Notes & Quotes: Indianapolis 500
Michael Cannon joined AJ Foyt Racing as the lead engineer in January. He has brought to the team a wealth of knowledge and experience gleaned from his 25-plus years in America's premier level of motorsports. The "Cannon Effect" (coined by writer Marshall Pruett) became most evident at Indianapolis this month as AJ Foyt Racing and drivers Santino Ferrucci and rookie Benjamin Pedersen impressed from the first day of practice. A second-generation racer, Cannon tried his hand at driving but decided on an engineering career. His father was John Cannon, a talented driver who competed in Can-Am sports cars and Indy cars in the 60's and 70's. We asked Michael a lot of questions...
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
MC: "Born in Montreal, Quebec. Moved to Houston in '65 and then to Pasadena, Calif. shortly after. Lived there until 1971. Moved back to Montreal and I consider Montreal to be my ‘hometown.’ A wonderful city in which to spend one’s formative years."
Education: "Dropped out of University after 3 semesters to become a Race Car Driver!"
Residence: "Indianapolis area since February, 1997."
Wife: "Jill – married for 32 years." (they met at Road America, Cannon's favorite track outside of IMS)
Children: "Colin – 23 and Cooper – 25."
Pets: "Two Westies – Super-Giant Wonder Marv (Magnus) and Tilly. Also, several lizards, frogs, and the like that I became responsible for when Colin left for college."
Hobbies/Interests: "My down-time pleasure is cooking."
How did you get interested in motorsports:
MC: "My family was involved in racing since before I was born."
Michael's father John Cannon won the F5000 title in 1970 and competed in the 1971 Formula One race at Watkins Glen. He is pictured here with wife Pat and son Michael in 1970.
What was the first race you attended (that you remember)?
MC: "The first-ever Can-Am Race. Mont Tremblant, 1966."
When did you start working in the IndyCar Series?
MC: "I began as an assistant on Patrick Carpentier’s Player’s/Forsythe car in 1998. In 2000, I was moved to the lead engineer position and have held that same position since then. Over the past 20+ years, I’ve been fortunate to work along many very successful mentors at teams such as Forsythe, Herdez, Andretti, Ed Carpenter, KV, Coyne and Ganassi."
What are your goals for the team?
MC: "I think it’s the same as every team in this paddock; do better at every event and never stop pushing to improve yourself and the team."
Cannon is working with both drivers and their race engineers (Ferrucci's Daniele Cucchiaroni and Pedersen's Roberto Garcia) this season. At IMS, he is checking data on his laptop before the cars go out on track. (Note the screensaver on his monitor)
What is the most challenging aspect of preparing for the Indy 500?
MC: "Like Olympians, you’re trying to peak at just the right time – Qualifying and Race. The planning, organization, and preparation required is significant."
Is Monday after quals the first day that you focus on race setups?
MC: "No, we do it early in the week. We've got two different boost levels, right. So when we're in the race level boost, we'll do all race setup stuff, investigate a few things, and typically, what we find is, if you've got a good race car, you're in a good qualifying car. The same basics apply. There's one or two things that you may do mechanically to favor it in qualifying, but if it's a good race car, it is a good qualifying car. And then, obviously qualify. Then we'll take what we learned in the first two days of running and apply it today (first practice after qualifying ends). This year, the tire wear has been more than previous years so we're trying to address that. I think we found a nice solution in a couple of different ways. We tried a couple of different downforce levels because it's really hot out there. Both drivers seemed very happy with their cars. So I think we've got something good for Carb Day. I'm pretty happy."
With your past experience, how do you rate this year in terms of confidence going into the race?
MC: "It is the right driver. Obviously the cars have been unbelievably quick. So this track definitely chooses who's going to win. I think that's a Tony Kanaanism. But man, right now, all signs point to yes. As we know this is a pretty fickle place. There's probably four or five quality cars out there and wind up racing at the end but we're solidly there."
Cannon chats with his drivers Pedersen and Ferrucci after a practice session.
You've said that strategy evolves during the race. Is this race more typical of that than say a road race or not?
MC: "No, a road race is probably a little bit more flexible. With the current aero package in the cars, you have to be careful not to mire yourself down in the back, where you're so strung out. It's very hard to pass. So you'd like to stay up front as much as possible and be in the thin air; it just makes a driver's life a lot easier."
