'Nothing like it': Michael Cannon reflects on returning Foyt to front of the Indy 500 grid

INDIANAPOLIS -- At the one race and track on the IndyCar schedule where advantages in engineering can make the difference between eternal glory and a year full of what ifs, Michael Cannon has been the talk of the paddock.

AJ Foyt Racing's technical director, hired away from Chip Ganassi Racing for the start of the 2023 campaign, oversaw the return to glory of the team's Indianapolis 500 program a year ago -- one that delivered two cars to the Fast 12, put one car on the inside of Row 2 and had Santino Ferrucci contending in the final laps. Just months later, the series learned that Team Penske had struck a deal for a technical alliance with Foyt, a deal seen initially as a goodwill gesture from the series' owner to try and give a lift to his lifelong friend's fledgling IndyCar team.

It's clear now, though, that the partnership may be a much more even exchange of data than originally suspected, after Penske snapped its four-year streak of forgettable 500 qualifying performances with a sweep of Row 1 for just the second time in 500 history. Team Penske drivers say Cannon and the Foyt team merely helped confirm some things in the direction Team Penske was already headed.

Outsiders say Cannon made all the difference in the world.

Ahead of qualifying weekend, IndyStar got a chance to sit down with the Foyt team's wizard-like engineering mind to get a sense of the team's progress, what it was like a year ago to bring AJ Foyt Racing back to the front of the 500 and just how long this project targeting lifting Foyt across the board might take. Below is that interview, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Michael Cannon works in A.J. Foyt Enterprises driver Santino Ferrucci's (14) pit box Sunday, May 19, 2024, during practice ahead of qualifying for the 108th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Michael Cannon works in A.J. Foyt Enterprises driver Santino Ferrucci's (14) pit box Sunday, May 19, 2024, during practice ahead of qualifying for the 108th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

IndyStar: Those moments sitting on the timing stand and watching Santino Ferrucci have a chance to win the Indy 500 last year for AJ Foyt Racing, what was that like for you?

Michael Cannon: It was tremendously satisfying, but if you go back a couple years, that's also why I was brought to Chip Ganassi Racing at the end of 2019. They didn't have a very sparkly 500 that year either, and then the next three years we were definite contenders with Scott Dion's car, and Marcus (Ericsson) ultimately wins and they continue to be strong. But when this opportunity came up to work with (Foyt team president Larry Foyt) and Santino, I was quite intrigued. I'd worked with Santino in 2019 with Dale Coyne Racing, and on a personal level, I just like the guy. He has an infectious enthusiasm and is enjoyable to be around.

And this is the marquee race. It's 'IndyCar,' 'Indy-Car-Racing.' We talked on and off for the better part of four or five months before I agreed to do it. I did warn Larry it was going to take a hell of a lot of commitment, labor-wise, just to get everything done that needed to get done, but everyone was more than willing to put their back into it, and it's paid off. To be able to represent yourself and this group, and then you have everyone pulling on the rope together, and this happens, it's gratifying.

IndyStar: What was it like listening to those roars when Ferrucci was leading the race like?

MC: Those sure were fun.

IndyStar: Unlike anything you've heard here before?

MC: I really haven't heard anything like it. I couldn't believe it. I was like, 'What's that sound?' And then I realized what it was, and that was really neat -- a really cool thing to be a part of. Just one of those things that I was so glad to be here to witness and be part of.

IndyStar: Not many people would leave CGR and chances to win titles with Dixon. What made this make sense?

MC: At the end of the day, I'm 62 years old and have been in this business for quite some time. I've had my career, if you will, and I'm very fortunate people ask me to do things on a regular basis and that I'm able to do things that interest me, and this was something that genuinely interested me. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute I was with Ganassi

IndyStar: When you got your first look at the state of AJ Foyt Racing, what did you feel like needed to change?

MC: You don't know what you don't know what you don't know. I know where the speed lay in the car, but it's not just a simple thing like throwing a checkbook at it. It requires effort, labor and people putting hands on bits. There's a lot of drudgery in it. Nothing too exciting, romantic or glamorous. It really is just putting in the hours, and because of the situation at my previous employer, I couldn't come work here until January 3 (of last year), so I had very, very limited time. It was a pretty big ask of the guys, and to their credit, we were able to get it done.

IndyStar: So was the plan all along to work on the Indy 500 program first before you moved on to the rest in 2024 and beyond?

MC: Very much so. It all comes back to the fact that the name AJ Foyt and the Indy 500 go hand-in-hand, so it's very important to do well here. When we went into last year, that was the goal. The Indy 500 program is such that there's no way you can fix that and everything else immediately. You can't come in and say, 'I'm going to work a week on the 500 and then three days on Long Beach.' Let's do Indy, and from there we can build. Look at some of the higher-profile teams in this paddock. It's very difficult to be consistently fast. Take Barber for example and the weekend Arrow McLaren had. These are hired professionals, a very professional team, and it's really difficult to show up every weekend and be on the sharp end. We couldn't afford to try and compete with that last year. I had to get Indy right.

'What a cheap way to hire Cannon': Inside Team Penske's Indy 500 qualifying rise

Michael Cannon works in A.J. Foyt Enterprises driver Santino Ferrucci's (14) pit box Sunday, May 19, 2024, during practice ahead of qualifying for the 108th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Michael Cannon works in A.J. Foyt Enterprises driver Santino Ferrucci's (14) pit box Sunday, May 19, 2024, during practice ahead of qualifying for the 108th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

IndyStar: Did you think things would take off so quickly?

