it – I still do this today.”