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How to be an ace engineer: Leading IndyCar race engineer Michael Cannon

Big teams and small teams, Michael Cannon has worked with the lot during his lengthy career in Indycar race engineering. The Canadian, now at AJ Foyt Racing, reflects on his journey to the top

Pole award winner Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda celebrates his pole award, engineer Michael Cannon

Pole award winner Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda celebrates his pole award, engineer Michael Cannon

Motorsport Images

Michael Cannon is a protege-turned-mentor, a man you can bring in as an overseer and advisor for young race engineers, or can be slotted into a hands-on race engineer role. He can be strict but is also regarded in IndyCar circles as one of the more empathetic individuals in the role, willing to give the driver what they want rather than refusing to budge from what on paper appears the fastest set-up.

It’s assumed that Cannon got hooked on racing through watching his British-born father John Cannon race (under the Canadian flag) to victory after victory in the Formula 5000 Continental Series, culminating in becoming 1970 champion, or when winning the 1968 Can-Am race at Laguna Seca. Yet Cannon insists not.

He recalls: “From when I saw the F5000 finale in 1970 and saw my dad pick up the trophy and cheque, I didn’t go to another race until the 1975 F5000 event at Watkins Glen, and then not again until the Formula 1 race at Montreal in 1978. In between times, I was trying to be a pilot, aiming to go to RAF Cranwell, just like dad.

“In 1983, Jerry Agapiou – he and his brother had run my dad in F5000 and Can-Am – gave me a summer job putting together a Formula Ford team. Driving one of the cars was part of my compensation.”

That dream of being a racing driver had died by 1986, and Cannon found he enjoyed “tinkering with race cars” as much as driving them.

“I don’t think the path I took exists anymore,” he says. “You need a formal education. I’m reading Adrian Newey’s book at the moment and I was struck by the parallels, but the big difference was that he did eventually finish school whereas I got distracted by wanting to be a driver and got into it that way.”

He learned the ropes as a mechanic in Formula Ford, Atlantic, Super Vee and Indy Lights, before becoming an early data acquisition engineer in the mid-’80s. Through the ’90s, Cannon was one of the founders of Genoa Racing in Atlantic, which sent Jimmy Vasser and Greg Ray on to successful careers at the top level. In Indy Lights he ran Dave DeSilva and the “vastly underrated” Mark Hotchkis.

Joining Forsythe Racing for 1997 was the move that Cannon’s talents deserved. As number two to Lee Dykstra, they ran David Empringham and Lee Bentham. Soon he graduated to Forsythe’s Indycar team.

Cannon ran rookie Ed Jones to a remarkable Indy 500 third place in 2017 for Dale Coyne Racing

Cannon ran rookie Ed Jones to a remarkable Indy 500 third place in 2017 for Dale Coyne Racing

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

“I am so lucky,” says 61-year-old Cannon modestly. “I have had the chance to work with Lee Dykstra, Bruce Ashmore, Tony Cicale, Chris Simmons, Craig Hampson, Olivier Boisson… tremendous mentors.”

Pointing out that some of those mentioned are very much his juniors, he responds that age does not define mentorship roles: “If you’re smart, you learn from them all, you grab their insights and knowledge and add it to your own.”

Cannon stayed at Forsythe for several years either side of a stint at Herdez until the end of 2006, then rejoined the former Herdez/HVM team following its Minardi Team USA rebrand to run rookie Robert Doornbos in a strong 2007 campaign.

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Spells at Ed Carpenter Racing, Andretti Autosport and Dale Coyne Racing followed, yet it wasn’t until 2020 that Cannon, newly arrived at Chip Ganassi Racing, engineered a driver to an IndyCar title. That man was Scott Dixon, and Cannon was massively impressed with both the six-time champ and the whole Ganassi operation.

But after three seasons – including three depressing near-misses at the 500 – he elected to depart. Now the lead engineer at AJ Foyt Racing, he’s determined to send the legendary team back up the grid.

Top tips for engineers from Michael Cannon

  • You need to work with a star driver, a real talent, or you aren’t going to see the benefit of your efforts, especially in a spec series.
  • Help to build up a strong team, supporting the ones who can help take your good ideas
    and turn them into reality.
  • Bury your ego and embrace the next generation. They come out of school so bright, all they lack is experience. You can’t afford to stagnate, so listen to them.
Numerous drivers in the field for this weekend's Indy 500 have benefitted from Cannon's wisdom down the years - including the farewelling Kanaan

Numerous drivers in the field for this weekend's Indy 500 have benefitted from Cannon's wisdom down the years - including the farewelling Kanaan

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

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