IRL: Kanaan keeps up the pressure

IRL: Kanaan keeps up the pressure

Is there any doubt that Tony Kanaan -- currently leading the IndyCar Series point chase by 14 points over Helio Castroneves -- is a fighter? Here's a guy who lost his father at age 14, lost his mentor and hero Ayrton Senna at age 20 (and was...

Is there any doubt that Tony Kanaan -- currently leading the IndyCar Series point chase by 14 points over Helio Castroneves -- is a fighter?

Here's a guy who lost his father at age 14, lost his mentor and hero Ayrton Senna at age 20 (and was there at Imola when the Formula One icon died), and has battled back from injury after injury to succeed on the highest playing fields in open wheel racing.

Close friends and competitors, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan.
Photo by Greg Gage.
Tony Kanaan goes to Texas Motor Speedway this weekend, wearing the brace that's been on his left arm since the Indy Racing League made its first visit outside the United States in April.

Kanaan, battling for the lead in that race with Scott Dixon came together with the Kiwi and Tony re-broke his left wrist (initially broken at Detroit during a CART race) and Dixon broke his right hand.

After the Bombardier 500K Saturday night, that brace is history, Tony vows. "I need to get my musculature back; I haven't been able to twist my left arm in these seven weeks since that accident." His serrated leg is still a bit sore, but Kanaan isn't limping as much as he did during the month of May.

Since his first victory in the IndyCar Series at Phoenix and his four front- row starts in four attempts, there's been no mistaking Tony Kanaan as anything but a threat to take the championship this year, yet he realizes there's a long way to go. After all, there have only been a quartet races thus far and there are 12 more on the docket.

"When Michael [Andretti], Kim [Green] and Kevin [Savoree] got together to buy the Andretti Green Racing team from Barry Green, it was a big thing for me to come into the mix. Dario [Franchitti] and Michael knew each other better, but there's no real explanation for how well we all work together here," Kanaan said. "It's people with good chemistry working together for one goal: to make this team successful.

"We all want to win races but, even more important, we want this team to succeed. I'm a little surprised to be leading the points at this point, but the team's performance from the start and our determination to work hard says a lot."

Tony wasn't the first choice for most people after his mediocre years with Mo Nunn Racing. But Michael Andretti recognized the Brazilian's talent and decided he wanted Kanaan as his stablemate on Team 7-Eleven, at least for the first four races of the year when Andretti was still driving. Now that Michael's on the other side of the fence, in the pits in his role as team co-owner, will it be any different for Tony?

"Having Michael as my teammate has been a big help. As an owner, it's a big plus that he knows that's going on in the car and on the track. He won't always blame the driver if something happens," or at least that's what Kanaan is hoping. "It's been a little different for me, having Michael as a teammate and being able to talk a lot about setup. He gave me this huge opportunity, but I'm hoping that, from outside the car, he'll be able to see things that I might miss."

Tony Kanaan.
Photo by Earl Ma.
When he came to the United States in 1996 to run the Firestone Indy Lights program with Steve and Christine Horne's Tasman Motorsports, Tony Kanaan realized he'd come where he wanted to stay. "I've always made it very clear that I came here with no intent to leave. Right now, I think I'm with the best team, in the best series with the best drivers to compete against. I've got no plans for Formula One or to go anywhere else, but you never know what happens as a driver," he allowed.

"Andretti Green Racing is the best team to win with. I want to stay here and as long as I have a car to drive in America this is where I'm going to stay."

Since he was eight years old, Tony Kanaan has known "I need to be in the car to be happy. I don't think about injury but I know the risk." At Richmond International Raceway open testing last week, Kanaan and Castroneves came together on the 3/4-mile bullring when both were running full tanks in the closing 20 minutes on the second test day.

"He never saw me in the blind spot and it's a shame.  It was the wrong
timing and nobody's fault," Kanaan said.  "The timing was just perfect for
an accident.  I saw the whole thing and tried to help Helio get out of the
car when it caught fire.  We went back to Miami on the same plane together
and talked about it."  No harm, no foul.

This weekend's Bombardier 500K at Texas Motor Speedway will be Kanaan's first open wheel night race. "I spoke with Gil [de Ferran] about it and it's no big deal to run at night. I've done some 24-hour races but in this type of car, I have no real experience. I love the Texas track. I was fast in every session [when CART attempted to race this banked 1.5-mile oval circuit in 2001] and I think it is a great track.

"Christian Fittipaldi told me the track has been repaved and it's very smooth. There's a lot of excitement for me because this is the home race for our Team 7-Eleven sponsors," Kanaan stated.

Oval racing is a different discipline than road or street courses on which he was nurtured, Tony believes. "It's really exciting and difficult to go fast. Oval racing is a big challenge and I learn more about it every day. You need a really good car, but you really have to drive well. You can't muscle a car like you do on the road courses.

Tony Kanaan.
Photo by Earl Ma.
"That extra tenth is really tough to find on ovals. You can't make mistakes. It's very technical and challenging and the biggest deal is that you have to choose the right setup. You need knowledge along with talent to make the car right on ovals," professor Kanaan continued.

Both Mario and Michael Andretti have been crucial to Kanaan's quick learning curve this season. "Mario taught me many lessons at Indy this May," he admitted. "The important thing is to be fast and smart. We all make choices and I want to be the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series champion this year. I'm thinking always about that but I'm not being cautious about it. I simply need to take the most points from each race, but that's tough when you're conditioned to always want to win."

At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway May 25th, Kanaan realized, late in the race, "that I couldn't pass Gil and Helio. I realized both Scotts were out (Dixon and Sharp) and Felipe (Giaffone) was out, too, so I took third place. It's all about understanding the possibilities. You take a third place car to third place, or you bring a winning car to first."

Why are Brazilian drivers so fast? "It's the water," Kanaan laughs. "But really, there are not so many sports options in my country. There's tennis, soccer and motorsports, so a lot of kids want to go racing. We start early and go from there." His heroes have always been Senna, Emerson Fittipaldi and Mario Andretti.

For a young driver coming up, Kanaan offers these pieces of advice. "Figure out what you want to do and then do it completely. Never give up but have an open mind. Sometimes you go to different types of races, drive different types of cars from what you want to do. You've simply got to dedicate yourself 100% and always drive fast."

Tony Kanaan is looking forward to the spate of back-to-back races coming up in the IndyCar Series. "I love to be in the car every week. It's much more exciting and you can build momentum that way. You go race by race and keep a clear mind for the next one coming up."

Kanaan will get the opportunity to adhere to those principles as the Indy Racing League darts about the country for the next three months, with only a few weekends open for relief. He's hoping that, by the time he returns to Texas Motor Speedway October 12th, he'll be crowned 2003 champion of the IndyCar Series. With the support of his Andretti Green Racing team and the backing of Team 7-Eleven, the prospect doesn't seem too far-fetched.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Helio Castroneves , Michael Andretti , Christian Fittipaldi , Scott Dixon , Tony Kanaan , Mario Andretti , Barry Green , Mo Nunn