Why all race fans need to listen to Tony Kanaan’s advice, and now

Tony Kanaan, A.J. Foyt Enterprises, at Twin Ring Motegi, iRacing, IndyCar (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Tony Kanaan, A.J. Foyt Enterprises, at Twin Ring Motegi, iRacing, IndyCar (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /

Tony Kanaan’s advice about uniting fans of all forms of motorsport is as applicable now as it has ever been following a weekend of IndyCar and Formula 1 controversy.

Shortly after IndyCar was forced to postpone the start of the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic, the series formed a virtual racing series with iRacing so that the drivers could still compete against one another in what is practically as close to the real thing as possible.

The sim racing series, titled the IndyCar iRacing Challenge, wrapped up this past weekend with a race at virtual Indianapolis Motor Speedway following races at virtual Watkins Glen International, virtual Barber Motorsports Park, virtual Michigan International Speedway, virtual Twin Ring Motegi and virtual Circuit of the Americas.

What was intended to be a series to entertain fans during a stressful and uncertain time served its purpose — to an extent.

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But the race at virtual Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the fallout from the controversial action that transpired rendered it counterproductive at a time when nobody really wanted to deal with any sort of unnecessary drama.

Naturally, this series was always going to be competitive. Even those who incorrectly insist that “it’s just a video game!” know enough to make that assessment. Whether you get a bunch of the world’s top drivers on the real race track or in sim rigs in their respective homes around the globe, you’re going to get high-level action loaded with intensity. With everyone getting antsy to get back to real racing, that has only been magnified.

And, inevitably, you’re going to get hurt feelings.

But the fallout from the race at Indy, with tempers flaring among drivers and fans from all over the world voicing their opinions and insulting one another as well as the drivers themselves on social media (as tends to be the case after any real-world race in this day and age), was a complete disaster.

And it starts with fans’ inability — and the inability of certain drivers — to take and apply the sage advice given by 2004 IndyCar champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 champion Tony Kanaan before these virtual series really picked up:

“It is not us and them. It is the motorsports world,” said Kanaan.

One would hope that truer words have never been spoken.

During an interview with 2014 NASCAR Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick and Matt Yocum on SiriusXM’s NASCAR Channel a little over a month ago, Kanaan addressed the divide between fanbases of different forms of motorsport.

He focused on the divide between NASCAR and IndyCar fans, but the advice really applies across the board.

He believed that the the pandemic could serve as a silver lining, in that it created a real-life NASCAR-IndyCar doubleheader weekend on Independence Day weekend in early July and that the virtual world of iRacing allows drivers from all different series to compete in all different forms of motorsport.

Here is what he had to say.

"“It’s time to send that message. If we don’t come out of this situation as better people, globally, in every way, shape or form…it’s just being kind to people. Hopefully, we’ll be sending the right messages, doing radio shows together, doing live on Instagram together, doing races together.“I was bugging Jimmie Johnson to say, ‘Can I be a guest in NASCAR on iRacing?’ I think the misperception [sic], and probably a little our fault as well, is that people don’t know how (IndyCar and NASCAR drivers) respect each and how we think each other’s jobs are so cool.”"

He further discussed the misconception about NASCAR and IndyCar drivers.

"“We always respected each other and thought each other’s jobs were cool. That tweet was for our fans who say, ‘Those cars are too fast. Those cars are too slow.’ It’s time for us to stop. It’s a racing family.“For people who don’t understand about racing, any race car is cool. Doesn’t matter if it’s a go-kart, a sprint car, a Cup car, it doesn’t matter. … The situation, we’re in, we’re all equal. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. We’re all in the same boat now. We can’t do what we love. It just clicked. I said it’s time to send that message. Hopefully this will be the end for ‘you guys and us’ for the fans. For drivers, I don’t think we ever thought of it that way.”"

This is advice that we all need to reflect on after what happened between 2016 IndyCar champion and 2019 Indianapolis 500 champion Simon Pagenaud and McLaren Formula 1 driver Lando Norris, who began competing in the series via invitation at virtual Circuit of the Americas last weekend, at the end of this past Saturday afternoon’s race.

Pagenaud was contending for the race lead with Graham Rahal when Norris decided to take it three-wide going into turn two of the four-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) oval in Speedway, Indiana.

That got Pagenaud, who was on the outside, loose and sent him hard into the wall, ending his chance to win the race.

After receiving repairs to his car, Pagenaud stated, “We take Lando out, let’s do it!”

Shortly thereafter, a slowing Pagenaud got in the way of Norris, now the race leader, while attempting to pit, and that caused a massive collision, ending Norris’s chance to win.

Despite his earlier remark, Pagenaud himself did seem genuinely shocked by the accident itself, as he stated that he had only wanted to slow Norris down — still an attempt at revenge.

