Kanaan, IndyCar Return To New Hampshire

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, August 11 2011

Tony Kanaan ready to drive before some "home-country" race fans this weekend in New Hampshire. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Tony Kanaan vividly recalls the excitement of fellow Brazilian and then-teammate Andre Ribeiro after he took the checkered flag in 1995 at the last CART race at what was then New Hampshire International Speedway.

That was a year before Kanaan came to the U.S. to race, but he enjoyed the aftermath of what was not only Ribeiro’s first CART victory but the first such win for the Tasman Motorsports team and for Honda engines.

“Andre has talked many times about that win and how exciting it was, particularly because of all the Brazilians who were at the race and how they made his celebration even more special,’’ Kanaan said Wednesday during a media event at a Brazilian restaurant in Cambridge.

Also on hand were fellow Brazilians Helio Castroneves and Ana Beatriz.

“IndyCar always has three drivers do these advance press conferences and they picked three Brazilians for this one because of the local (Brazilian) community in Boston,’’ Kanaan said. “It’s one of the biggest in the U.S.

“The track even printed brochures on the race in Portuguese to help sell tickets for this weekend and help build the crowd and create some excitement,’’ TK added.

Whatever it takes to get butts in those seats at Loudon this weekend.

Tony Kanaan and team owner Jimmy Vasser.

Jerry Gappens, the boss at what is now New Hampshire Motor Speedway, said he hopes that strategy helps build a respectable crowd for Sunday’s Movethatblock.com 225.

“Initially, I thought 35,000 was a realistic goal for the race, and a good walk-up Sunday will get us to that number,’’ Gappens said. “Remember, this is the first open-wheel race here since the last IRL event in 1998, so we’re re-introducing a new product to this area.’’

Kanaan loves the idea of racing in front of his countrymen. His first win of the season would make it a perfect weekend.

This has been a strange year for Kanaan, who lost his longtime, seemingly secure, ride with Andretti Autosports last winter after his sponsors vanished.

It was truly a winter of discontent for Kanaan, who said he had 89 meetings in three months with potential sponsors in Brazil, just trying to find enough backing to get a team to put him in their car.

“In past years, I would play with my kid, work out and maybe go to the beach,’’ he noted. “I didn’t really know how good I had it. I was making big money, had a competitive car and all the world was great. Then I didn’t have that ride.

“So, every day I’d put on a suit and tie, which I almost never wear, and go out and talk to people and beg for money. I didn’t send my agent, I went. And I was able to find the sponsorship in four months that a lot of people don’t get in years.’’

With that backing, Kanaan was able to work out a deal with old friend Jimmy Vasser, co-owner of KV Technology.

“A lot of people don’t realize that I had to buy the ride because those guys couldn’t afford to put me in their car without some help from me,’’ Kanaan said. “It’s really very different.’’

After a lot of sleepless nights over the winter, the former IZOD IndyCar Series champion suddenly found himself with a new team.

“I signed my contract five days before the first race and I had no clue who was going to be my engineer, my crew chief, my mechanics,’’ Kanaan explained. “We put a team together literally seven days before (the season opener at) St. Pete.

“I would say it’s been a lot better than I really expected. I had to kind of reset my expectations when all that preseason drama that I had followed through.

“First, I had to decide if I really wanted to keep on doing this or if (losing his ride) was a sign that it was time to do something else,’’ he added. “Then, once I decided it was what I wanted, I said to myself, `If I’m really going to do it, I’m going to fight for it like I have for everything I’ve always done.’ I think the mentality was not to expect anything but I was going to have some fun.’’

Kanaan could hardly be more proud of that he and KV have accomplished so far this year. They head into Sunday’s race a surprising fourth in the season points.

“The level of KV right now is quite remarkable,’’ Kanaan said. “We’ve had eight top-10 finishes so far out of 10 races. Not too bad.’’

Being a realist, Kanaan knows another title is not in the cards for 2011. But a win or two would do a lot for his morale and the morale of the whole team.

“What we’re doing right now is building the team to the next level,’’ he said. “To do that, we’re going to have to make some changes. Already the mentality of the team has changed, so slowly I think we’re building for the following years.

“Don’t take me wrong; wherever I finish I’m happy with it right now. But the goal is to win a race and I think this weekend is one of our best chances because of the car that we had in Milwaukee and the car we had in Iowa.’’

Whatever happens for Kanaan this weekend, he expects plenty of support from the stands.

“There are Brazilians everywhere and I’m sure we’re going to see some Brazilian flags and see some dancing in the stands this week,’’ Kanaan said. “It should be fun.’’

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, August 11 2011
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