IndyCar vets going strong as careers wind down

Tony Kanaan sat in Chip Ganassi Racing’s suite one day this May, savoring a rare second IndyCar farewell tour.

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May 28, 2021 - 10:07 AM

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Tony Kanaan sat in Chip Ganassi Racing’s suite one day this May, savoring a rare second IndyCar farewell tour.

At age 46, running a part-time schedule with no future guarantees and a talented crop of young drivers chasing them, Kanaan and his fellow veterans can see the sunset approaching for one of IndyCar’s greatest generations.

Four of the 33 starters in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 are listed among the top 12 in career wins. Ryan Hunter-Reay is tied for 24th. Kanaan needs one win to tie Hunter-Reay with 18 and Juan Pablo Montoya is just two behind Kanaan despite spending 13 seasons in Formula One and NASCAR.

These magnificent seven, all in their 40s, have combined for 207 victories, 14 series championships and nine Indianapolis 500s since emerging as the series’ most revered stars over the last two decades. And their passions and personalities from around the globe have changed the sport.

“Every year that goes by, I realize how special those years were,” Kanaan said Thursday, referring to the four drivers who suited up in Michael Andretti’s garage in the 2000s. “What we had, what we did is we showed that you could race against each other and still have a lot of fun with your teammates.”

It became a blueprint for repairing the damage from the years-long split of American open-wheel racing series.

Andretti’s team featured Kanaan, the bubbly Brazilian; Dario Franchitti, the resolute Scotsman; Bryan Herta, the laid-back American; and beloved British driver Dan Wheldon.

On the track, they were a powerhouse.

Franchitti won 31 races and three 500s before a horrific crash forced him into retirement in November 2014. The beloved Wheldon won 16 times, twice at Indy, but died at age 33 from injuries suffered in a 2011 crash at Las Vegas. Herta, whose son Colton qualified second for Sunday’s race, had four series wins. And Kanaan captured the 2004 series title and the 500 in 2013.

Off the track, they goofed around, became close friends and played pranks like hiding all of Wheldon’s drivers shoes or sawing Kanaan’s mountain bike in half while he was doing a television interview, changing Gasoline Alley forever.

“I think it speaks to the camaraderie in the series,” two-time series champ Josef Newgarden said when asked about the pranks still being pulled today. “We’re just as competitive as any other sport, but off the track there’s this casualness among us. We all get along.”

It explains why every driver lined up to congratulate Marco Andretti on pit row when he captured the Indy 500 pole last year and why those who raced against Wheldon, who helped test drive the Indy car of the future before his death, or the late Justin Wilson can’t hide the grief in their eyes at the very mention of their names.

And with all those budding young stars starting to catch up to IndyCar’s elder statesmen, others continue to outrun Father Time.

Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing is a six-time series champ, the points leader and Sunday’s pole-sitter. Should he win a second 500 this weekend, Dixon would tie Mario Andretti (52) for second all-time in wins and stay in position to join A.J. Foyt as only the seven-time IndyCar champion. If he leads 82 laps, Dixon would break Al Unser’s career mark for most 500 laps led (644).

There’s a reason the 40-year-old New Zealander has remained on top.

“I love what I do. I think that passion is at the forefront of it,” Dixon said. “Chip and Mike Hull are two of the most competitive people I know and that push is definitely at the forefront of it.”

It’s also true of the others in this generation, which made physical fitness a priority.

Kanaan competed in triathlons. Three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves incorporated weight training, biking, swimming, even dancing into his fitness routine. Hunter-Reay took up free diving.

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