Still Smiling

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The Future of Tony Kanaan

There are three things that are certain in life — death, taxes and Tony Kanaan smiling. The Brazilian can always be counted on to keep the right perspective on the sport and is one of the few top drivers who is always available no matter what happened on the track. PRN’s David Hatter looks Opener_optback on the career of IndyCar’s “Mr. Personality.”

ony Kanaan almost always has a smile. One of the most popular personalities in the Indy Racing League, the 33-year-old Brazilian is known for his sunny disposition and upbeat attitude about life and racing — even in the face of adversity. And there has been a lot of adversity this season.

Although he sits fourth in points, after 13 of 17 races, with a win at Richmond to his credit, he could well have had at least two, maybe three more victories if fate had been a little kinder. But in typical Tony fashion, he shrugs off his misfortunes. “That’s just racing,” he said. “If you look at the guys in front, they’ve had better luck this year, but that’s the way it goes. In ‘04, I finished every lap of every race.”

That 2004 season was the year that Kanaan won the IRL championship. Since moving to the IRL and joining the formidable Andretti-Green Racing team in 2003, TK — as he is commonly known — has never finished worse than sixth in the standings and has amassed a total of 13 wins, including five last year.

By most standards, that is an impressive record. But on the other hand, Kanaan has yet to win the Indy 500 even though he has the unique distinction of having led laps at that classic race in each and every one of his seven appearances there.

Bad Moon Rising

This year, he was battling Scott Dixon for the lead, just past the midway point, when his AGR teammate, Marco Andretti, ducked inside of him, squeezing him onto the “marbles,” where he spun into the path of an unfortunate Sarah Fisher.

“It was a stupid move. I think teammates should not do that to teammates. Halfway through the race, with a bunch of traffic, why are you going to dive into me like that?,” said Kanaan at the time, though calmly and without visible anger. He subsequently called an AGR drivers-only meeting in an attempt to clear the air.

This was by no means the only example of bad luck to befall Kanaan this season. Probable victories were taken from him at the Homestead season-KanaanAndretti_optopener and again at Nashville.

At Homestead, he was comfortably ahead with eight laps to go when rookie Ernesto Viso spun in front of him. Kanaan clipped him, knocking a front wheel askew. He drove on through the ensuing caution, hoping the race would end under yellow. The green flag waved with three laps to go and he was forced to the pits.

At Nashville, Kanaan was leading at three-quarters distance when it started to rain lightly. With 50 laps still to go, his team summoned him to the pits for a final refueling stop. Ganassi Racing drivers Dixon and Dan Wheldon stayed on track. When the rain worsened and the race was halted, they finished 1-2, while Kanaan ended up fourth behind his lifelong friend and rival Helio Castroneves.

As he sat despondently in pit lane after that race, Kanaan waved off the TV cameras, at least initially — one of the few times he has allowed his frustration to show.

Early Lesson

Perhaps the reason why Kanaan usually has such an uncanny ability to maintain perspective and remain so level-headed is an early tragedy which totally changed the course of his life — the death of his father, the man he calls his “hero,” in 1988 when he was just 13 years old.

Antoine Kanaan Sr. owned a large, successful courier business in Sao Paulo and the family was financially comfortable. Antoine Jr. (a.k.a. Tony) and his sister Karen went to a private school in a chauffeur-driven car. But in 1985, the family patriarch was diagnosed with cancer and given only three months to live.

The senior Kanaan was a long-time motorsports fan, who had raced stock cars in the 1960s and still sponsored a Formula Ford team. Tony had grown up watching F1 races on TV and his father had recently bought him his first go-kart. Despite the initial prognosis, Antoine Sr. clung to life for three more years, long enough to watch his son win the first two of five consecutive Sao Paulo karting championships.

Michigan_opt“When somebody is that sick, it’s about not just the disease, but how much you want to give up living,” said Tony. “I learned a lot from him during those years. The strength and power in the head to keep persisting in something, I think I got it from watching him fight to the end. I use that in everything in my life.”

On the day that he died, Antoine Sr. told his son he was a talented racer and should pursue the sport. But that became a financial challenge as the family’s fortune evaporated under the uncle who was entrusted with the business. Tony had to take a job at a go-kart factory in order to continue racing.

