Last Lap? Tony Kanaan faces mortality of IndyCar, Indy 500 career

INDIANAPOLIS -- Roughly three years after what could’ve been his last Indianapolis 500, Tony Kanaan is still here, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the sun splashing across his face as he talks to a member of the media, preparing for yet another try at this beautiful, grand race.

And Kanaan is being asked what many people are curious to know.

“Is this truly the last time we see TK at IMS in the car?” Kanaan is asked.

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That Kanaan will race in the 2023 Indianapolis 500 at some points seemed uncertain. The 2020 season was supposed to be his last as a primary IndyCar driver, a run that was branded as a farewell tour. Though he did still remain open to a future Indy 500 appearance, the future was unknown. That 2020 last lap turned out not, in fact, to be the last lap. He was picked up by Chip Ganassi Racing, extending his IndyCar career to at least 2022.

He placed 3rd in the 2022 Indianapolis 500, an emphatic statement that Kanaan still has it. So that wasn’t the end. He joined Arrow McLaren, his current team. “I think if I hadn’t had that performance, the decision was made,” Kanaan said, referring to his 3rd place finish in the 2022 Indianapolis 500. In February, Kanaan announced this year’s Indianapolis 500 would be his last IndyCar race.

And so, on a recent morning, Kanaan is asked that question.

“Is this truly the last time we see TK at IMS in the car?”


“In the car, probably yeah,” Kanaan says. “But … that decision was made three years ago and I’m still here, so I’m not going to hold to it. Somebody (keeps) saying this is my last 500 of 2023. So I’ll leave it like that.”

'I'm looking for a minivan'

Kanaan exists at a unique intersection of the racing universe. He is staring down the finality of his IndyCar career. Kanaan is 48 years old and has four children. His teammate, Pato O'Ward, is 24. “Pato is looking to buy the hottest McLaren,” Kanaan says, “and I’m looking for a minivan.” And yet ... age doesn’t fully define Kanaan. In October 2022, he competed in the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii — a 2.4-mile ocean swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. Kanaan’s IndyCar career, in a sense, is immortal. He was the 2004 IndyCar Series champion, 2013 winner of the Indianapolis 500 and is revered by fans. He is electing to retire, but it is not as if he is being forced out. He made the Fast 12 in qualifications and is a serious contender to win the race.

“I don’t,” Kanaan says, “feel old.”


On a recent morning at IMS, it’s fitting he is wearing shoes featuring the symbol on Brazil’s flag. He grew up in a middle-class family in Brazil. Kanaan’s father was an immigrant from Lebanon. He loved racing and one day took Kanaan to a Go Kart race. After leaving the track, they went right to a Go Kart factory to get Kanaan one of his own. They didn’t tell his mother, though, instead hiding it and pretending nothing was out of the ordinary.

When Kanaan was 9, his father got sick. Over the next few years, Kanaan won multiple Go Kart championships. Then, at 13 years old, Kanaan went to the hospital to talk to his father, who was battling cancer. They had a deep conversation about life, goals and what Kanaan’s father wanted Kanaan to do if he wasn’t around anymore. Kanaan’s father had his son make promises. 1) Take care of his mother and sister. 2) Never quit racing and win the Indianapolis 500 for him.

Shortly after that conversation, Kanaan’s father died. Before he closed his eyes, he told Kanaan’s mother to tell her son not to forget what he had promised.

"I think, for me, that was the worst thing to ever happen to me," Kanaan says. "To lose my Dad, my best friend, my sponsor, my supporter, the person that I was always leaning on for advice."


On a recent day at IMS, Kanaan moves from place to place quickly. But that can sometimes be difficult. He stops for an interview or picture or to sign his name. Kanaan acts more like his nickname, TK, than he does a racing a legend. Meaning: He carries himself with the temperament of a friend or cool uncle rather than someone of high status. Kanaan was recently at a shoot for 7-Eleven when he was convinced to put his face under the Slurpee machine and drink right out of the spigot. At a content shoot for Mission, he pleaded to do the Tortilla Slap Challenge with other drivers. At one point during Indy 500 qualifications this year, his four-lap average tied with a competitor down to the thousandth of a second. He later Tweeted, “Should not have had lunch I guess.” After later besting his previous average, he Tweeted, “Well, the bathroom break helped.”

At this very moment, Kanaan is not far from the exact place where he fulfilled part of the promise he made to his father. In 2013, Kanaan poured milk over his face after winning the Indianapolis 500. During a post-race interview, Kanaan was asked what made the difference on that day.

“I got a little bit of luck today,” Kanaan said.

Arrow McLaren SP driver Tony Kanaan (66) looks up while preparing to jump into his car Wednesday, May 17, 2023, during the second day of practice for the 107th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Arrow McLaren SP driver Tony Kanaan (66) looks up while preparing to jump into his car Wednesday, May 17, 2023, during the second day of practice for the 107th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Good luck charm

As it turns out, there are even more layers behind that day, which begins with the seemingly unrelated admission of a girl into a hospital.


