CGR driver to-be Tony Kanaan says Jimmie Johnson and sponsors of his own were influential in his move to the team. He also says he had discussions with ECR and AJ Foyt for 2021.
It was January of this year when Kanaan announced his five-race campaign with AJ Foyt Racing, for whom he would drive the oval rounds. It was at the same time that the 2013 Indy 500 champion announced his retirement at the end of the season.
A catchy hashtag was associated with the season in #TKLastLap, and the team bid farewell to Kanaan at his last confirmed race in IndyCar. Uncertainty loomed, though, over the 2004 Series Champion’s departure, as the Brazilian had expressed that 2020 proved an unfulfilling year.
With the COVID-19 pandemic stripping Kanaan of crowds to enjoy at races, and most notably at what was to be his final Indy 500, the 45-year-old veteran of the series was deprived from some of its greatest joys, and sought an opportunity to race again in 2021.
With the confirmation of Jimmie Johnson at CGR – but only for Road and Street courses – this opportunity came.
Kanaan says he had sponsorship lined up for another year if he could secure a seat, and that he did at Ganassi to run the ovals in Johnson’s #48 car, as was announced Monday. “I would say probably if it wasn’t for the pandemic, I wouldn’t probably have changed my mind,” Kanaan said after he was confirmed at the team.
“There were some talks about doing the 500 and on and off and this and that, but I wasn’t clear. And then when I said, this is not the way I want to go, I was fully aware that this was what I wanted, but that didn’t mean that’s what was going to happen. But like anything in my life, it never came easy, and I made the decision, and if it didn’t go through, I was going to have to own it.
“I put my head into it. I said, oh, well, I’m not going to give myself an option, I’m going to make it work, and luckily, like I said before, I have great partners like NTT and Bryant. And as soon as I came back with them, 7-Eleven is back, too, Big Machine is coming back, all of them. But the two biggest ones were NTT and Bryant really that made this happen.”
Kanaan adds that he was cynical about his chances in securing the CGR seat, even after coordination with Johnson, and with his own sponsorship. He explains, “I was lucky then, but then that was step one: get the sponsorship. Step two 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 was a few sleepless nights and talking to Jimmie every day, like come on, what’s happening, and trying to — 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.
“Yeah, 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,” Kanaan said.
The CGR driver to-be stressed the importance of Johnson in the orchestration of the deal, which spans over the next two seasons. Kanaan says, “You know, I have to [credit] a lot [of people], if there is somebody to [credit], number one, it would be my sponsors that when I came back saying maybe we should come back next year, David from NTT and then Justin and Margo from Bryant said, ‘Why not?’
“And then Jimmie for making that phone call. That phone call — you know what is one of those things that you remember exactly the day, the clothes you were wearing, where you were and so on? I was actually on my bike working out, which is not a surprise, here at home, and the phone rang, and it was Jimmie.
“I’m like, whoa, I thought he was going to invite me to do a triathlon or something like that, and he popped the question, and I said, are you joking? I don’t think we can pull this off. But yeah, without the sponsors that would have never happened. And obviously Chip giving me the opportunity to come back. I mean, how cool is that; know what I mean? I woke up this morning, I feel extremely lucky, man.
“I’m going to go back to a team with my best friend Dario Franchitti, my other best friend Scott Dixon, and now Jimmie. 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 quipped.
Kanaan explains that Johnson pitched to him a ‘dream team’, not that the Brazilian required much persuasion once the chance was presented to him. “Jimmie just said let’s make a dream team and let’s make history together. We’re two 45-year-old guys that some people believe we can do it but a lot of people believe we can’t, so let’s prove them wrong. He didn’t have to say much, man.”
Prior to his deal with CGR, Kanaan says, he had spoken with Ed Carpenter of ECR and Larry Foyt of AJ Foyt Racing, and an oval drive similar to the one he has since found with CGR had been mooted.
He denies, though, that such conversation progressed to negotiating. “I wanted to do the four ovals again when I said that, and really the realistic option was Larry, because none of the other teams wanted to split a car or do anything like that. Vaguely a long time ago I talked to Ed, but Ed and I, we wanted the same thing, so it was not a possibility there. So not really.
“To be honest, I did — did I make a ton of phone calls? 100 percent, but it was never a negotiation in place because it didn’t make sense. So then it went to trying to make a decision, so I just go and try to do Indy with all my sponsors and that’s it. That would open up more possibilities.
“But the realistic one was Larry, and then obviously the most obvious one was this one because it was just like meant to be, I guess. How often do you see somebody like Jimmie trying to — I’m not doing the — I guess it’s just one of those things in life that happens once in a lifetime,” Kanaan concluded.
Here’s what Kanaan and others said about the IndyCar series opener in 2020