In practice, Santino sounded like he could pass at will?
MC: "By the end of Thursday's running, we were very confident we had a solid racecar, enough so that we actually went back to the garage and spent an hour turning it into the qualifying configuration just to make sure that he was happy. Not many people do that. And sure enough, the very first blast with the car in qualifying trim, the car was really quick. And that's translated again into a good starting position; put it back to a race car and it's really quick as a race car."
On Monday, it didn't reflect that on the speed chart. Why?
MC: "It's pointless. It's completely pointless. Now those big numbers like 229s. that's when you go out of the pits, knowing that you're gonna go and try to Hollywood up and put a big number up there. We weren't interested in that. All we wanted to do was run in the realm about where we thought we were gonna be--say first, second, third, fourth in line. Makes sense, right? So we led, we're in second and third, ran fourth and saw if you worked on passing our way back up to the front and he was able to. So if we were starting 22nd, what you do with the car is to sort of skew it towards being in the traffic the whole time. And then if you get to the front, well, hopefully you can hang on. Because of where we qualified, we're one of the pacesetters. We're one of the cars to beat. Okay, so we need to think about what's going to happen at the end of the race. And is our car capable of winning the race if it comes down to two or three cars? And so that's what we've been doing -- focusing on what does a race winning car feel like in around a few other cars? So I have no idea where we finished the session. We didn't care because we're just working on tire wear and balance in traffic."
On Carb Day, what will you do? Practice a lot or not a lot?
MC: "We have two sets of tires we really want to devote to that, so that will be the same thing. Go out. Make sure everything is happy. We'll probably try one or two different downforce levels to the air is there. So the race is always a little bit different thing. But you always try and run the car in every different situation: cold track, hot track, a cloudy day, windy day. So you have this little sort of Latin Hypercube of solutions, and come race day we look at the forecast and say, This is what we need for ride heights, this is what we need for downforce, what we for need for this and that. So we built ourselves a nice little box and we can pick and choose as we want. We've run on a 100 degree track, we've run on a 110 (degree track), to a 126. So you have all these data points and you just store them away in your memory bank, an then away you go."
Cannon and race engineer Roberto Garcia watch as mechanic Shelby Tracey works on front wing.
Is there any advantage to pitting with somebody like they do in NASCAR so that when you get back out on track, you're not alone?
MC: "Different situation here. Because if you take Daytona for example, those guys go out and they could pretty much brick the car if they're there by themselves. We're not there, but it looks like it on television. Right? But it's a bit like watching Olympians on the four inch balance beam.
It looks pretty easy but paint a four inch black line on the living room floor and try to walk it. So there's a lot of driving that people are not aware of: using the throttle, using the brakes, steering, weight jacker, anti-roll bars, just flat out and what you're doing with lines, make sure there's air going over the car. Very aerodynamic animals. So there's a lot of driving going on. So I don't think pitting with somebody is necessarily advantageous unless they're really quick. We don't need to get held up or delayed."
How does engineering data drive chassis adjustments during practices on race weekends?
MC: "It’s a major factor in tuning these cars. The trickiest bit is intelligently using the reams and reams of data that we generate. There’s not much we don't monitor and track – which requires eyes on all that data!"
Do you tailor chassis setup to the individual driver's preferences or what yields peak performance?
MC: "Of course – to a certain extent, though. At places like Indy the majority of the car’s settings are data-driven but the driver’s input is the deciding factor."
How does the team develop its race strategy -- what are the factors you take into consideration?
MC: "That’s complicated - the Race is updating itself every lap and we update our strategy accordingly. There can be a lot of ‘chatter’ on the stand at times."
From when you started as an engineer, what are the biggest changes you've seen in IndyCar technology?
MC: "My early years were still the domain of Mechanical Engineers. As the years have worn on, the rules have continued to be more and more restrictive. As a result, accuracy of your data, the processing and distilling of that data into readily understandable, useful information is now paramount. We’re now recruiting more from Electrical, Computer, and Physics fields these days."
How has it changed your job?
MC: "Our level of understanding the various dynamics has improved massively. We still spend a lot of time a bit confused, as a paddock, but at a much higher level."
