The 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 will be both special and memorable for Tony Kanaan. Not only will it be his 22nd 500, but it will also be the final race of his career.
At 48 years old, Kanaan never once thought much about when the checkered flag would wave on his career. Since his debut with the NTT IndyCar Series in 1998, the love of the sport and the thrill of competition has always fueled him throughout a quarter of a century.
“I love what I do,” Kanaan told M&F. “I never said I wanted to race to be rich or famous. I just love it, love what I do, and if I can still do it then why not? Do I have something to prove? No. There is nothing left to prove. Retirement will be a big adjustment because I’m not the same guy I was 30 years ago. I have four kids now, married, and I don’t know how to live my life any different.”
To be able to leave any professional sport on your terms while being celebrated is a privilege only a few get to enjoy. Ahead of his final Indy 500 this Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, TK shared his insights on how he’s been able to compete at such a high level for as long as he has. He also shared what he’s looking forward to in retirement and his advice to the next generation.
Tony Kanaan Continues Training for On-Track Dominance
I’ve always tried to learn as much as I could. Obviously, not everything I did was beneficial, but I try not to follow trends. I try to follow people with the same drive as me. It’s knowing your body and knowing what works for you because your diet isn’t going to work for me and vice versa. I can’t point out one thing but one thing that I’ve always had on my mind is to wake up and do something.
You need to be more specific if you’re a professional athlete because you have to work on your neck and shoulders. I’ve found that if you have good guidance and a good trainer, you don’t have to do the conventional stuff. For instance, before we had the neck machines, I used to watch TV laying on my side and hold my neck up for 30 minutes on each side. That’s a workout because you’re holding your neck and trying to resist gravity. That was years ago but even still today, if I’m in a hotel for four to five days and I don’t have the tools, I’ll do that in a hotel bed. Over the years, what I discovered is do what’s enjoyable for you because anything that is forced, you’re not going to want to do it and eventually you’ll give up. I’ve also worked a lot on my mind. My workout routine is more to keep my mind at peace more than anything else. Trying to educate myself on what I need, and what my goals are as far as being fit to drive the race car. then self-pleasure — such as I want to look good — and then finding workouts that I enjoy doing. I wake up at 4:30 am every day and I go work out. Do I enjoy that? No. But If I don’t start it, it’s one day I’ll have lost in terms of working out.
Always think of something different, someone to beat. I have my teammates. [Alexander] Rossi works out with me every day at the gym, and you want someone that is going to help raise your bar and you help raise their bar. It’s not a competition but we all need challenges. If it becomes too easy, it becomes human nature to become lazy and not do something with the effort needed to make gains. My workout routine has always been focused on my driving. I would focus on who I needed to beat or a race I needed to win. I also take big pride in finishing a race and I see some of my competitors completely drained while I’m ready to do another one. That is a reward and an advantage. I’m 48 and decided to call my last one this year but could I race another 10 years? Five for sure. You don’t see people in professional sports lasting until their late 40s. This isn’t common.
INJURIES ARE A PART OF THE SPORT
I’ve had a few injuries. I’ve had three concussions that were from big crashes. I’ve broken my arm twice. I first broke it in Detroit in 2000. I hit a manhole on the track. I hit it, the car took off and I hit the wall. The wheel came in and broke my left arm in two places. My elbow hit my ribs and I broke seven of them, got a concussion, and was knocked out. I woke up in the hospital a day later and I had two plates and 17 screws in my arm. The first thing I asked the Dr. was when can I drive again. He said in about four months. I was back in four weeks.
In 2003, I broke the wrist in the same arm. It was three weeks before the Indy 500. I broke the wrist on a Saturday, flew back to Indy on Sunday, and operated on Monday. I missed one of the practices and I raced and finished third with a carbon brace on. It’s not a brag and I don’t recommend people doing that but that’s just the way I’m wired. We have the best doctors in IndyCar and they wouldn’t let me race if it wasn’t safe. I remember back then, it created a big fuss because everyone that wanted to return from injury quickly kept bothering my doctors. You attribute being able to come back faster to mindset, great medical people around you, taking risks and having a body that is so healthy that the recovery is much quicker.