MC: I was genuinely shocked. As late as Saturday morning of qualifying weekend, we were still finishing up bits or receiving them from suppliers that allowed us to go quick. It was one of those things where we had this giant master list of things that we needed to do, and we needed to do every single one of them to make sure it was going to all happen. And then stuff was getting ticked off, tick, tick, tick, tick, and I realized we had most of them ticked. Then, that Saturday morning, we got the last one, and the cars were quick. It was all very thrilling and definitely a just-in-time delivery.

IndyStar: But I imagine it's one thing to find speed for qualifying, and yet another to have Santino positioned to lead the race late?

MC: The end of the race was a bit of a controversy, but that's Indy in a nutshell. I've finished near the front (of the 500) quite a few times, and it's so difficult to win this race. I have an Indy 500 winner's ring courtesy of Marcus Ericsson (in 2022). We came here three years in a row with Dixon, arguably the car to beat, and for one reason or another, we never got it done. That's why when you take someone like AJ or someone who's won this two, three or four times, that accomplishment is just so big.

IndyStar: Getting that ring as a part of CGR at-large, rather than it being your driver, does that still feel as gratifying?

MC: Yeah, because it would've been the same way if Scott had won for the other guys. We had five cars all very close, and everyone does everything during the year to help. It's a very cohesive group, and everyone contributes what they can. It's the wrong place for selfishness. If you find anything that's going to help move the block up the hill, you're going to help your teammates.

IndyStar: What do you rate as your proudest accomplishment?

MC: Oh man. What we were able to do (last year) with Santino was remarkable. Those three years with Dixon at this place. The Rookie of the Year honors I managed to be part of -- especially getting Simona De Silvestro Rookie of the Year, that I'm particularly proud of. I've been lucky enough to have had a lot of highlights. We plucked A.J. Allmendinger out of obscurity, and then he went on a tear and won five out of seven races. That was fun. I've been really lucky, and I have a trophy case at home with a lot of interesting momentos. Three IndyCar championship rings from various sources, and of course, I never leave home without my Indy 500 winners' ring. It took me 41 years to get it, and I can't not wear it. Is there one highlight? No. My life has been a series of things really blessed things that have happened to me.

IndyStar: So after waiting so long to get that first ring...

MC: I wasn't waiting, man, I was trying to do it!

IndyStar: Of course, but to have to go that long to get your first, what would it mean to get your second this year or soon?

MC: Oh, it would be everything...until the Monday after the 500, and then it's, 'Huh, now I have to do it again.' That's the nature of this business. It sounds cliche, but that really is it. 'Wow, that's really neat. Okay, let's go do it again next year.' You can't ever let it be a fluke.

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IndyStar: Do you feel like you're starting to see results with the team outside the 500?

MC: A little bit, but a lot of credit has to go to our partnership with Team Penske. I can't say enough about how generous they have been. When we first met with them, obviously both parties are going to be a bit leery, but we tried to be as upfront and straight with them as possible. We didn't hold anything back. 'This is what we're doing and how we're doing it, and we'd like to help you improve in what you're asking us to help you with.' And right away, they took the mindset of, 'You know what? I think these guys are above board, and we're going to do everything we can to help them.' And I continue to be amazed at how generous they've been. That's been a major factor. I really can't take much credit for it. A lot has really been their contribution.

IndyStar: A lot of people in the paddock think you were the central reason why they wanted to do this, to be able to get your expertise for the 500?

MC: Let's not kid ourselves. That's exactly why they wanted to do it, but it works out perfectly for us, because we wanted help with our other programs.

IndyStar: How long do you think it will take to get this team to where you think its potential is?

MC: Anybody we've hired in the past two years, we've tried to make it very clear to them, 'Hey, we'd like to get you onboard and sign an agreement for X amount of years, and we want you to know that we're serious about this.' There's nothing better for a race team than consistency. Every time you get new people, you have the opportunity to make the exact same mistakes you did two years ago. You want to get consistency to bake this perfect cake. We all know the recipe, but it's very difficult to make these days. The No. 1 thing for me is to get good people and hang onto them.

IndyStar: So what are the next big targets?

MC: We've got a good group of people here, and what we want is to go into next year with this exact same group of people. Will it take one or two years? I don't know. It's so competitive now in this series, with so many good cars, and it's so dependent on so many different things, so all you can do is the very, very simple things right. It's all about people, it really is -- just like any business. You have to empower them and give them freedom to go out there and show what you're really good at. You've got to let the people be themselves.

IndyStar: So I know you guys aren't race-wining contenders outside the 500...

MC: Oh god no, no.

IndyStar: What is it like for a team to shift into the 500, where you do can expect to have a chance to win?

MC: You can say that, but I will say, our competitors haven't been sitting around, so we don't really know what we're up against. We could come out here and do a better job than last year, but results-wise not have as good an event. Nobody in this series sits still, and a prime example of this is our association with Penske. All a sudden, we have three more people vying to be at the sharp end of the grid. But that's what we agreed to do for the betterment of everybody.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: AJ Foyt Racing's Michael Cannon reflects on Indy 500, Penske alliance