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Kanaan Going Small But Hoping For Big Things

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, December 24 2010

Tony Kanaan and Gil de Ferran are hoping to start something big with their small team in the IZOD IndyCar Series. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

During its eight-year tenure in the IZOD IndyCar Series, Andretti Autosport has employed 11 different drivers with varying degrees of pedigree.

Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon and certainly Danica Patrick all have generated headline news with the team co-founded and now solely owned by former open-wheel star Michael Andretti. But the one constant has been Tony Kanaan, the man around which Andretti Green Racing and its successor, Andretti Autosport, were built.

The 2004 series champion, Kanaan’s decision to join fellow-Brazilian Gil de Ferran at fledgling de Ferran Dragon Racing for the 2011 season again will cast him as team-builder, albeit with a noteworthy twist.

“Yeah, I’m going to have all the attention for myself,” said Kanaan, who was introduced Monday as de Ferran Dragon’s sole fulltime driver for the 2011 season. “It’s really good. It feels good. Obviously, it took me (by surprise) a little bit. I remember we went to Sebring (Fla.) on the test. I got there on the test. I asked Gil, ‘Where are the guys?’ He said, ‘This is it!’ I was like, ‘Oh, OK.’ ”

Kanaan raced in 2010 alongside teammates Marco Andretti, Michael’s son, Patrick and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Kanaan placed sixth in the final point standings – the first driver not from either the powerful Target Chip Ganassi Racing or Team Penske camps.

But Kanaan’s No. 11 Dallara/Honda lost its primary sponsorship from 7-Eleven, Inc., the Dallas-based convenience store chain, in the waning days of the 2010 season. Kanaan, who

Tony Kanaan used to drive for a team owned by the son of Mario Andretti. Next season, he will drive for the son of Roger Penske.

re-signed with the team in August 2008, had three years remaining on a contract that reportedly paid him $3 million per year.  Looking to avoid likely lengthy legal proceedings, Kanaan took a buyout and became a free-agent.

Kanaan aced his audition in Sebring and will head into the holidays as a substantial upgrade over countryman Raphael Matos, de Ferran Dragon’s fulltime driver in 2009-10.

“Obviously it has been eight, almost nine years with a big team,” said Kanaan, who will turn 36 on Dec. 31. “So it took me a little bit to get used to it. But in a funny way, I think it’s great. It’s a big challenge for both of us. I’m enjoying every moment of it. Everything downsized three times for me right now. I’m just having to get used to it.”

Kanaan, who posted his 14th career IndyCar victory at Iowa Speedway on June 20, has placed no lower than sixth in the standings since the 2003 season – AGR’s first in the series. That fact never was lost on de Ferran, a former racing peer of Kanaan’s in both the CART and IndyCar series and president of de Ferran Dragon Racing.

“From my standpoint, Tony brings many things to the team,” said de Ferran, the 2003

Gil de Ferran sipped the milk as a driver for Roger Penske.

Indianapolis 500 winner and CART champion in 2000-01. “We are a very young and developing operation I would say with big ambitions. I think Tony brings us a wealth of experience and I think we can benefit a tremendous amount from that. He’s also a champion. He’s a race-winner. He’s driven all sorts of cars under many situations.

“I have no doubt that not only he’ll bring his speed and determination, but his experience will help us short-cut a lot of the development process and hopefully bring us a little closer to our dream of becoming a major force in the IZOD IndyCar Series.”

Kanaan said the foundation of this deal was his longtime friendship with de Ferran – one solid enough for TK to take a shot at his boss.

“Christmas came early for me this year,” Kanaan noted during a teleconference piped-in from Sao Paulo, Brazil. “I want to call Gil ‘Santa’ because he has that much white hair and that big belly.

“For sure, I couldn’t come in a better time. I think because our friendship, we’ve been really close friends, our families spend weekends together, we travel many ways on vacation together. I don’t even know when it (negotiations) started. I think when Gil knew I was available, he looked at me one day, I looked at him, said, ’Should we be talking?’ (He) said,’ Yes.’ With our friendship, it was much easier to be open about it.

“Obviously, I was negotiating with a few other teams at the time. But I was honest with Gil, he was honest with me and we started to talk. I was on vacation doing my tryouts. I did the test and it went really well. I really liked the people; I saw what I wanted for me as far as a race team. From that point on, it made it much easier for me to make my decision.

“Since then we’ve been working on the details. Finally last week we reached an agreement. We can move forward.”

Matos, 29, joined the team co-owned by Jay Penske and Steve Luczo in 2009 after winning the

Raphael Matos has a new teammate at de Ferran Dragon Racing.

2008 Firestone Indy Lights title. Matos went on to capture the IndyCar Rookie of the Year crown in ‘09 but failed to live up to expectations during 2010. Matos, who finished 14th in points in 2010, is winless in 34 career IndyCar starts.

The addition of Kanaan, de Ferran said, immediately increases expectations for the third-year team.

“But I guess that’s what we’re here for,” said de Ferran, who won the 2003 Indy 500 driving for open-wheel mogul Roger Penske, Jay’s father. “I was asked the very same question when I joined Team Penske. ‘How do you feel? Do you feel more pressure that you joined Team Penske?’ For sure, the expectation is higher.

“My thought on that is that, you know, you work all your life to put yourself in that position, to be working with the best people and the best team. There’s no point choking once you get it, you know?

