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KV Thinks It Has Added a Winner In Kanaan

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 24 2011

Tony Kanaan will be in a KV Racing Technology-Lotus drivers suit when the IndyCar Series season begins in St. Petersburg this weekend. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

With the addition of Tony Kanaan to his IZOD IndyCar Series roster, Jimmy Vasser believes KV Racing Technology has signed “the sport’s best teammate” – and the driver who can break the Ganassi-Penske open-wheel monopoly in 2011.

Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champion, saw a tumultuous offseason end on Monday when he was introduced as driver of the No. 82 GEICO KV Racing Technology – Lotus  beginning with this weekend’s season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Kanaan immediately raises the profile of KV Racing Technology, which is winless since joining the IndyCar Series in 2008 under co-owners Kevin Kalkhoven and Vasser. A 36-year-old native of Brazil, Kanaan will serve as teammate and mentor to E.J. Viso of Venezuela and Takuma Sato of Japan. But Vasser also made it clear that KVRT is anxious to challenge powerhouses Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske for podium finishes.

“Tony is a winner,” said Vasser, alluding to Kanaan’s 14 career IndyCar Series victories. “We’re thrilled to death to get Tony Kanaan on the Lotus KV squad. It legitimizes us a little bit more. We’ve been working hard over the years to position ourselves with the likes of Ganassi and Penske. We started out, even Andretti Green was one of them. Now it’s Andretti Autosport. Next stop for us is winning races, building.

“Where we land on that path this year of cutting into Chip (Ganassi’s) and Roger (Penske’s) dominance basically of the sport remains to be seen. But certainly having Tony Kanaan on the team is a step forward for us.”

Kanaan missed the two-day Open Test on the Barber Motorsports Park road-course in Birmingham, Ala., last week. But he logged shakedown laps in his No. 82 Dallara/Honda on the Homestead-Miami Speedway road-course Tuesday in preparation for Sunday’s season-opener on the Streets of St. Pete.

“He’s been out of the car all winter long,” Vasser said during a teleconference. “He jumps in the car (at HMS) and his lap times are right there and very consistent, so we’re not surprised at all with that.

“He’s got a great reputation around the paddock and the sport as being the sport’s best teammate.

Jimmy Vasser thinks Tony Kanaan can help his team compete against the series' big boys.

We’re looking forward for him to bring that sort of leadership into our team. We got two great teammates for him in E.J. Viso and Takuma Sato, but they’re still relatively young and new to the sport of IndyCar racing. Tony is a veteran and is really going to be able to help them polish their game. They’re both very fast drivers, but they’re still learning the nuances of what it takes to win in IndyCar. That’s what Tony brings to us.”

Kanaan is entering his 14th season of major U.S. open-wheel competition and ninth full campaign in the IndyCar Series. In 132 starts, he has posted 102 top-10 finishes and 10 poles.

Kanaan was released from his contract with Andretti Autosport by team-owner Michael Andretti in October after longtime sponsor 7-Eleven, Inc., a Dallas-based convenience store chain, announced it was withdrawing funding of the No. 11 Dallara/Honda. Kanaan 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 reported $1 million buyout and became a free-agent.

Kanaan then tested for and signed with De Ferran Dragon Racing on Dec. 20. De Ferran Dragon Racing was formed last year when Gil de Ferran, the Champ Car World Series champion in 2000-01, merged his American Le Mans Series team with the organization founded by Steve Luczo and Jay Penske, a son of Roger Penske, in 2007. But De Ferran announced at the end of February the team would not compete in 2011 because of a sponsorship shortfall.

Kanaan became a free-agent for the second time 32 days before the season-opener.

“Somebody said, ‘Well, it was a scary moment.’ I said, ‘It was beyond scary; it was desperation at the time it came,’ ” Kanaan said. “I have to say, I always believed it was going to happen. Obviously, I didn’t know where I was going to land, especially this late in the year. To have a team like KV to pick me up like that, I don’t think I can express how happy and thrilled I am with obviously GEICO coming onboard and a lot of my sponsors back in Brazil. After the thing with Gil dropped, I started getting phone calls from sponsors trying to help. That doesn’t happen very often.

“I’m very, very, very happy to be with Jimmy. He’s a good, old-time friend. We go back to the Champ Car days with (Alex) Zanardi, him and myself. It’s a thrill. I think I’m still overwhelmed. I’m getting to know the team and I spent a little bit of time with Jimmy. I’m ready to do what I know actually, the fun part, which is the driving.”

Kanaan, who posted his most recent career IndyCar Series victory at Iowa Speedway on June 20, has

Takuma Sato and the KV Lotus will be joined by veteran Tony Kanaan this season.

placed no lower than sixth in the standings since the 2003 season. Kanaan finished sixth in the final 2010 standings _ first driver not from either the powerful Ganassi or Penske camps.

“I think the biggest challenge for us as a team is to get everybody working together,” Kanaan said. “If I didn’t believe we couldn’t win, I wouldn’t have joined Jimmy and KV, and I don’t think Jimmy would have hired me.

“Obviously we have high expectations, but we’re being realistic. I think we can be competitive. We’re going to have a lot of work to do. I’m going to have to adapt very quick with the team and mechanics and everybody. But KV has proven they had fast cars in the past. I think with my experience combined, we can have great things together, and the goal is to try to break the dominance of the Penske and Ganassi guys.”

Kanaan’s victory at Iowa Speedway and Ryan Hunter-Reay’s win for Andretti Autosport on the Streets of Long Beach were the only races not won by a Ganassi or Penske driver in 2010. Ganassi’s Dario Franchitti (2009-2010) and Scott Dixon (2008) have won the last three driver’s championships.

Vasser, who won the 1996 Champ Car title for Ganassi, believes the competition gap is closing in what will be the final year of the current Dallara/Honda package.

“Teams are stepping things up,”  Vasser said. “I think, you know, probably four to five races can be had this year from outside teams. I think with Tony on our squad, we could probably take care of the lion’s share of those.”

Vasser noted that Kanaan’s unexpected availability convinced insurance giant GEICO to return to the series as a fulltime sponsor in 2011 after backing popular Canadian Paul Tracy on a limited basis last year. Vasser added there is little on a racetrack that he and Kanaan have not experienced.

“Just think about it, Tony, think about all the things we’ve done through _ the happiest of times and the saddest of times,” Vasser said. “We’ve lost friends on the racetrack (Greg Moore). We’ve had friends hurt very bad (Zanardi). We’ve got great championships we celebrated with friends over the years.

“To have Tony on the team, bringing his level of professionalism, his leadership, you know, he’s so polished. I know this. It’s very hard to create on a team from an owner’s standpoint, because in reality the drivers are the ones that create the energy and the chemistry in a team. But once the chemistry’s right – and you only know it when you’ve felt it before – but once the chemistry’s right, great things happen and races just seem to come your way.

“I know Tony had it there for a bit with his friends Dan (Wheldon) and Dario (at Andretti Autosport). I certainly had it throughout my years at Target Chip Ganassi with Zanardi and (Juan Pablo) Montoya. I’m really looking forward to watching Tony help bring that sort of chemistry to our team, and then I can help move it along.”

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

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 24 2011
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