IndyCar's Kanaan on Belle Isle: 'I love this place'

David Goricki
The Detroit News
IndyCar driver Tony Kanaan is all smiles on Tuesday during an event to promote the Detroit Grand Prix.

Detroit — IndyCar driver Tony Kanaan has cherished memories from races at Belle Isle, a reason he was in town Tuesday afternoon to promote the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader, which will be held on June 1-3.

Kanaan, the 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner, is now competing for the legendary A.J. Foyt. Kanaan won his first race in America on Belle Isle in the Indy Lights series back in 1996, then once again in 1997 on the way to earning the series championship.

Kanaan won again on the island in the premier series in 2007, four years after winning the series championship while becoming the first driver to complete every single lap that year while competing for Michael Andretti.

So, how important was it for Kanaan to show up for the press conference held at the Lear Innovation Center?

Well, Kanaan had a miserable weekend in the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, which was postponed by rain Sunday and held on Monday where he finished 18th. Still, he drove from Birmingham to Atlanta, jumped on a plane and landed in Detroit at 8:30 p.m. so he could attend a volunteers event that night for the Detroit Grand Prix.

“It’s great to be here,” said Kanaan, the 43-year-old Brazilian who has made a record 287 consecutive starts in IndyCar racing. “I love this place. I love the volunteers. I’ve never been to a place where they’re so nice. They are the most pleasant, happy all the time. It’s a great place to be. Again, the relationship with this place has always been good.

“When I made my move from Europe to the United States, I raced in Indy Lights and this was the first race I won in my career in America and Indy Lights. And, ever since it only got better when back in 1997 I came back and won again and then moved into IndyCar in 2000, so it was always a race track that I was extremely confident to come back. My first three years I came here I was in the top five.”

Kanaan was involved in a bad accident on Belle Isle in 2000, breaking his arm and several ribs in the race, having surgery at DMC that night and spending five days in the hospital. And, Kanaan still remembers that Roger Penske’s driver  no, not his IndyCar driver  picked him up at the hospital and took him to the airport where Penske’s plane was ready to take him home.

“That’s something I’ll never forget and my respect for that guy has always grown over the years although he beats the hell out of me on the race track,” Kanaan said of Penske, whose driver and defending series champion Josef Newgarden won Monday for his second win of the season. “So, that is the respect I have for him and his organization. And, just progressively I finally got in touch with Chevy in 2013 and won the biggest race of my career, the race that I promised my dad before he passed away that I’d win, and they (Chevrolet) gave me a nice Corvette (for Indy 500 win).

“Now, I’m racing for a legend in the sport in A.J. Foyt. Only three people won the Indy 500 four times and I’m racing the number (14) he won those four times.”

Kanaan’s Foyt Racing teammate, 19-year-old Brazilian Matheus Leist, made it known to Kanaan that he is his father’s age. Kanaan makes sure it’s well known he recently signed a multi-year deal with Foyt, pointing out that he is also the most physically fit driver in the series.

“I love to do the dual,” Kanaan said. “It adds to the fact you have to be very, very physically prepared to do two IndyCar races in two days and the stronger survive.”

The series’ new universal aero kit has made the races more exciting with less downforce and with just as much — if not more — speed, which puts the driving back in the driver’s hands.

“It made it a lot better to overtake, the drafting is a lot better, the tire wear is worse which some of the guys that don’t have a good car, their car goes off and we can pass,” Kanaan said. “We’ve seen in the first two races that we had, there were 54 to 70 passes a race so that was a great change for us and I was extremely happy with it. We want it (car) to be difficult so we can show our abilities for sure.”

No doubt, Kanaan would love to win the Indy 500 on May 27 for the 82-year-old Foyt.

Sure, Foyt’s teams haven’t been competitive in past seasons, but Kanaan has brought his engineer from 2013 and a couple of mechanics with him to Foyt’s team.

“For A.J  only three guys have won (the Indy 500) four times  and to bring him back in Victory Circle in that number, I don’t even know how to put it in words how great that’s going to be,” Kanaan said. “I don’t want to think about it because I don’t want to curse it, but that will be awesome. In that race anything can happen as I know and that’s the beauty of that race. We know what to do, that’s for sure.”

Detroit Grand Prix Race Director Bud Denker knows what to do to market the doubleheader. He said ticket sales are up 10 percent from a year ago when 95,000-plus fans were on the island during the three days.

Event organizers and contributing partners have made over $13 million in improvements to Belle Isle over the last decade, and an independent study concluded the Grand Prix brought in an estimated $58 million in spending to the Metro Detroit area last summer.

The race weekend on Belle Isle will also showcase the IMSA sports car series, the TransAm series and the Truck series that have trucks soaring through air off ramps.

Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix

When: Friday, June 1, through Sunday, June 3

Where: Belle Isle

IndyCar: Dual IndyCar races on June 2 and June 3, 3:30 p.m. each day, 70 laps each.



Friday — TransAm Race 1, 4:35 p.m.

Saturday — TransAm Challenge Race, 8:45 a.m.; Super Truck Series Race 1, 10:05 a.m.

Sunday — TransAm Dash Race, 11:45 a.m.; Super Truck Series Race 2, 2:05 p.m.