Tony Kanaan drives through the grass and the memories in his final Indy 500

Nate Atkins
Indianapolis Star
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Tony Kanaan whirred around the corner of the Indianapolis 500 with the recklessness of a man who knows it's his final run.

The 48-year-old was rumbling in his orange and black Arrow McLaren car, buried in the middle of the standings, with nothing imminent on the line except for perhaps some pride. He wanted to make a pass, and he didn't quite have room, so he zipped left until half of his car was in the grass, chopping the blades up like a mower until he was back on the track and in the clear.

"The grass was spot on," Kanaan said with a laugh. "Whoever cuts that is pretty good."

It was a day of risks at the Indianapolis 500, with three crashes that resulted in red flags, including one that led to a controversial finish to allow Josef Newgarden to pass reigning champion Marcus Ericsson on the final lap to win the crown. Kanaan's stakes were lower in hardware as he zipped in and out of tough spots to finish 16th.

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Arrow McLaren SP driver Tony Kanaan (66) tears up after watching a farewell video Sunday, May 28, 2023, before his final Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

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But this was the end to a career of doing things for the story, the thrill, the cheers and the inertia of hundreds of thousands of people packed into a track in the heart of Indianapolis.

It started with a kid in Brazil who had a dream to race and a promise he made to his father to become the very best.

It peaked in 2013 with an Indianapolis 500 victory.

It had to end a certain way, too.

"I told the guys before we started, right, it was either going to be a win or anything apart from the win we were going to celebrate regardless," Kanaan said. "I think I would do a disgrace to almost 400,000 people that were there that made me feel the way they did to say I'm sad."

That doesn't mean the tears didn't come. Immediately after he finished and that orange McLaren rolled to a stop, Kanaan hopped out and pulled his helmet off his head and embraced one of his best friends, 2021 champion Hélio Castroneves, and the two of them began to cry.

These were happy tears, shared on their sport's brightest stage, one of the many random yet calculated ways these lives can intersect. Three and a half decades after their first race together, these two 48-year-old Brazilian drivers spent much of Sunday battling for 15th place.

"He's a fan favorite for a reason," Newgarden said of Kanaan. "He wears his heart right on his sleeve, publicly displayed, and I think that's why everybody loves him."

Kanaan has never been quite sure when it was going to end. He's been in his 40s for eight years now, and the drivers keep getting younger as their cars accelerate in their technology, creating a ticking clock on a man's mortality. After all, the top four finishers Sunday had an average age of 28.5.

Sometimes you make risky moves to stave off the end.

Sometimes you drive through the grass.

Kanaan tried to finish this out in 2020. He and his A.J. Foyt Racing team billed it as his own version of The Last Dance. But in the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, something in his heart wasn't ready to let go.

"I said I'm not retiring because I don't want to race in an empty stands, and what they did for me today puts an end of me coming back here," Kanaan said. "Because that experience right there, I don't think I will have it ever again."

Arrow McLaren SP driver Tony Kanaan (66) climbs out of his car Sunday, May 28, 2023, after finishing 16th in the 107th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Ever since that 2020 race, he's been like a cat finding extra lives. He was picked up by Chip Ganassi Racing, extending his career another two years. Last year in this event, he finished third, showing the world he had just a little left in the tank. That's when Arrow McLaren picked him up, 21 years after his first 500.

In that sense, he thinks finishing 16th this year could be a blessing disguised in struggle. Make no mistake: He wanted to win. That's why he drove through the grass. But at some point, Father Time was going to slow him down, and that day feels like it has arrived.

For a man who didn't win an Indianapolis 500 until he turned 38, that was a message he needed to feel in his bones.

Kanaan isn't entirely done racing. He has some stock car events coming up in Brazil. He'll compete in the Superstar Racing Experience this summer.

"I'm not going to a beach to drink margaritas and you're never going to see me again," he said.

Santino Ferrucci, the third-place driver who is exactly half his age, then cut in.

"You're sure no beach, no margarita?" Ferrucci said.

Kanaan replied, "No, I have four kids. I don't have time for that."

The two share a laugh.

"There's babysitters," Ferrucci said.

Kanaan looked the 24-year-old in the eye.

"No," he said, "There's not."

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