Have you ever raced cars yourself? If so, when and where?
MC: "I did a little bit of Formula Ford in the mid-eighties. If I had been any good, I wouldn’t be answering this questionnaire today, right?"
Cannon: "Here I am with my entire pit crew."
Do you have a favorite race track? If so, what is it and why?
MC: "I love Indy – I’ve always enjoyed the challenges there – but Elkhart Lake/Road America is THE place for me."
What is your proudest achievement in racing?
MC: "That I was able to turn a summer job into a 40-year career – one that allowed me to raise a family and to travel to so many different parts of the world."
What are the top three experiences or items on your "Bucket List?"
"Find and destroy every copy of the film “Driven.”
Amass a small fortune selling Tony Kanaan “Last Lap” Tee-shirts over the next 15 or so years.
Work with Marc Plourde (Racing). Duh." [a fantasy-based website where Cannon is "apparently" the engineer--without Cannon's permission)
What is the best advice you've ever received and from whom?
MC: “Your racecar’s performance doesn’t define you as a human being.” (Anonymous)
Do you have a favorite saying?
MC: “No, it’s going to be FUN.” – Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence.
SANTINO FERRUCCI will start fourth in this year's Indy 500 after posting a four-lap average of 233.661mph. It is the best career start for Ferrucci at the Speedway and the best start for AJ Foyt Racing since Robby Gordon qualified third in 2001.
How much has Michael Cannon added to this team?
SF: "His direction has been everything on the team, just the way that we're bringing the team up to speed with the current generation of work that needs to be done on these cars to make them capable of being as fast as they are. So it's one of those things where you get to the Speedway and just kind of listen and do what you're told and things go the right way. It's amazing how that works."
After Monday's practice, how confident are you because you weren't high on the speed chart?
SF: "It doesn't matter. Anything after qualifying, the speed chart does not matter. We are very competitive. We're one of the few cars passing through the field. So I think that's all that needs to be said."
Started you've never started this far up front. So will that change your approach at all?
SF: "Nope. Didn't change anything. Just got to be there at the end. Same mindset as always which is be there at the end. It's always the same mindset at this race."
"I've always ridden around in this race. You get up to the front, not by taking risks or doing anything dumb. You let everybody else do something dumb for you. So I mean Dane (Carter) has been spotting for me for four years, he will tell you that. I've done nothing but just pass cars that have given me spots and just sit there and ride, and have good clean stops and good restarts. You don't really need to overcomplicate things."
Do you let the race come to you?
SF: "That's a great way of saying it.
When do you press hard?
SF: "Probably going into the last stint. You start to really pick up the pace and then the final stint's always on the edge. So you always know there's gonna be a late caution too, so you just want to be in a good spot with your tires."
And how hard is it to manage the tires?
SF: "I think this year is going to be a little bit more difficult. I think we're gonna be in a good spot. Assuming we just get the right front under control. And I think we'll be okay from there.
It's just vibrating. Yeah, it's just vibrating a little bit. So we just have a little bit more work to do. It's not much, so easy life. Hopefully."
Ferrucci Fast Facts: Age 24 (Turns 25 on May 31...Born in Woodbury, CT...Lives in Dallas, Texas...Began racing karts at age 5, moved to cars in 2013...Competed in Formula 2000, British Formula 3, GP3 finishing third at Spa Francorchamps as a rookie, was development driver for Haas F1 team for three years (2016-2018), moved to Formula 2 in 2018...moved to NTT INDYCAR Series in 2019 finishing 13th in standings for Dale Coyne and won Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year after finishing seventh...13th in standings again with fourth place finish in the 500...drove part-time in 2021-22 but maintained top-10 streak in Indy 500 with finishes of sixth (RLL Racing) and 10th (Dreyer Reinbold Racing)...Competed part-time in NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2021-22.
BENJAMIN PEDERSEN will start 11th in the 500 after posting an average speed of 232.671mph. His performance as a rookie in practice and qualifying has been nothing short of impressive considering his first laps on the Speedway were during the Rookie Orientation Program last month. (The following quotes were taken from Monday's post-practice news conference in the trackside media center)
What did you learn from Monday’s practice?
