IRL: A chemistry lesson with Andretti Green Racing

IRL: A chemistry lesson with Andretti Green Racing

Chemistry. It's not just a subject on the school curriculum: rather, it's what makes a race team successful. Or not. This season, Michael Andretti intends to hang up his helmet after the 87th Indianapolis 500, 20 years after he began racing at...

Chemistry.  It's not just a subject on the school curriculum: rather, it's
what makes a race team successful.  Or not.

This season, Michael Andretti intends to hang up his helmet after the 87th Indianapolis 500, 20 years after he began racing at the top of the Indy car echelon. It's been a successful career for the second-generation driver, but Andretti knows it's time to focus on business and let his teammates handle the on-track competition.

Press conference: Michael Andretti.
Photo by Kenneth Plotkin.

The most successful current American open wheel driver learned first-hand just how it feels to be a winning team owner this past weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, as he watched Tony Kanaan take victory in the Andretti Green Racing #11 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda - in only team's second IndyCar Series event.

He watched from the infield care center, after being involved in the final (of 10) cautions when Andretti and Gil de Ferran made contact in turn 1 of the tricky mile oval. "It feels like I won the race," Andretti exclaimed in the media center after the race. And he meant it. "As soon as they released me I was on my bike to Victory Lane to join Tony and Dario [Franchitti].

"The chemistry on this team is just amazing," Andretti noted. In racing, while drivers are known to make friends here and there, it's quite unusual that three successful competitors would come together to race together and to share - not only data - but a comfortable relationship such as the one ongoing between Andretti, Kanaan and Dario Franchitti.

"Dario was one of the first guys in Victory Lane after I arrived," Kanaan beamed. "It was great to see Michael on the podium and I am so grateful to give this team its first win, to be a part of the Andretti Green Racing history." Kanaan has always had the potential to claim victories, but he only achieved one win prior to this one, on the Michigan International Raceway 2-mile oval.

"I've always had a reputation as a fast driver, but only Michael realized that quality. I feel great about this. Michael gave me the confidence after a lot of disappointments [in CART]. I was getting tired of all the problems but then, to join Andretti Green Racing, to join Mike brought a lot of things back: my will to win and to work within a team."

Dario Franchitti.
Photo by Kenneth Plotkin.

Kanaan came to the United States to compete in the Indy Lights series for Tasman Motorsports in 1996. There were three members of the squad that year and two of them had financial backing. Tony got the drive on the basis of his talent, nothing more. One of his teammates at that time was Helio Castroneves, a man with whom he's been battling since they were kids in karts.

"Since 1986 I have battled Helio so I knew who I was dealing with [during the final laps at Phoenix on Sunday, where Castroneves finished 2nd]. I just let him think he could pass me, but then let him know he could not," Kanaan laughed.

Once he earned the Indy Lights championship, Kanaan stayed with Tasman's 1- car team in Champ Cars until Horne decided to close shop. He then went to Mo Nunn Racing, where he was the sole driver on the team. The following year he had Alex Zanardi as his teammate, someone who taught Kanaan a great deal about being a teammate, being a driver and being a man. After Zanardi's injury, Kanaan was again the sole driver on Nunn's team.

Coming to Andretti's squad, it is the first time he's had this much feedback and, apparently, it's working out well. "We all get along so well," Andretti said. "I have personal relationships with Tony and Dario and the situation is so good. We might not feel this way with other drivers, but this is terrific."

"Michael knew with the equipment I had and who I raced for, that I had the talent. Results didn't come our way for whatever reasons," Kanaan offered. Mechanical problems were the usual culprits for Kanaan in his CART career; not having a teammate to share information with hurt the Brazilian, as well.

"There was no question in my mind that Tony had talent. He had one bad break after another before now, but I knew he was one of the guys I wanted on my team." Andretti called the events at PIR an "emotional roller- coaster. I was a weird day. My car was capable of winning, but then I had my front wing clipped by [Tomas] Scheckter and Jaques Lazier got my front tires. I was limping around.

Knowing he was a sitting duck for de Ferran in the latter stages of the race as they battled for fifth place, Andretti tried to give the Professor space to get by. "I was hanging on for dear life" with a huge understeer after the two earlier incidents.

"I had the weight jacker all the way left" near the close. "I just protected my line and gave Gil lots of room. I thought it would be a normal pass because Gil is such an awesome driver." He shrugged and acknowledged that even the best drivers can make a mistake, as de Ferran surely did on lap 2 of the 200-lap contest when he spun without making contact.

The podium: race winner Tony Kanaan.
Photo by Kenneth Plotkin.

Michael Andretti has two races left in his IndyCar Series career. The first occurs next month at Twin Ring Motegi, the Honda-owned circuit where no Honda has ever won. But Michael has, bringing a victory on for Ford while driving for Newman/Haas Racing. "I'm not going to have a farewell tour like Dad did [in 1994]. I'm going to retire knowing I'm still competitive and knowing I can still win races. Hopefully, I can come away with a win in Japan or at Indy.

All three teammates will try to take a victory for Honda at Twin Ring Motegi. "Andretti Green Racing can do the job," Kanaan insisted. "If one of us can win I'd be so happy. We have to keep our heads together and work hard. Maybe the results will come."

Japanese fans are pretty crazy, both Andretti and Kanaan acknowledge. Getting to Twin Ring Motegi isn't easy, as it's way in the countryside and accessible by only two roads. "This is such a big event in Japan. The fans are so enthusiastic. The year I won," Andretti recalled, "there was a rain delay and many of the fans just slept overnight in the stands. They're so committed to their motorsports."

Andretti's final race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be another story. "It's hard, but I'm going to try and treat Indy like a normal race, keep my focus and all. Of course there's nothing like Indy because you're there for so long and the pressure is so huge. You have so many highs and lows at that track that you can't think about what happens afterwards," but Andretti would surely like to end his career with the big win that's eluded him all these years.

"Michael's results speak for themselves," Kanaan countered. "I've always respected him as a driver because he is one of the fastest, if not the fastest out there. He always fights hard but doesn't make stupid moves." If they were battling for the win at Indy, would Kanaan move over for his boss and teammate? "I don't want a gift," Andretti emphasized. "I want and need to beat 32 other drivers and I'm going to try very hard to do that."

Yes, it's apparent that there's good chemistry at Andretti Green Racing this year. Even Kim Green, a man not normally given to smiles has been turning up the corners of his mouth on a fairly regular basis. The mechanics on all three crews appear happy to be settled into the Indy Racing League and the IndyCar Series. They like the cars, the sanctioning organization's officials and the tight, fierce competition.

It's going to be a tough campaign but it appears, they're up to the challenge.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Helio Castroneves , Gil de Ferran , Michael Andretti , Jaques Lazier  , Dario Franchitti , Alex Zanardi , Tony Kanaan , Kim Green , Mo Nunn