If you’re fit, you recover quicker. If you’re strong, you don’t get as hurt in a race car. Focus on the big things, not just getting strong — flexibility and being smart with your training. If you don’t feel good or you feel some pain that you think is going to jeopardize something, don’t do it. If I feel a pull or something in my leg, I’m not going to run but I’ll go swim and see if it feels better. Trying to prevent injuries outside the car is one thing. Once inside, we can’t prevent when something happens.
BE SUSCEPTIBLE TO EVOLVING
Just like with working out, you need to change constantly because you’ll get tired from the same thing. If you do biceps every day, eventually it doesn’t do anything for you. I like to feel the pain and I’ve changed my routine every quarter. The bike riding and running stay the same but I’ll change the way I do my drills, intervals, and short and long rides. I have to constantly adapt because I need that motivation. If it’s the same thing over and over, my mind won’t let me do it with the same intensity. I’m always looking for new things, challenging my trainers on what we could be doing differently. I try and challenge every new theory or workout, the new workout drinks, and methods.
KEEP YOURSELF IN CHECK
My dad passed away on a Thursday night and I had to race that weekend. I ended up winning that race. That was a big one for me. Thank God, I’ve never suffered from anxiety or depression. I think that’s why I’m able to keep challenging myself constantly. Like normal people, I went through a tough divorce a long time ago. I had to race still, and I went through a few of those races without being able to sleep the night before because you’re arguing, worrying about other life problems. I’m happily married now and have been for 15 years.
Although people picture us as very strong and successful, we have the same struggles as everyone. The difference is I can’t wake up and tell my boss that I don’t think I can race today because I’m not well. That’s something that’s been good and bad for me because I’ve lived my life prioritizing my career the entire time. Now, that I have a big family and a wife, it’s something she puts me in check about quite a bit. You can become selfish even if you don’t want to. Everything revolves around you and everything is for you because you’re the center of attention. We’re all human, so you can get used to that and it becomes your normal. The biggest struggle has always been to keep myself in check if I’m being too selfish, which I am. I’m extremely selfish because I’m a product of my career and I’ve worked really hard to try and balance that. I go to therapy twice a week for that.
PREPARE FOR THE NEXT CHAPTER
Retirement from IndyCar is one thing. I’m not totally retired. I’m still racing in two different series — one in Brazil and one here. The IndyCar chapter of my life is at an end. I am extremely excited about this new project working with Arrow McLaren to be part of the team to help my teammates — I think I can contribute a lot with my experience on the technical side. I’m still racing and I’m enjoying things on the outside of the car. A lot of the pressure is off of me and it’s a new pressure. I’ve never thought that I was outside of driving the car, which was naive of me because it always comes to an end eventually.
Since I’ve joined this team, I’ve met so many great people. I’ve been around for a long time, and I’ve known a lot of people. Arrow McLaren is still a fairly new team. We just clicked with the people, the way we work, the mentality and we have so many things in common. It’s no different than a relationship. You have to have things in common to be able to date or have a friendship. I’m looking forward to being a part of the team. They make me feel a part of the team outside of the car. At this point, I’m focused on giving them a win at the 500. That’s my last goal as an IndyCar driver. After that, just contribute to the success of the team.
NEVER STOP CHASING, EVEN AFTER THE RACING IS OVER
I have a 15-year-old that has a lot of questions now. When I lost my dad, I was eight years old, and I put it in my head that I wanted to be a racecar driver. No matter what, how difficult it was, that’s what I was going to do. My biggest piece of advice is when you wake up, ask yourself how badly you really want it. The easiest thing to do is to give up or not start. Anyone can do that. You already have the answer no if you don’t ask or go after it, the no is already there. Go for the yes.
Follow Tony Kanaan on Instagram @tkanaan