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Tony Kanaan Learning, Finding Happiness in New Role for Arrow McLaren

Tony Kanaan may have driven his last NTT IndyCar Series race, but now that he is “retired”, he’s busier than ever.

The 48-year-old Kanaan dropped the curtain on his quarter-century career in American open wheel racing at the Indianapolis 500 in May, but he has already shifted gears into his second career, taking on a hybrid role with Arrow McLaren.

Kanaan’s new role has a lot of moving parts. His multiple hats include coaching the team’s drivers, quality control, and media, sponsor and fan relations. In other words, the perfect position for one of the most popular drivers in the series’ history.

“People ask me, ‘So, what do you do?’,” Kanaan said. “It’s not one thing; basically in the advisor role I walk around, I look and make notes of what I see, then I go through the people in charge of whatever department, and I give them my opinion on what they’re doing what we can do better.”

In preparation to drive a fourth Arrow McLaren car in the Indy 500, Kanaan was around the team from the start of the season and had become a fixture on the team’s timing stand, helping out in any way he could. Once May rolled around, Kanaan jumped behind the wheel for the final time, qualifying ninth and finishing the race on the lead lap in the 16th position.

When the month ended Arrow McLaren president Zak Brown asked Kanaan to stay on with the team in a permanent capacity. Since a role like that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the paddock, there was some reluctance at first, but once Brown explained what he thought Kanaan’s responsibilities would be and where he thought it would help the team, he was intrigued.

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“I think Zak had a vision that I didn’t at the time,” Kanaan said. “I told Zak I would love to do it even though I didn’t know how good I was going to be. I promised him I’d give it 100% because that’s the way I am. I also didn’t know if I was gonna enjoy it, but I decided to try it.”

Kanaan is having fun so far and feels that one of his most important contributions is to support the drivers in the stable and act as a liaison between the drivers and crew and engineers. Not only can Kanaan speak multiple languages, but he is also fluent in IndyCar, and he is able to ask the right things to both sides of the organization and is able to smooth out some of the rough edges in the conversations.

Just like any other high-pressure situation, in the ultra-competitive world of IndyCar, there are a lot of strong, intense personalities, and Arrow McLaren has two of them in Alexander Rossi and Pato O’Ward. In the car, Kanaan was also as intense as it could get, but he now understands that sometimes a little diplomacy rules the day.

“We drivers can get really wild sometimes in the car,” Kanaan said “You’re getting inside to put your life on the line and sometimes comments you’re making on the radio [get taken the wrong way]. Now I can see from the outside how it can affect people in a good way or in a bad way. I wish I had known that during my career.”

What Kanaan finds the most gratifying is the fact that at first he was worried that being out of the car and watching others compete would be hard for him. But as the season has progressed he’s found that the excitement he is feeling when the team has success is exactly the same as it was when he was in the car. On the flip side, there’s a lot less pressure, which is a good thing too.

“Driving is what I’ve done for 40 years, and there are always goals and we’re always under pressure to perform, and I think you kind of get used to that adrenaline,” he reflected. “You see how many guys have retired and came back, or how many guys retire and go through crazy things because you’re looking for the adrenaline because you get addicted to it.

“For me, being on this side in the role that I have is that I’m getting nervous watching them to start the race like if I was in it myself, sometimes even more because I’m not driving. I have found the same thrill I had with a lot less pressure. There is a pressure to help the team to perform, of course, but my wife (Lauren) told me that the other day that I’m a much more relaxed and chill person than I was when I was driving.”

The Brazilian made a career out of thrilling IndyCar fans, and his hard-charging, never-quit driving style made him a popular figure. In 389 career starts, Kanaan captured 17 wins and picked up 15 poles while notching 79 podiums and 134 top-five finishes.

In 2004 Kanaan became the first driver to complete every lap in competition during the season, on the way to three wins, 10 podiums, and the IndyCar championship.

While Kanaan had a Hall-of-Fame-worthy career, his legend will always begin and end at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The 2013 winner is just one of 12 drivers to make 20 or more starts in the Indianapolis 500, and during his career he experienced pretty much everything The Brickyard can throw at a driver.

In 22 races he finished in the top five nine times, and led 352 laps, which puts him 14th on the all-time list, while amassing almost $10 million in winnings. But along the way he had his share of disappointments, and more than his share of bruises from the track’s unrelenting walls.

Kanaan’s relentless driving style and his determination further endeared him with the fans, and in 2013 he rewarded their loyalty by taking the lead on a late-race restart to finally get his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy, made even sweeter as it is next to two of his best friends, the late Dan Wheldon (2011) and Dario Franchitti (2012).

As race day 2023 rolled around, he wasn’t sure how he would feel, but a conversation with his 16-year-old son, Leo, put it all into perspective.

“It was so special,” Kanaan said. “Obviously the expectations were high; we were coming to a team that when you sign you are almost automatically expected to win. The result wasn’t there, but we were competitive, and it was really special having my entire family here and a lot of my friends.

“It’s funny because my son was obviously with me and said: ‘Dad, it’s really cool when everybody appreciates what you did, that means you did something brilliant.’ I think it was awesome, I enjoyed it a lot in a way that made me feel like [the fans were] doing me a favor, because that moment was so special that I don’t think it would ever happen again. It made me realize that I don’t want to come back because I don’t want to spoil that moment.”

Just because Kanaan won’t be driving an IndyCar any longer doesn’t mean he’s done competing. He still plans on driving stock cars in his native Brazil, and after racing in the Camping World SRX Series this summer, he has already expressed an interest in doing it again in 2024.

He also has an off-track competition that will continue as well, with friend and “brother” Helio Castroneves. The two have been friends for more than four decades, dating back to when both were growing up in Brazil, and with Castroneves moving into an ownership/advisor role with Meyer Shank Racing while still racing at Indy in his quest for a record-breaking fifth win, their lifelong battles will continue.

“I think we’re gonna compete until the day we die,” Kanaan said with a laugh. “I told him recently that someday our families are gonna put us in a nursing home and we’re gonna be racing wheelchairs around and I’ll still wanna kick your butt. Yeah, we will compete forever.”

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Kanaan’s post-driving career is still evolving, but he is enjoying where it is going. Where it ends up, he’s still not sure, but he feels like he has found a great calling and wants to see wherever it leads.

“I don’t have plans, and I’m still developing what I’m good at, but one thing is for sure is that I want to be in racing for the rest of my life,” Kanaan said. “I was never going to retire and go to a beach and not do anything. That’s not me.

“I’m contributing and I’m enjoying what I do a lot.”

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