Tony Kanaan

Updated: Sep 2, 2020

The eighth instalment of my series looking at every driver who competed in my first ever race as a spectator. I hope you all enjoy.

My next series of features will be looking at each driver who competed in my first ever major international motorsport race, the 2001 Rockingham 500, the first time the American CART Championship had raced in the UK since 1979.


Having been confirmed the previous July, the race was held in front of 38,000 people who witnessed, at the time, the fastest ever laps on a British circuit, with hitting speeds of over 215 mph. It was also the first full length oval race in the UK since before the war, when cars roared round Brooklands.


I was seven when I watched the action at a very cold Rockingham, I remember my parents either side of me keeping me warm. However, I also remember the excitement of watching a major motorsport event trackside for the first time, having been to the official opening that May. The speed the cars hit was mind blowing and something I can still recall now.


The race was won by Gil de Ferran who executed a superb move on the last lap to beat Swede Kenny Brack, with fellow Brazilians Cristiano da Matta and Helio Castroneves finishing third and fourth.


Michael Andretti finished fifth ahead of his teammate Paul Tracy in sixth, with 1996 CART Champion Jimmy Vasser in seventh.


After Vasser in seventh was the fourth Brazilian in the field, Mo Nunn Racing’s Tony Kanaan, who finished seven tenths of a second behind the American.


Tony is one of American motorsport’s greatest drivers, setting multiple records throughout his career in CART and IndyCar. Since making his CART debut in 1998, he has become the first driver to lead a lap at the Indy 500 in his first seven appearances in the race and the only driver to complete every lap of a season in 2004, in which he led 889 laps in 13 separate races, an IndyCar record.


Tony is true great and it has been fantastic to read more about him while making this piece. I have always been aware of how good Tony is, I remember watching some of my first Indy 500’s when I was first fully aware of the championship and how he always got a tremendous cheer from the crowd as he went into the lead.


Antoine Rizkallah Kanaan Filho, known professionally as Tony Kanaan, was born on the 31st December 1974, in Salvador, Brazil, the largest city in the Northeast of the country and began racing cars in 1991 at the age of 16. His first events were in the Campeonate Brasileiro de F-Ford championship, a series for young drivers to get a first taste of single seater motorsport, similar to Formula 4 today.


His first season in cars saw him end the season sixth while his teammate won the title in what was his first taste of motorsport. For Tony’s second season in cars, he switched to Formula Chevrolet Brazil, a touring car championship, in which he was racing against fellow future Brazilian motorsport stars such as Helio Castroneves and Tarso Marques.


It was his first season competing against Helio with whom he would fight for wins for the majority of his career, spanning nearly thirty years. During their time racing each other they have developed a sometimes-tense rivalry however this relationship has often been repaired quickly. Tony finished 1992 fifth and moved to Europe for 1993, his first taste of non-American motorsport.


Tony entered the Formula Opel Lotus Euroseries, a championship which also included F1 and endurance star Jan Magnuseen, father of Kevin, and BTCC SuperTouring ace Vincent Radermecker. Tony ended the season tenth, moving series to Formula Europa Boxer, driving for Cram Competition for 1994, in which he won the championship.


His final season in Europe saw Tony contest the 1995 Italian Formula 3 championship, winning once on his way to fifth in the championship, before switching to the US for 1996 competing for Tasman Motorsport alongside Castroneves in the Indy Lights championship.


Indy lights is the equivalent of Formula 2 for America and the last step on the ladder before a driver contests in IndyCar (CART at the time). Tony fared very well in his first season in the series, ending the year second, winning twice and finishing on the podium a further five times.

Tony was able to keep this momentum going into 1997 as he remained with Tasman Motorsports alongside Castroneves for a second season, in which the duo dominated. However after winning twice and claiming a further seven podiums it was Tony who won the championship, beating his teammate by just four points.


This fine form did not go unnoticed as for 1998, Tony graduated to the CART series, remaining with Tasman Motorsports, who contested their final season in the CART championship before withdrawing at the conclusion of the season. During the year however, Tony showed his potential straight away, winning the Rookie of the Year accolade on his way to ninth in the standings, finishing on the podium twice with two third place finishes.