After some success in Formula Ford and Formula Chevy, Kanaan was given an opportunity to go and race for an Italian team in the Formula Opel Euroseries. It was 1993. He was 18. He had never been outside of Brazil before. He arrived in Italy with a carry-on bag and nothing else. He had little money. Unable to afford an apartment, he lived for the next three years in the team’s race-shop, sleeping on a fold-up mattress.

Coming to America

In 1994, Kanaan won the Italian Formula Alfa Boxer championship, which brought him to the attention of Marlboro. Late in 1995, Marlboro invited him to the US to test for the Tasman Motorsport Indy Lights team, which the tobacco giant was then sponsoring. Kanaan was quickest among eight drivers and was picked up by the team, along with his friend Helio Castroneves, a long-time sparring partner from karting days.

Castroneves arrived in North America already fairly fluent in English after two seasons in the British F3 series. Kanaan arrived fluent in Italian - of limited use in Ohio where he initially chose to live (he soon relocated to Miami) or in the race paddock. Journalists who tried to interview him in 1996 were often frustrated, but they were pleasantly surprised in 1997 to find that he suddenly spoke fine English.

Rather than return to Brazil for the off-season, he had spent the winter in English immersion classes. After three years of sleeping on a mattress in aIndy500_opt race-shop, three months of language school was nothing.

With similar determination, Kanaan decided he should be the fittest man in North American racing. He works out virtually every day, running, cycling and swimming — sometimes in the company of some of the other Brazilian drivers who have congregated in Miami — and he regularly competes in triathlons.

In 1996, Kanaan was runner-up in the Indy Lights championship — behind Canada’s David Empringham — and in 1997 he narrowly took the title, just four points ahead of teammate Castroneves. He graduated to Tasman’s Champ Car team in 1998.

His five years in Champ Car — two with Tasman, three with Mo Nunn Racing — were mostly frustrating. He was obviously quick, but the teams were not of the highest calibre and he took just one win, a rather fortuitous one, when he passed a fuel-starved Max Papis on the last lap of the 1999 Michigan 500.

Mentor_optAt the end of 2002, as momentum in North America’s open wheel racing war was beginning to shift in favour of the IRL, Kanaan gladly accepted an offer to join the AGR IndyCar team alongside Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon and Bryan Herta. He took his first IRL victory at Phoenix in 2003 and won three times in 2004 on his way to giving AGR its first IndyCar championship.

This was the first of three championships in four years for AGR. Wheldon won the title in 2005, but promptly left for rival Ganassi Racing. Franchitti claimed the crown in 2007, only to abandon open wheel racing in favour of NASCAR.

The Future

Today, Kanaan is partnered with Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti and rookie Hideki Mutoh and is clearly looked upon as the team leader or, as he puts it, “the old man on the team... I have two young guys and a girl there who are probably relying on me a lot more than I’m relying on them.”

His contract is currently up for renewal and, thinking long-term, he is reportedly seeking
a guarantee of a managerial position on the team once his driving career is over.

Despite his natural inclination to clown around — he and Franchitti were known as the IRL’s prime pranksters with a penchant for practical jokes — he now finds himself with the responsibility of a family. His wife Dani gave birth to their first child, son Leonardo, last September.

“That’s definitely changed my life. It’s something I wanted for a long time and his arrival definitely made me rethink a lot of things that I want to do for my life and for him,” he said. “It was the best feeling I ever had. He is a joy every day and every moment. But if people are expecting me to slow down, I don’t think so. I’ve probably got to win more races to pay for his diapers.”

The cost of the diapers, however, is nothing compared to his one true indulgence — his collection of exotic cars. The Kanaan garage is home to a Ferrari 430, a Ferrari 360 Stradale, a Range Rover, a Porsche Cayenne Turbo sport-utility vehicle, an Acura RL luxury sedan and, most impressively, a Mercedes-Benz SL65 which has been tuned to produce 815 horsepower — even more than his Dallara-Honda IndyCar.

“I love my cars. You know, some girls have many shoes, I have a lot of cars,” he said. The man who was sleeping on the floor of a race-shop just 12 years ago has come a long way. He can now afford some very expensive toys.

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