Tony Kanaan fans feel his love for racing

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

The eager enthusiasm and the easy smile.

Tony Kanaan is among the most popular IndyCar drivers. Fans sense a passion for the sport, nurtured as a boy in his hometown, the large port city Salvador de Bahia, in Brazil.

Kanaan, a 42-year-old, 2004 IndyCar champion and winner of the 2013 Indianapolis 500, holds the series record of 270 consecutive starts.

Like Cal Ripken Jr., Brett Favre, A.C. Green, Doug Jarvis and Jeff Gordon in professional baseball, football, basketball, hockey and stock car racing, respectively, Kanaan is the iron man of his sport.

Driven by desire and maintained by triathlons, Kanaan lives the dream he dreamt in a nation whose drivers have won the Indianapolis 500 seven times, the IndyCar and CART series championships five times and the Formula One World Championship eight times.

“You know, I was eight years old watching IndyCar races with my dad on TV,” Kanaan recalled, in a telephone interview during a break in practice Tuesday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “He kind of saw my passion for racing.

“So, I asked him if I could race one day.

“He was a huge racing fan, obviously, and he bought me a go-kart right after that. We started to go to a track.”

Speed, the universal appeal of motor sport, set the hook.

“The speed for me was like, ‘Wow, I would love to go that fast!’ ” Kanaan recalled, chuckling. “And to be a little kid and go that fast, it was definitely what really got me into it.”

Winning sealed the deal.

“And then having the pleasure to be the best and beat everyone else? It goes from there,” he said.

“By the time I was 16, Dad thought I had a lot of talent. You know, when you win in any sport you get pumped. So that is how we all began to take it really serious, and how I started moving up.”

Along the way in karting, he became friends with Ayrton Senna, a three-time Formula One World champion. The late Senna is a revered figure in Brazil.

“Big-time inspiration,” Kanaan said. “He was my racing hero.

“How many kids have a sports hero and have the pleasure to meet him, to become friends with him?

“I raced go-karts together with him, for fun. And, early in my career, he supported me, as far as putting in good words with the teams for which I was racing.”

Senna died in 1994, when he crashed into a concrete barrier while leading the San Marino Grand Prix.

That year, at 19, Kanaan won the Formula Europa Boxer championship, driving a Tatuus-Alfa Romeo in a junior racing series. In 1995, he drove a Dallara 395-Opel in the Italian Formula Three series.

“I had the talent,” Kanaan said. “But I wouldn’t say it was easy.

“I went to Europe, to Italy first, before I came to America. I lived in a race shop, actually, and the bed was a mattress on the floor, for three years. But that was all because of how bad I wanted to race.

“Obviously, the success came and you get hired by good teams.”

Three years later, he won the 1997 Indy Lights Series championship. Then, at 24, he became the 1998 CART Series Rookie of the Year.

Kanaan won the championship at age 30, when he became the first IndyCar driver to complete every lap (3,305) in a season. He bested second-place Dan Wheldon by 85 points with a remarkably consistent performance of three first place finishes, six second places and 15 of 16 in the top five.

But it would be another nine years, and lots of wading through plain bad luck, for his first Indianapolis 500 win, in his 12th attempt.

After the race, Kanaan, then 39 years old, said, “I was looking at the stands, and it was unbelievable.

“This is it, man. I made it. Finally they’re going to put my ugly face on this trophy.”

Because of the attention drawn to the Indianapolis 500, Kanaan said, it was perhaps a greater thrill than the series championship.

“It’s hard to put in perspective,” he said, “because I have both of my life’s dreams, the championship and the 500.

“The championship is hard to win, because you have to be good in 17 races, not just one. But, I have to say the 500 is the highlight of my career, because of the history and it is what it is.”

Kanaan’s weapon against age is another love of his life, the triathlon and Ironman competitions.

“To be honest, I do it because it’s what I like,” he said.

“It’s not for some specific workout purpose. Racing is unique. There is not a type of workout that you can do that is specifically for racing.

“For me, obviously the cardio part of it and the strengthening and agility is really important in the car.

“I love the gym,” Kanaan said.

“Obviously, I’m not getting any younger. So I have to try to keep in shape to beat the young kids.”

Indy 500

When: May 28, 11 a.m.

Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway


2016 winner: Alexander Rossi

Detroit Grand Prix

When: June 2-4 (IndyCar races June 3-4, both at 3:30 p.m.)

Where: Belle Isle

TV: Both races on ABC

2016 winners: Sebastien Bourdais and Will Power