This feat was made even more impressive as he finished ahead of drivers such as Bobby Rahal, Al Unser Jr and Gil de Ferran.


Following Tasman Motorsport’s withdrawal from the series, Tony joined Forsythe Racing alongside Patrick Carpentier and Greg Moore, who sadly died at the final race of the season. It was a season marred by awful incidents in which Tony ended the year just behind teammate Moore in eleventh.


There was a positive for Tony that year however as he won his first ever CART race, beating eventual champion Juan Pablo Montoya at the Michigan 500. It was his only season with Forsythe Racing as he moved to Mo Nunn Racing for the turn of the millennium. The season turned out to be a struggle for Tony as a trio of eight placed finishes were the best he could achieve. In addition to this, Tony missed four rounds of the season through injury, having crashed during practise for the Grand Prix of Detroit. This partial season resulted in his lowest championship finishing position as he ended the season 19th with 24 points.


He returned with the team for 2001 and claimed his first podium since winning in 1999 at Montegi, the Japanese oval, his only podium of the season. Tony did however consistently finish in the points and ended the year ninth once more on 93 points. Two podiums followed in 2002 in what would prove to be his final season in the CART championship before moving to IndyCar in a year which saw Tony make his debut at the Indy 500.

Tony during the 2001 Rockingham 500.

It was the first of seven in which he led at least one lap, taking the lead from South African rookie Tomas Scheckter, however he failed to finish following an accident on lap 89.


After three disappointing years with Mo Nunn Racing, Tony switched teams and championships to contest 2003 the IndyCar championship for Andretti Green Racing alongside Dan Wheldon, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta. It was a season which saw Tony rejuvenated, winning in only his second race in the series, beating compatriot and former teammate Helio Castroneves to victory around Phoenix. A further five podiums followed as he ended his debut Indy Racing League season fourth in the championship as the highest placed Andretti Green Racing driver.


It was an eventful season for Tony in which he suffered an arm fracture at Montegi following a crash involving eventual champion Scott Dixon which saw him miss out on the Indy 500 practise session in mid April. His seat was taken by team owner Michael Andretti’s father Mario and although it had been nine years since he last raced competitively, he looked sharp, lapping at well over 200 mph. By the end of the day Mario was lapping at 223 mph average speed and rumours were starting to circulate that Mario may well end up in the car if Tony was not fit.


However, Mario suffered a huge crash a day later hitting debris on the circuit after Kenny Brack crashed at turn one. The impact sent Mario’s car airborne, almost clearing the catch fencing before flipping violently multiple times.


At the age of 63 it would be the last time Mario drove at Indy, and Tony returned to the cockpit, qualifying second and ending the race third.


It was a hugely promising debut season for Tony with Andretti Team Green in IndyCar and ensured he remained with the team for 2004, once again alongside Franchitti, Wheldon and Herta. With so much promise following his debut season, Tony did not disappoint, taking his first victory of the season at Phoenix, in what proved to be his first of three in 2004. A further eight podiums followed ensuring he dominated the 2004 season, beating nearest rival, and teammate, Wheldon to the championship by 85 points.

Tony's 2004 title winning car, competing for Andretti Green Racing.

It was the season in which he set the record for the most laps lead in a single season as well as becoming the first driver to finish every race in a year.


It was an amazing season for Tony in which he went one better at Indy, finishing second, only behind pole man Buddy Rice, who dominated that year’s race.


Tony remained with Andretti Green Racing until 2010, however this would be his only championship triumph, finishing second in 2005 to teammate Wheldon. 2005 did see Tony make his F1 debut at a test with BAR Honda at Jerez, as a prize for winning the IndyCar title with a Honda powered car. This would be his only appearance in Formula 1 machinery as he continued in Indy Car for 2006.


Tony ended 2006 sixth before finishing third in 2007 and 2008, acclimating seven wins in this period. He would remain with Andretti Green Racing, and then Andretti Autosport following his full acquisition of the team, for a further two years, finishing sixth in both seasons before switching to KV Racing Technology for 2011, the team featuring Lotus backing. He was joined at the team by E. J Viso and former F1 star Takuma Sato.


