By Josh Farmer, Contributing Journalist
SONOMA, California — Tony Kanaan will reach another milestone in his illustrious Indy car career as he makes his record 300th straight start – a record that began at Portland International Raceway in 2001.
With 17 wins, Kanaan’s 21-year Indy car career has seen many peaks. The highest point arguably came in 2004 when he captured the championship and completed every lap in a season, a record that still stands. While he didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the situation then, it is something that the 43-year-old Brazilian now looks back on fondly.
“That year we were going for the championship, so basically that’s all I was thinking of,” said the driver of the No. 14 ABC Supply Chevrolet for AJ Foyt Racing. “Then at the end of the year, they said, ‘You completed every lap of every race,’ which honestly at the time I didn’t think was a big deal. I was like, ‘Whatever, man, we won the championship!’
“Now it is a big deal because you’re talking about 14 years later, and nobody has been able to accomplish that because it doesn’t mean I didn’t finish a race, that means I didn’t even go one lap down, which is so easy to do at some point.”
Having come into CART in the midst of The Split, the 2013 winner of the Indianapolis 500 noted that a key element of his survival was aligning himself with manufacturer Honda as they moved to the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2003.
“I was a CART driver, and then in 2002 I had a choice to make,” he said. “I could stay in CART or move to IndyCar. I think I made the right choice. A lot of people thought I had made the wrong choice. I’m not going to sit here and brag about it was my vision.”
“I think that was the right thing to do. It was what I felt I wanted to do. I was tied up to a manufacturer that wanted to take me where they were going, and I think — I thought at that time the best way to survive in racing is if you’re attached to a manufacturer, your chances are much higher, so I did that and survived that.”
Kanaan’s career was in doubt after the 2010 season as he parted ways with Andretti Autosport due to a lack of sponsorship and needed to seek out the necessary sponsorship dollars. He managed to secure an 11th hour deal with KV Racing, six days before the season opener at St. Petersburg.
The team was plagued by sponsorship woes come 2013 and both sides were in need of a shot in the arm. That all took a turn for the better that May as he claimed a memorable win in the Indianapolis 500, a race that had eluded him for 10 years.
“It was just the easiest thing for me to do at the end of 2010 before I joined KV was, it’s all right, I had my championship, I had great years, and I’m going to do something else, and I refused to do that, and I went out and I found my own sponsors to fund my own ride, and that led me to winning an Indy 500, which was 2011, ’12, ’13.
“In 2013, KV didn’t have any money, we didn’t have any money, it was probably going to be my last year and their last year, because the sponsors that I convinced three years before that, they’re like, okay, we gave you three years, you’re good but we’re not going to keep spending millions and millions of dollars, blah blah blah. We win the 500, and our lives changed, both of us.”
All stats aside, Kanaan is focused on making the most of his 300th consecutive start. Kanaan won at Sonoma in 2005, which remains his only win on a road course. His season has been a struggle, with a best finish of sixth at Toronto.
Having mastered the 2.385-mile road course, Kanaan acknowledged that Sunday’s race is going to be up for grabs.
“I think this race is wide open with the nature of the track, the weather, the wind changing between morning and the afternoon,” he said. “I think it’s going to be an interesting race. Tire deg has been a big issue. Everybody is complaining about grip. Not the tire’s fault, but I think it’s a combination of our downforce, the tires and the type of track.
“I think it’s wide open for anybody.”