INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Tony Kanaan wanted to celebrate this season with his longtime, loyal fans.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Suddenly, races were being postponed or cancelled, schedules were being revised and race organizers could only sell a limited percentage of tickets — if any at all.
Now with Kanaan qualified 23rd for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, the popular Brazilian is plotting a sequel to his “Last Lap” season, one that appears to be taking him to new venues and multiple series.
“I don’t change my mind very often,” Kanaan said. “But this isn’t how I planned it. Personally, I feel the same way about Jimmie Johnson in NASCAR, you can’t go out like this. It’s just not right.”
The truth is, Kanaan never intended to ride off into the sunset after this season.
Instead, he used the January announcement to say only that he was “stepping back a bit” from racing after ABC Supply, a longtime sponsor for A.J. Foyt Racing, said it would scale back on its funding for the No. 14 car.
Initially, the plan was to run one race — the 500. But Foyt and IndyCar officials managed to scrape enough money together to fund five races, all on ovals, all with different primary sponsors. Kanaan’s final two races this season are now scheduled for next week in metro St. Louis.
But shortly after arriving at the Brickyard’s historic 2.5-mile track, the first August race in the event’s storied history, rumors started swirling about Kanaan’s potential 500 return next season. Then after spending the past week driving around empty grandstands, walking around an empty Gasoline Alley, seeing the wide-open infield and hearing the cries from his fans, Kanaan clarified his intentions.
“I definitely don’t think I should do my last 500 this way,” Kanaan said. “I will do everything I can to get back. I definitely want to come back and it is not going to be a full season, 100%. Certainly there’s going to be one race or five races or five ovals.”
But even Kanaan understands how difficult the journey could be for a 17-time race winner, a former series champion and a record 317 consecutive IndyCar starts on his resume.
Finding sponsorship money is always rough and after an unprecedented economic collapse caused by the pandemic, next season could pose even greater fiscal challenges for the series, its teams and the companies who keep them running.
It might prove even more difficult to convince businesses to stick with a 45-year-old veteran, who is winless in his last 86 starts. Plus, Kanaan doesn’t want to block opportunities for a promising group of young IndyCar drivers, either.
And the 2021 schedule is already starting to fill up, too.
Kanaan quickly accepted an invitation to compete in Tony Stewart’s new racing league, Superstar Racing Experience.
The league spearheaded by Stewart, a three-time Cup champion and the 1997 IndyCar champ, NASCAR Hall of Fame crew chief Ray Evernham, agent Sandy Montag and former NASCAR COO George Pyne, plans to run six short-track races on dirt, paved ovals and road courses next year. Twelve drivers will compete, randomly paired with a crew chief for two 45-minute heats. There will be no pit stops.
“I’m excited,” the 2004 IndyCar champion said. “One thing I told Ray, I definitely could commit (regardless) whatever happened here. When I announced in February I knew for certain I was not going to become a full-time IndyCar driver ever again. I mean even if an opportunity presents here, it was going to be part-time anyway. I said, ‘Great just make sure you don’t book a race in May.’”
AP Auto Racing writer Jenna Fryer also contributed to this report.
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