“This is, frankly, a little bit similar. Having Tony around, I think we were able to secure one of the best talents in the series. I was really excited when I felt there was an opportunity to sign him up. I think it really makes it clear to everyone what we’re trying to do with the team and the type of results we would like to get in the future. Otherwise we wouldn’t have tried to secure Tony’s service.”

De Ferran added Kanaan’s name recognition also should help de Ferran Dragon not only on the track but also in the competitive marketplace for sponsorship.

“Yeah, I mean. Let me put it this way, it certainly doesn’t get any easier, does it?” said de Ferran, former sporting director of the Honda Formula One team. “But, you know what, I think that’s great because I think for a competition to be meaningful, you need to respect your competitors. Frankly, even admire them.

“As I see the new combinations that are being announced – (Chip) Ganassi with more cars, everything that’s going on with Team Penske that we got to find out over the last few weeks – I think that’s great.

“I certainly have a great deal of respect but also a lot of admiration for our competitors. That’s what it’s all about. It just means that you if you do well, it means that much more. I welcome it. I certainly think, like I said, it’s not getting any easier.”

Kanaan’s victory at Iowa Speedway was his first since June 2008, and the highlight of a

Tony Kanaan high fives a young fan.

season that saw him post seven top-five and 13 top-10 finishes in 17 races. His best start was second on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., in the season’s second race. He has posted 10 career pole positions, but none since June 2008 at Richmond International Raceway.

Kanaan has made 132 IndyCar starts since his series debut in the 2002 Indianapolis 500 while driving full time for Mo Nunn Racing in the Championship Auto Racing Teams Series.

Kanaan won the 2004 IndyCar driver’s championship in dominating fashion for AGR, posting three wins, 15 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes in 16 starts. After finishing eighth in the season-opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Kanaan went on to record 15 consecutive top-five results, including victories at Phoenix International Raceway, Texas Motor Speedway and Nashville Superspeedway.

Additionally, Kanaan completed 3,305 laps in ‘04 – the first IndyCar driver to log every possible lap during a season. He also led a series-record 889 laps.

Kanaan’s domestic open-wheel career dates to 1998, when he was named CART Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year driving for Tasman Motorsports Group. Kanaan scored his lone CART victory in 1999 at Michigan International Speedway driving for Forsythe Racing.

Kanaan spent the final three seasons of his CART career (2000-02) with Mo Nunn Racing, a season which included his IndyCar Series debut at the Indianapolis 500. Kanaan led 23 laps in that race before an accident on Lap 89 ended his day in 28th place.

One year later, Kanaan demonstrated the tenacity of the accomplished triathlete that he is at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Kanaan finished third in the Indy 500 while driving with a broken arm, the result of a crash involving Scott Dixon at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan.

“That’s me,” Kanaan said. “It was never easy for me in anything I’ve ever done in my life. My first year with a big team, my first year that I really had a shot for real to win the 500 I break my arm three weeks before the race. I said there is no way I’m not racing. That is my determination.”

How that trait will translate at de Ferran Dragon remains one of the off season’s most intriguing topics.

“I mean, I would say it’s a tough question because I don’t think I would be sitting here and Gil wouldn’t hire me if we didn’t believe we could win,” Kanaan said. “We just touched base on the competition next year. It’s going to be tougher. I think every year I say, ‘This cannot be any tougher.’ But it’s getting tougher and tougher.

“The goal is to build the team and the attitude of the team that we’re capable of winning. We’re going to be realistic. We have a big challenge ahead of us. But we have the attitude of winners. We have Gil, who doesn’t need any introduction, and myself with all the results that we had. The goal is to go win races. The more races you win, you put yourself in a position to go win championships.

“Where are we right now? It’s tough to say because so many changes happened with some of the teams adding drivers, some people moving around. All I can say is that I’ve been competitive since Day One in this series. Gil has a team that eventually needed to step-it-up a bit in many ways, and they did.

“It’s open. It’s open right now. But if I didn’t believe I could win races, I was probably going to do my tryouts at home instead of going out there and race and participating in the field.”

Hewlett-Packard served as primary sponsor for Matos in 2010, along with a three-race package for veteran Davey Hamilton. De Ferran Dragon previously announced plans to run Hamilton in three races in 2011, including the Indy 500. De Ferran said the team could field a second car – possibly for Matos – if additional sponsorship can be secured.

De Ferran also said he is pointing toward the 2012 season, when IndyCar will operate with a new standard “Safety Cell” chassis from Dallara and engines and aero kits provided by Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus.

“As they say, you know, there is no secret in our sport. It’s all about preparation,” said de Ferran, who joined Penske and Luczo before the start of the 2010 season. “The success comes from preparation. The earlier and the more intensely you start your preparations, the better off you’re going to be.

“As far as I’m concerned, I just take the driver box for 2011. Hopefully, if we continue to find more sponsorship, we still have the possibility of running a second car fulltime. The next box is already 2012. Frankly, even in our engineering efforts, we’re kind of looking at it with two eyes – one eye on 2011 and one eye on 2012.

“As we choose how to spend our R&D money, we think, OK, how will this benefit us in ‘11 and how is it going to benefit us going forward with completely different equipment? There’s a lot going on. These conversations have, frankly, already started.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, December 24 2010
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