It was the final season of the IR-05 chassis before the introduction of the DW-12, which is still used today, with Tony achieving three podiums, ending the season fifth as former teammate Dario Franchitti won his fourth drivers crown.


Although KV Racing Technology lost the Lotus backing for 2012, Tony remained with the team, signing a multiyear contract to remain alongside Viso and fellow Brazilian and good friend Rubens Barrichello who made his IndyCar debut, although he was not considered a rookie due to his vast experience in Formula 1.


Out of the three drivers, Tony finished the best of the trio, ending the year ninth with three podiums in what proved to be Barrichello’s only season in the series before moving to Stock Car Brazil. Tony remained with the team however for 2013 alongside Simona de Silvestro, finishing the season eleventh.


This result did not tell the whole story for Tony in 2013 as at his eleventh attempt, he won the Indy 500. What a moment it must have been for Tony, I remember watching the race live and the roar of the crowd as he took the lead and kept it was amazing. The commentators were also ecstatic and so happy for Tony who had been a starlet of the championship for so many seasons before his Indy victory.

Tony celebrating his Indy 500 victory.

Despite this incredible success it was his last season with KV Technology as he joined IndyCar heavyweights Chip Ganassi for 2014, alongside Ryan Briscoe, Charlie Kimball and now five time champion Scott Dixon.


His first season with the team yielded a sole victory, which was his last win in IndyCar to date, and a further four podiums on his way to seventh in the standings. However, his move to Chip Ganassi opened up further avenues for Tony to explore, as he raced in endurance races around the world such as the 24 Hours of Daytona and the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans for the team.


His first appearance for Chip Ganassi at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2014 was his third appearance at the race, having previously contested the event in 1998 and 2013. 2014 saw him compete alongside IndyCar teammate Dixon as well as Marino Franchitti and Kyle Larson, with the quartet ending the race 15th overall and 8th in class.


Tony would return to the race the following year with Dixon and Larson once more, with Franchitti being replaced by NASCAR’s Jamie McMurray. The rearranged quartet fared brilliantly throughout the race ensuring they won the race, beating their closest rivals by just 1.5 seconds, an incredible stat considering the length of the race.

Tony celebrating his 2015 24 Hours of Daytona victory with teammates (L to R) Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray and Scott Dixon.

Following his Daytona success Tony remained with Chip Ganassi in IndyCar, ending the year seventh with three podiums. He followed up 2015 by finishing sixth once more, in what was his final season for Chip Ganassi in IndyCar.


He has remained with the team for their endurance programs, making his Le Mans debut in 2017 in a Chip Ganassi factory back LMGTE Pro Ford GT, with Joey Hand and Dirk Muller as his teammates. The trio were hampered by the balance of performance algorithm however they still finished sixth in class and 22nd overall.


Tony returned to the race in 2018, alongside Brits Harry Tincknell and Andy Priaulx, again finishing albeit 12th in class and 36th overall, completing 332 laps. To date, it has been his final appearance for Chip Ganassi as for 2018, he joined AJ Foyt Enterprises alongside compatriot Matheus Leist. In his two years with the team full time Tony has achieved a single podium, ending 2018 and 2019 sixteenth and seventeenth respectively.


The turn of the decade has seen Tony drop down to a part time season, only contesting selected events for AJ Foyt Enterprises, although one of them is the Indy 500! Since winning the great race his best result has been fourth in 2016, and it would be great to see him have at least a few more competitive outings at Indy.


Tony’s career has been one I envy hugely, racing for some of the biggest teams in motorsport at some of the biggest races around. I suppose one regret of his may be that the test for BAR went no further, however he cannot grumble at being an IndyCar champion and 24 Hours of Daytona winner. The variety of cars that he has driven throughout his career is also something which I find amazing, from 900 horsepower single seaters to Brazilian Stock Cars, Tony has driven them all, which must have been an amazing experience.


That is not to say his career is coming to an end, I truly hope we have Tony around for many more years to come!

Pictures: www.motorsport.com, www.speedsport.com, www.motorsportimages.com, www.espn.com

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