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Should Indy 500 winner have to buy his ride?
Between Tony George's "Vision" and the noose around IndyCar's neck in the way of low NBC Sports Network TV ratings, even the Indy 500 winner and the most popular driver in the series has to buy his ride.
This past Friday, the rumor mill exploded when Robin Miller broke the story that Tony Kanaan has a standing offer from Joe Gibbs Racing to go drive in NASCAR for a living. The deal is supposedly a three-year deal with a guaranteed salary. He would drive in the Nationwide Series for a year before moving up to Sprint Cup in 2015. He would have to bring no money and no sponsorship – just his helmet and personality.

Throughout the weekend, there were denials from Joe Gibbs Racing and total skepticism from writers that cover NASCAR – mainly Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press - that such an offer was ever made. What we do know is that earlier this week, Tony Kanaan was at the Gibbs shop near Charlotte. We don’t really know if he was invited or just stopped in on his own. So, let the speculation begin!

For argument’s sake; let’s assume that such an offer from Gibbs does exist. From what I understand, Tony Kanaan wants to stay in IndyCar. That is his first love and what he has geared his career on for the past eighteen seasons – ever since he and childhood friend Helio Castroneves first landed at Tasman Motorsports in Indy Lights in 1996. He won the IndyCar championship in 2004 and this year’s Indianapolis 500. There are no other holes remaining on his resume.

With those accomplishments, Kanaan feels that he should not have to pound the pavement to drum up sponsorship dollars at this point in his career. I don’t blame him.

I understand the dynamics of today’s economic environment. These are not the same times when Kanaan first broke into CART. Beer, cigarette and oil companies are no longer pushing each other out of the way to align themselves with the best teams and drivers. But this isn’t Mario Moraes we’re talking about here. This is the defending Indianapolis 500 champion and arguable IndyCar’s most popular driver.

This is not without precedent, however. When Arie Luyendyk won the 1990 Indianapolis 500, his team was sold to a joint venture with Bob Tezak and Vince Granatelli. The team ran with blank sidepods for most of the season. Entering the month of May, the defending champion had no sponsorship until a lat-minute deal was struck to get RCA sponsorship in time for Race Day. The team folded its tent at the end of the 1991 season and Luyendyk’s schedule was reduced to only two races – Indianapolis and Michigan – for 1992, as a teammate to Eddie Cheever, the full-time driver at Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

Just because it has happened before doesn’t make it acceptable. This is not acceptable.

Ironically, it is Chip Ganassi’s team that is most mentioned as Kanaan’s best chance to stay in IndyCar. I am no insider, but I do keep my ear to the ground. From what I understand, there is no longer any chance that Kanaan stays at KV Racing Technology. He is good friends with Jimmy Vasser, the “V” in KV, but there is no money there and Kevin Kalkhoven no longer seems interested in pursuing sponsorship dollars. I think KV will be a one-car team next year with Simona de Silvestro and her fully funded ride, with perhaps a completely different ownership structure – but that’s purely a guess.

Bryan Herta is doing well to put one car on the track. As much as he would like to have his former teammate in a second car – I just don’t see it happening. I don’t know if Michael Andretti would bring back his former star – even if James Hinchcliffe were to move to Ganassi. There’s been no mention of any interest from Roger Penske for Kanaan, so it would appear that Ganassi is his only real option.

Based on what I’ve read and heard, Ganassi has some sponsorship money of his own, but Kanaan would need to bring more. I understand Kanaan has some sponsorship lined up, but not enough for Ganassi – so he would have to come up with some additional cash from somewhere.

The “somewhere” is part of the key. Should IndyCar step in and pay Chip Ganassi the balance? Does Chip Ganassi or Michael Andretti have a responsibility to the series to give Kanaan a discount and let him join his very successful team? If either of those happens, what does that do for the following year and beyond?

The answer to those questions are what’s at the core here. To answer the first question, I don’t normally believe that the series should invest in particular drivers or teams in order to maintain status quo. Teams and drivers should survive or fail on their own accord. Tony George propped up the series and teams for years and it created a family squabble that continues to this day. But in this particular case, the series is committing malpractice if they sit by, do nothing and let Kanaan walk.

As far as Chip Ganassi’s or any other owner’s responsibility to the series –no, I don’t believe that Kanaan should be given a discount. These budgets are set. Ganassi knows what it takes to run a full-time team up to the standards he has set for years. Ganassi doesn’t pay his drivers all that well. There’s a reason Scott Dixon affectionately refers to him as “Cheap” Ganassi. But he invests in the development of his cars and overall teams. Ganassi knows what the business model is to filed a successful team. Ask him to deviate from that and you are asking him to compromise what he puts into making a successful team.

Even if one or both of these things happen to keep Tony Kanaan on board for 2014; what about 2015 and beyond? Tony Kanaan has accomplished everything a driver could hope for. He has won a ton of races. He is a former series champion. He is the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion. He is not young, but he doesn’t drive around at the back of the field just to remain active. He is still very competitive and one of the best drivers out there. I agree completely that he should not be having to spend all of his spare time pitching himself to companies and potential sponsors.

With the departure of Danica Patrick following the 2011 season, most would consider Helio Castroneves to be the face of the IndyCar Series, mostly due to his appearance on Dancing With The Stars instead of his three Indianapolis 500 victories. Helio made be considered the most popular with casual fans or non-fans, but to the hard-core fan base, Tony Kanaan is much more popular. The same applies in his home country of Brazil, where Kanaan is recognized as one of them whereas Castroneves is considered to be too “Americanized”.

Look at their Twitter accounts; Helio Castroneves (@h3lio) has about 90,000 followers, while Tony Kanaan (@TonyKanaan) has over 600,000. For comparison’s sake; LeBron James (@KingJames) has almost ten million follower, our friend Pressdog (@pressdog) has almost 6,200 and yours truly (@Oilpressureblog) has a small but very loyal 1,300 followers. As you can tell, Kanaan’s popularity far exceeds Helio’s, but neither can compare with the NBA superstar.

With all of that said, Mark Miles and IndyCar need to do whatever it takes to keep their most popular driver and defending Indianapolis 500 champion in the series. Can you imagine the NASCAR spin? Their former champion and the defending Indianapolis 500 champion has to run a season in our development level before becoming worthy of running in our top series. I shudder to think about it. Things were bad enough in 2008, when the Daytona 500 had three former Indianapolis 500 winners, including the previous two winners. Somehow, I think this would be worse.

Of course, there is also the school of thought that no offer was made from Gibbs or any other NASCAR team. Some speculate that Tony Kanaan and Robin Miller conspired to concoct this whole story in order to force IndyCar and/or Chip Ganassi to do something. I’m not sure I buy that.. Maybe the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

NASCAR offer or not – Tony Kanaan should not be struggling at this point in his career to find sponsorship. To me, he is a marketer’s dream. He is fast and respected on the track, and he is witty and personable off the track. You would think that a driver that has worked as hard as he has should be able to call his own shots as the end of his career approaches. Until his untimely departure from Andretti Autosport following the 2010 season, Tony Kanaan had never had to worry about sponsorship. I understand that drivers bringing sponsorship to the table has become the norm, but for the elite drivers – that is still not the case.

Tony Kanaan is an elite driver and should not be put in this position. As much as I’d hate to see it happen, if such an offer truly exists from Joe Gibbs Racing – I wouldn’t blame him a bit for taking it. It would serve IndyCar right. Oilpressure.com

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