Payne: Q&Auto with Indy elder Kanaan

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

In its 100 years, the Indy 500 has changed lives. And arms.

When Tony Kanaan realized his “dream achievement” by winning the 500 in 2013, the Brazilian star had the Borg-Warner winner’s trophy tattooed on his right shoulder and bicep.

“It’s the race I always wanted to win. The most important race of my career,” says the diminutive, 5-foot-5 car jockey as we sat courtside at a Detroit Pistons game surrounded by basketball giants. Already an IndyCar series champion (in 2004), the win made him a legend in his native Brazil where he has joined a pantheon of racing greats including his childhood idol, Formula One superstar Ayrton Senna. Heck, next to the 500 win, meeting Senna might be his career highlight.

“I first met him at his farm in a go-kart race,” recalls Kanaan “He invited a bunch of guys, and I won and he finished second. I was 16. I beat Senna at 16 on his farm!”

He’s back in Indianapolis this year to vie for another win as part of an elite squadron of drivers racing at 230 mph for the Target Chip Ganassi team: Scott Dixon, Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton. After the 500, he’ll be back in Detroit for the 14th time at one of his favorite street tracks, the Belle Isle Grand Prix.

I talked with IndyCar’s 41-year old senior statesman about Detroit, Corvettes and what the future holds.

Q: Do you like Belle Isle’s “Duel in Detroit,” two-race format?

Kanaan: Double-headers are extremely stressful for the not just the drivers but for the (crew) guys. It’s possible to make a mistake really easy. Glad there is only one and that it’s here.

Q: Do you regret not going to Formula One?

Kanaan: If I had gone to F1, I might not have won a race because if you’re not on the right team it would have gotten old. Competing not to win is hard for me to understand. In Indy, any team can win.

Q: You’re the oldest in the sport at 41? Does that make you the dean of the college?

Kanaan: Me and Helio (Castroneves) are the oldest. I’m president of the drivers’ association – they try to pick the most experienced guy to run. I’ve become the guy young drivers look to for advice. I’m really approachable, not the type of guy who would hide anything from anybody. I looked to Mario Andretti, Bobby Rahal and Al Unser Jr. when I can in 20 years ago.

Q: Talk about Senna and your place in Brazil’s racing culture.

Kanaan: I was always a big Senna fan. My racing hero. I got a chance to meet him and become friends before he passed. He helped me out in the beginning of my career. We can’t replace him, but with the 500 win and my popularity down there, we do a lot of charity events trying to put kids into sports – not just go-karts. It’s good to give back. He built up a legacy there that we can’t afford to let die. You can’t forget your roots.

Q: Where do you live now?

Kanaan: I spend a lot of time in Indianapolis, but my home is Florida. My life is in America now, my kids are American. Although I love my home country, this is where I’ll live the rest of my days. The U.S. is a benchmark for us – we are much more advanced here than in Brazil – so I can take it back and forth.

Q: What’s changed in IndyCar in your 20 years?

Kanaan: We’re the benchmark on safety, which is good. That’s the price you pay to make it better. We’re one of the safest series in the world right now. We create lot of measurements that are used everywhere.

Q: Should IndyCar be competing against F1 globally?

Kanaan: IndyCar is a lot more popular here. We should stick to North America.

Q: What’s your future after IndyCar?

Kanaan: I haven’t thought about when. I’m still very committed to IndyCar. It would be interesting to do endurance racing.

Q: What’s in your garage?

Kanaan: I love every type of car. But one of my favorite cars right now is the new Corvette Z06. It’s yellow. And I have a Mercedes C63 AMG Black Series which is a fun car to drive. The 2013 pace car I won with Indy is the blue Stingray.

Henry Payne is The News’ auto critic. Email: hpayne@detroitnews.com. Twitter: @HenryEPayne