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May 24, 2013

Looking for Indy breakthrough, Kanaan enjoying role as team mentor

INDIANAPOLIS — Ask any IZOD IndyCar series champion and he’d say he would gladly give up that championship to win one Indianapolis 500.

And most fans would gladly give up their favorite driver winning that race if Tony Kanaan could be the one taking the checkered flag instead.

Kanaan is a guy that many believe they can relate to. He’s a nice guy, he works hard and sometimes he simply has bad luck.

But he perseveres. Fans love Kanaan and he will admit that the way fans treat him is special.

“To me, the best memories, it’s every time I drive my golf cart out, I can hear my name big time,” he said from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway recently. “The year I started last, we went all of the way to the lead and we ended up finishing 11th because of a strategy at the end. I got out of the car and the entire place was screaming my name … and Dario [Franchitti] won the race.”

That was in 2010 when Kanaan drove for Andretti Autosport. Because of a crash on Pole Day, he was forced to qualify on Bump Day. The morning became a nightmare when Kanaan crashed again in morning practice. The car had to be rebuilt with parts from his teammates’ cars. Shortly before 5:30 p.m. on Bump Day, Kanaan came out to qualify, making him the 32nd qualifier. When he climbed from the car, the fan reaction was deafening.

In that race, he went from the back to passing eight cars on the first lap and another nine cars just 15 laps later. In his Indy 500 career, he has led in nine of the 11 races he has started. He has finished second, third (twice), fourth, fifth and eighth in six races and has probably passed more cars in that race than anyone else.

Kanaan’s been the guy people were sure was going to win in any given year. He was leading the race in 2004 when the rains came. But the race was restarted after a long delay and he finished second. Along with Michael Andretti, Kanaan is among those drivers whom the fans say the track “owes him one.”

Kanaan, however, thinks differently.

“I don’t feel this place owes me anything,” he said. “I have had great times here.”

Kanaan says that because of the way the fans treat him he sort of feels like he won.

“If I never win this thing, I think I got the feeling from people around here how it is to win,” he noted. “Obviously, it will be a lot different if I would have my face on the trophy, but I don’t think it owes me anything.”

As a teammate, Kanaan has taken on the role of senior driver, mentoring to his either younger or less experienced teammates. It’s a role he did not ask for, but fulfills, nevertheless.

“It was a role that I got back in the Andretti days and it’s been following me ever since,” he said. “I don’t mind. I guess they pick the old guy to teach the young kids.”

Last season, it was Kanaan’s good friend, Formula One driver Rubens Barrichello, who joined him with KV Racing. Although successful in F1, for Barrichello, it was a different machine and Kanaan the friend also became a teacher.

This year, Simona De Silvestro is the new teammate at KV and already their chemistry is working.

“I definitely can learn a lot from her,” Kanaan said. “Her feedback is remarkable. I think it’s a learning process for both of us to understand the way we like cars and how we can migrate from one car to another.”

Kanaan already has pranked her by greasing the door handle of her passenger car so she had to walk back to the truck to get something to wipe away the mess. His real mission with De Silvestro is to find her a boyfriend and says he will launch a Twitter campaign to find one for her.

No matter what pranks he may pull, Kanaan is serious about winning, but is rather philosophical about it as well.

“There are so many variables and that’s what makes me want to come back,” he mentioned. “That’s the beauty of this place. I hate it sometimes.”

Kanaan said even if he never wins at Indy, he will not be bitter because the fans at Indianapolis have made him a bigger name even more for not winning.

“We have tried everything,” he reflected. “I say this place will pick the winner. If it’s my day, it’s my day.”

He is still asked every year, “What’s it going to take to win?”

His reply is very simple: “What it really is going to take is to lead the last lap.”

Qualified for the 12th position Sunday, Kanaan will be making his 12th start in the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500.

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