Years before 2013, Andrea Irwin (then Andrea Braun) had a massive brain hemorrhage, stemming from a previously undetected birth defect. It was not expected that she would make it through the first night in the hospital. But Andrea did. She was put into a drug-induced coma, the situation so dire that for some time she wasn’t even supposed to be touched.

Eventually, she was in an Indianapolis hospital, still in a coma, as race day for the 2013 Indy 500 neared. After a session at the track, Kanaan’s suit was getting cleaned, so he had taken a good luck charm out of his pocket given to him by his mother when he was 8 years old. It was supposed to protect him.

Kanaan went to visit a hospital as part of a regular visit. He went to Andrea’s room because she was in a coma. Andrea’s story resonated with Kanaan so much that he left the good luck charm with her. When she was in one of her many surgeries, her mom would wear it. Andrea recovered, something that once seemed improbable. Not long after, Kanaan invited them to a race, where they got a VIP-like experience. She tried to give the good luck charm back, but he wouldn’t take it.

Finally, after another unsuccessful try, she had it delivered to Kanaan before the 2013 Indy 500. On race day in 2013, she was at her grandfather’s, hovering around the TV as Kanaan made history. Tears streamed down the faces of Andrea, her mother and sister and they hugged each other. At the IMS, Kanaan celebrated.


“It’s for the fans,” Kanaan said during the post-race interview. “It’s for my dad, who's not here, but mainly for all of you guys.”

Later during the interview, he pulled out the good luck charm.

That was roughly 10 years ago. Speaking with a media member on a recent day, Kanaan gets some perspective on the time that has passed.

“It was my first Indy 500,” a man says to Kanaan of the 2013 race, before later being cut off.

“You don’t look very old,” Kanaan says. “So how young were you?”

“I was 11 years old,” the man says.

Kanaan laughs.

Later in the week, Kanaan finds out his order for Qualifications. He is accompanied by his wife and three of his kids. Ever since the death of his father, Kanaan wanted to be a father. He has the handprints of his children on his racing helmet.  “I’ll give my life, if I have to, for any of them,” Kanaan says. On the stage before Qualifications, his wife picks up the number, handing it to one of her sons. Kanaan is picked 14th. It looks somewhat like a daycare as his daughter runs around.



His personality is part of the reason he’s so beloved by the racing community. Late one morning leading up to the 2023 Indy 500, fans engulf Kanaan. But there is a reminder that the end could be nearing.

“Yes,” Kanaan says. “I don’t want to sleep on the couch tonight, so they did awesome.”

His personality is part of the reason he’s so beloved by the racing community. Late one morning leading up to the 2023 Indy 500, fans engulf Kanaan. But there is a reminder that the end could be nearing.

“Don’t quit,” a woman says to Kanaan after posing for a photo.

“I’m not quitting,” Kanaan says with a smile.


“No, you are,” the woman responds. “Don’t let this be your last 500.”

Kanaan’s grin evaporates.

Leading up to Kanaan’s last Indy 500 — if it’s really that — it’s difficult to deny the nostalgia of it all. The stories, the interactions, the memories. This is a man that has been through so much. After coming to America, he had a piece of paper that gave the English translation for simple communication, such as how to say he was hungry and where was the bathroom. He’s so connected to the Indy 500 that he literally has a tattoo featuring part of the Borg-Warner Trophy. Standing inside a sheltered area not far from the track, Kanaan’s friend, Marcio Valente, is asked if he thinks this will be Kanaan’s last Indy 500.

“Personally, I don’t,” Valente says. “But who knows.”


Maybe, deep inside, Kanaan really knows. Maybe he doesn’t. But what if that isn’t everything? Procedurally, yes, Kanaan would be done racing IndyCar. But Kanaan’s legacy, the people he’s impacted, Andrea, who said she has watched every Indy 500 since being visited in the hospital by him — it extends far beyond simply racing a car. Sitting not far from the track on the Monday before the 2023 Indianapolis 500, Kanaan spills parts of his story. He is simply asked to tell about his childhood, but he goes into detail about his father’s death.

Perhaps this is Kanaan in a nutshell. Genuine about the pain, genuine about the triumph.

Why, Kanaan is asked, are you so open about it?

“That’s my story,” he says. “It’s not a sad story. It’s actually a very inspiring story. I never look at it that way. I never felt that I wanted anyone to feel sorry for me or to tap me on the back. But I think if I can help some people when they go through a tough time in their lives. … He was a great dad and I’m open because I think I want to prove to people that life is not always the way we plan but you can still — if you dig and you’re strong enough — you can still make it.”

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Tony Kanaan faces the mortality of his IndyCar, Indy 500 career