A Worthy Champion
True confession: I’ve known Tony Kanaan since he first came to the USA in December of 1995 to try out for Steve and Christine Horne’s Tasman Motorsports’ Firestone Indy Lights team.
So I’ve watched as he progressed to winning the championship in that undercard series, graduating to CART, making his way to Andretti Green Racing’s Fab Four IndyCar Series team, wondering where he was going to race two years ago to winning the 97th Indianapolis 500.
What a long, strange trip it’s been.
n fact, Tony said he was afraid “to go to bed last night and it would be race day again,” a refrain he gave when at the evening’s banquet the day after the race. Those feelings are understandable for a man who lost his beloved father – who championed his motorsports activities – early in life, was forced to become the man of his family at a very young age, who slept on floors of shops when he went to Europe to try and make his way to the pinnacle, Formula 1.
When the opportunity came to work with Tasman, Kanaan decided to try out, despite the fact that he was, at the time, recovering from an injury. He got the job, nonetheless, but his first victory wouldn’t come until the race at Trois Rivieres, nearly 2/3 through the season. Wins kept coming thereafter and the Tony Kanaan we’ve all come to know and love removed his shell and blossomed.
Tony was left adrift at Andretti Autosport when Ryan Hunter-Reay became lead driver and it wasn’t until 7 days before the 2011 season that he found a home with KV Racing Technology. A mid-size team with outsized desires, KV had not, until this Sunday, won an Indy car race. Kanaan brought it all home for them, for him and for his multitude of friends in the grandstands.
Working the 500 on Sunday, it was evident, as I wandered the track doing photography, every time Tony Kanaan took the lead. The fans at Indy’s 2.5-mile historic oval track love this guy – they cheered his forward progress lustily with each advancement. There was a lot to cheer, particularly after the penultimate yellow.
By the time Kanaan’s dear friend Dario Franchitti hit the T1 wall with an ill-handling car, Tony had already passed RHR together with rookie Carlos Munoz. The leader in this history-breaking fast race was always a sitting duck. Franchitti’s shunt handed the win to his buddy, but he really earned it over the previous 198 laps. The race ended under caution, just as it did last year when Franchitti and Takuma Sato got together and Sato met the same piece of wall.
Tony Kanaan has a wonderful wife in Lauren and a son, Leonardo who will likely get that Baby Borg trophy awarded the winner (he thinks he’s getting the big one). He also has an engineer/brother/friend in Eric Cowdin, who has been a part of his US racing family since 1995. In fact, Cowdin’s first day with Tasman was the test that featured Kanaan and they lived together for a time. They’ve been apart when Cowdin took a single year working with Felipe Giaffone and his three years with Team Penske.
“When it was time for me to get him back, I only had to say a couple of things to convince him,” Kanaan explained. “I said, ‘We need to win the 500 together.’ Yesterday I said, ‘Now we did it, don’t you think about leaving again because we need to set another goal.’ It’s a great relationship. I don’t think we’re the best combination in the paddock as far as the best driver and best engineer, but we’re really good together. The chemistry’s there.”
The customary photo shoot on Monday morning after the 500 is usually a laborious exercise, with the winner changing hats, hugging people they don’t know and trying to keep that million watt smile going for a couple of hours. Tony Kanaan’s celebration at the Yard of Bricks was anything but dull. He hugged and kissed his wife within the winner’s wreath, wrestled with Chuck, who delivers newspapers at the track, snuggled in the winner’s quilt and, of course, kissed the trophy.
It was so much more fun for all of us stuck a few yards back with our cameras at the ready. He was even picked up by one of his crew! Sure wish this would happen every time but there’s only one Tony Kanaan, isn’t there?
And now the Indianapolis 500 is over, but the thrill should last Kanaan at least a few days before the reality of the Duals in Detroit set in. Here he’s won the biggest race in the USA for Chevrolet, which was hurting after last year’s defeat by Honda – racing a Chevy as he did at his first, 2003 Indy 500. And he’s headed for Detroit, Chevrolet’s hometown, where Kanaan has already recorded two victories.
Will Tony Kanaan go on a tear and kick the rest of the INDYCAR community? Maybe, maybe not. But one thing for sure, most everyone is headed for Detroit pleased with the outcome of this race: if it couldn’t be them, they all, it seemed, wanted Tony Kanaan’s mug on the Indianapolis 500’s BorgWarner trophy.
Words and Photos By Anne Proffit