Norris is young at just 20 years old, but he is a down-to-earth driver who is well beyond his years as far as his skill and maturity are concerned in terms of his competitiveness. In the Formula 1 world, he is known and respected among fans and his fellow competitors for his playful, entertaining charisma off the track.

And he absolutely had a right to be upset with what happened at Indy and with what Pagenaud did, even if Pagenaud was truly only trying to “slow him down”.

He also had a right to respond to Pagenaud and to call him out for ruining a race that he trained hard for, even though he technically ruined Pagenaud’s first.

But in doing so, he went to the one place a driver simply shouldn’t go when it comes to any two different racing series.

"“And then because that guy gets a bit salty that a non-IndyCar driver is about to win an Indy race. It just ruins it. So, yeah, that’s that.”"

Emotions were obviously running high. And while, yes, this incident does give IndyCar somewhat of a bad look given that the IndyCar iRacing Challenge was intended to be a professionally run series among the sport’s best and the end of this particular race was an absolute mockery of what professional racing should be, this statement could not possibly be more naive and egocentric.

First of all, what led to the incident to begin with was the collision between Norris and Pagenaud that ended Pagenaud’s chance to win the race, as Norris had tried to execute a three-wide pass on the inside of turn two.

If Norris tries that in real life, Pagenaud probably ends up in the fence. Heck, Norris probably goes with him. That’s not a move you make in an IndyCar oval race at more than 220 miles per hour, and it didn’t work in the virtual world, either.

Norris is admittedly not experienced in oval racing, so he does deserve some benefit of the doubt here, but he does have more than a decade of experience in iRacing.

Yes, Pagenaud did end up getting in Norris’s way and costing him the potential race win, which also obviously wouldn’t fly in the real world either — except maybe in NASCAR.

It was a clear act of retaliation for the move that Norris had literally just used to end Pagenaud’s race, albeit unintentionally. Norris either doesn’t know that, which would be understandable given his lack of oval racing experience, he doesn’t seem to care, or he is selectively ignoring it.

But regardless, to say that Pagenaud’s move comes down to Norris being a non-IndyCar driver is a flat-out ridiculous statement that will only do more completely unnecessary damage than good to the fanbases of both Formula 1 and IndyCar in the long run via additional animosity.

If that’s what he really believes about his venture into a new series, why even bother showing up to race?

This is the exact elitist mentality, which has morphed into a kind of victim mentality, that has plagued the two fanbases for decades and will only continue to split them apart, especially as more Formula 1 drivers move to IndyCar, be it full-time or just for a race or two.

Or, in this case, a virtual race or two.

And, of course, it will only feed the closed-minded trolls and distance the rest of the racing community from the complete sense that Kanaan is making about unity.

Let’s also not forget the fact that two-time Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin, who has never competed in a real IndyCar race in his life and doesn’t even compete in open-wheel racing full-time like Norris does, won the unofficial series title with a victory in both a road course race and an oval race.

If this had anything to do with non-IndyCar drivers being successful in IndyCar racing, IndyCar would not have opened the series to non-IndyCar drivers to begin with. It’s that simple.

Or, McLaughlin would have been intentionally wrecked every week, which didn’t happen. He did get wrecked out of the lead once at virtual Twin Ring Motegi, but it was not via an intentional move.

Other than that race, he placed no lower that fourth throughout the entire six-race series, and nobody criticized him for beating the regular IndyCar drivers…and regularly.

But IndyCar took Kanaan’s positive point of view and used it for the good of the sport. And for the most part, it worked. When drivers such as NASCAR stars Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. decided to give virtual IndyCar racing a try, it was seen as a positive for all parties involved.

It seemed that way for Norris as well, and that view was magnified after he won an entertaining race at virtual Circuit of the Americas in his series debut and mentioned that he may like to try IndyCar for real one day after he achieves his goals in Formula 1.

But now, despite the overall success story of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge and the involvement of drivers from several other racing series, we, whether we are IndyCar fans, Formula 1 fans or fans of both, have been left with a sour taste in our mouths because of how quickly we allowed our interests to diverge from what Kanaan wisely stated just a few weeks ago.

Select individuals allowed the completely unnecessary yet seemingly burning desire to split apart the IndyCar and Formula 1 fanbases to intervene in a virtual racing series when the idea was completely irrelevant to begin with, given the scenario surrounding the root of the controversy.

The irony of it all?

It was all started as a way to relieve stress.

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As of now, there is no more virtual IndyCar racing scheduled before real racing is scheduled to resume on Saturday, June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway, the first race on a now 15-race schedule. This schedule remains subject to change.

While there won’t be a chance to right the wrong on the virtual track from this past weekend, there also won’t be a chance to make things worse, so let’s hope this all blows over before then and the bridges that have been burnt can be rebuilt in time for the 2020 season, which fans have been eagerly awaiting since last September.