B.P.: "Yeah, longest run we've done on tires. So just seeing what the dropoff is like and then trying to do changes to make the dropoff different. We had a lot of speed in the thing, so that's very encouraging. Just honestly really fun days. There's so much pressure during qualifying and it's all about just going by yourself, but today is kind of like you can go out and play around with people and let people by, they let you by, and just figure out how to tune the race car the best possible way."
You've had speed all week. A.J. is happy I'm assuming?
B.P.: "He's so happy for the whole team. Just really cool to see his eyes light up. Such a special time for him to be able to see that, and it's just very special to be a part of."
What it's like as a rookie to come in here with one day of ROP and two test days, and Texas, and then straight into this?
B.P.: "When I joined Indy Lights, now Indy NXT, two years ago, that was the first year they stopped coming here for the Freedom 100, so just didn't have the opportunity to run here in anything, only the road course. My first time here was my ROP a couple weeks ago, almost a month probably now. So not much experience here, but it just changes so much. You can definitely see people with experience here, how that can help them. If you have a really good car, it makes a really big difference. There's four corners. Having a really good team around you to make the right adjustments for different weather situations makes a really big difference. You can do different lines here. I've definitely spent a lot of time looking at what different drivers do here, looking at videos, data, getting people's perspective. I've asked so many questions just to learn as much as I can. So I think we've covered a lot of ground for my lack of experience here.”
Did shadowing the race team last year help prepare you for this year?
B.P.: "Yeah, absolutely. It was a huge help. For example, one of the big things that I haven't experienced before this year was qualifying here—it’s very intense. It's easy to let the pressure come to you. So I really felt what that vibe was like when I was here shadowing the team when I was still in Lights. It was funny, that experience helped this year for qualifying my first time here. I've done oval qualifyings before, but actually this was the most calm I've ever been going out for an oval qualifying, just because I knew kind of what the vibe would be like, I knew I had a good car, so it was just very, very helpful. I could definitely see if it had been my first time, maybe you feel the pressure in a different way, but yeah, any experience you can get, even if it's outside the car, is helpful.”
Pedersen (far right) walks with Kyle Kirkwood and Pedersen's driver coach/spotter "J.J." Jorge at Indy in 2022.
Being in A.J.’s garage this year, how has your relationship changed?
B.P.: “I’ve really gotten to know him a lot this year, and he feels like a friend at this point. At first it was like, holy cow, it's A.J., my boss. Obviously so much respect to him. But he talks to me as just a completely regular person. He's super bright. He was spinning our hubs the other day to see how free our uprights were and everything, so he's super in tune with what's happening, and yeah, just really good vibes from him.”
Pedersen Fast Facts: Age 24...Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, moved to Seattle at age 4 and is now living in Indianapolis...Began racing karts at a young age and has competed and won races in the INDY NXT by Firestone Series, British Formula 3, FR Americas Championship, F4 US Championship...Enjoys golf, pickleball, skiing, soccer, snowmobiling, mountain biking, dirt biking.
After qualifying's first round on Saturday, A.J. and Larry Foyt presented this framed uniform to Mrs. Marlyne Sexton, longtime friend and current sponsor of AJ Foyt Racing. The inscription reads: "A most loyal and generous friend whose concern and support is deeply appreciated by our race team, our family, and most of all, me. Always, A.J. Foyt"
Past Performance in Indy 500: Ferrucci has competed in four Indianapolis 500s and has finished in the top 10 in all of them. His best finish in the 500 is fourth in 2020. Pedersen is making his first start in the Indy 500. AJ Foyt Racing has won the Indy 500 three times, twice with Foyt driving ('67 and '77) and most recently with Kenny Brack driving in 1999.
Last race: On the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, the GMR Grand Prix did not start well nor end well for AJ Foyt Racing. Benjamin Pedersen had a radio issue which cost him four laps at the start. Ferrucci's team had a miscue of the final stop which cost him about eight to 10 positions. He placed 23rd while Pedersen came in 24th.
The 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge will be broadcast live by NBC Sunday, May 28th with the pre-race show starting at 11 a.m. ET. The green flag is scheduled to wave at approximately 12:45 p.m. ET. The race will also be streamed live on the INDYCAR app and broadcast on the INDYCAR Radio Network and SiriusXM radio.