Two of IndyCar's most popular drivers have important decisions to make this year.
As RACER chronicled last week, three-time IndyCar Series winner James Hinchcliffe will have to decide whether he should re-sign with Andretti Autosport for 2014, if not longer, or bring his talents to another team in the paddock. While the face of IndyCar's youth movement ponders that option, one of the series' most popular members of the establishment, KV Racing's Tony Kanaan, is facing the same dilemma with his own team.
As the only driver on the open market with an IndyCar Series championship (2004) and Indy 500 win (2013) on his resume, the Brazilian has the speed and cache every team covets, but with a limited number of top-tier seats available next year, he and Hinchcliffe could end up vying for the same rides.
Outside of their current teams, the most sought-after opportunity is with Ganassi Racing, which has designs on returning to a four-car operation. With six championships and four Indy 500 wins between Target drivers Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, not to mention the third member of the team, Charlie Kimball, recently joining the ranks of IndyCar race winners at Mid-Ohio, the Mike Hull-led outfit is a no-brainer for Kanaan or Hinchcliffe to pursue.
It would be surprising, however, to see the Canadian depart Andretti Autosport, leaving Kanaan as the leading candidate to finally join Ganassi. The Ganassi team has also expressed an interest in Kanaan, but like Kimball and former Ganassi driver Graham Rahal, sponsorship is needed to make the fourth car happen.
Kanaan would also be a perfect fit for Panther Racing, which continues to audition drivers to fill its vacant seat for 2014. Barracuda Racing, which is owned by Kanaan's former teammate and close friend Bryan Herta, is another solid option. The same is true with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, which could have an opening, and even Dale Coyne Racing, which has won a pair of races the last two years, could be a destination to consider.
Finally, KV Racing, which Kanaan joined in 2011, might look to keep him for a fourth season. Team co-owner Jimmy Vasser recently told RACER he hopes to have Kanaan back in the No. 11 entry, but at present, the future is wide open for TK. With just a few months left in the season, the beloved Brazilian is, in simple terms, a man without a surefire place in the paddock when 2014 arrives.
“Right now, I'm a free agent and I haven't had anything concrete from anybody,” Kanaan said in a RACER exclusive. “Nobody has come to me to propose a deal, including my own team, and I know that it's only August, but I don't want to have this drag on for a long time if I can help it.”
If Kanaan lacked any marketing power before winning the Indy 500, scoring a win at America's biggest race has surely helped the 38-year-old in his quest to extend his career as an Indy car driver. He's helped KV to find sponsors, bringing numerous Brazilian companies to the team, and has also grown his national awareness since scoring an emotional victory at the Brickyard. He'll need to continue doing so, despite his many accomplishments in open-wheel racing.
“Honestly, every team I have spoken to needs some kind of money – for me to bring something from sponsors, and it's not something new,” he explained. “Ever since Andretti (in 2010), I've had to bring sponsors with me, so if I have to do that again, OK, this is something I'll keep working on, but then I'm going to choose where I drive. If I have to pay, I'm going to choose where I go, but finding all of the money isn't realistic because for the best teams, everyone knows that's like $6 million.
“That's a lot of money for anybody, so realistically, I'm going to have to raise my hand, say that I have a certain amount of sponsorship money, and see who wants to hire me. And then we can work together to find the rest of the money together. I know that if I can work with a good team this [off-season] to partner on a deal and find the budget, we will be successful together. The best situation is for someone to just hire me and they have the money or find it themselves, but you can't count on that these days.”
Outside the promotional talents he has to offer, Kanaan has also built a loyal team around him at KV Racing – one that pulled together major elements of the championship-winning Andretti crew from 2004. Wherever he lands – at KV or elsewhere, TK has most of a turnkey solution to offer.
“It's not just the driver,” he said. “It's the Indy 500 winner, the Indy 500-winning engineer...a really amazing group of talented people who work very well together. I know we all want to stay together, if that's possible, no matter where that is. They talk about chemistry all of the time, and I think that when you already have that, it makes things a lot easier to be successful right away.”
It's believed Kanaan was granted permission by KV to talk with other teams before their window of exclusive negotiations had expired, meaning TK could need to escalate his discussions with Ganassi and others. Although Kanaan is known for being one of the most expensive drivers in the IndyCar paddock, he closed the conversation with an interesting and unexpected note that could shape his next multi-year IndyCar contract.
“I think there's a lot of talk that money is the biggest thing, or that I cost too much, so maybe some team owners don't bother to talk to me, but that isn't the case,” he declared. “I think that's a reputation that I have, but it isn't necessarily a reality. You don't know what it will cost until you ask, or what kind of deal we can work out together. At this point in my career, I know I can still win championships, I can obviously win races.
“There's a lot I can do for a team – the big ones everybody wants to drive for and maybe some of the ones right below them who want to become big teams. All I can say is I'd like to have those conversations.
“This isn't all about the money for me. I want to finish my IndyCar career fighting for championships, period, and that's all. The defending Indy 500 winner will be back next year, and who knows who it will be with right now, but I'm ready to talk and start making that happen.”