They say that the true mark of a champion is not in how they win, but how they rise from failure. After a less-than prosperous 2008, Tony Kanaan wants to set the record straight by finishing on top this year.
While some drivers would consider third place an achievement, Tony Kanaan regards it as a failure, especially after the highs of the previous year. Having experienced the sweet taste of success, he knows that nothing other than being crowned champion would be good enough. “I don't think we performed to the standards of the team last year. So I am working hard with the engineers and my teammates to bring the team back to the level where it was. This year, there will be no excuses,” he says, adding, “We know what we did right, and we know what we did wrong.”
A son's promise
Born Antoine Rizkallah Kanaan Filho, Kanaan is of Lebanese descent, but born and raised in Brazil. He started racing at an early age, thanks to his father. “My dad (an amateur racer) was a huge influence on me and played the biggest part in getting me into cars and racing,” he says. “When I was eight years-old, he took me to a karting race, and I loved it so much that I asked him to get me a go-kart of my own. I had one in my driveway the next day, and I have been racing ever since,” he smiles.
But cash-strapped in an expensive sport, Kanaan has struggled to make a name for himself. “I learnt and honed my skills the hard way. I never had the money to race, so I could never race with the best teams. I always had to fight for what I wanted, and I think that helped me become stronger,” he muses.
Kannan had promised his father, who died of cancer when Kannan was just 13, that he would continue to race. But he was now the main breadwinner in the family, so he quit school and went to work in a kart factory. He worked hard and earned the use of a kart instead of being paid for it - he went on to win six Brazilian karting championships.
After two successful seasons in the Brazilian Formula Ford and Formula Chevrolet Championship, Kanaan moved to Italy to build on his career. “I didn't have any money, so I lived in a shop for three years, working on many different tasks, and learning as much as I could,” he says. At the time, it was a daunting task for him. “I was young, and hated my life as I wanted to have fun. But now, I realise that experience was good for me as it made me who I am.”
After graduating to Formula 3, Kanaan travelled to the US in 1996 to try his hand at racing in the Indy Championships. It turned out to be a wise move, as he finished second, scooping the Rookie of the Year title in the championship in his very first year. In the next few years, Kanaan continued his impressive run, clearly having the time of his life. “It's my dream come true. I love what I'm doing. I am at the place that I always wished to be,” he states.
And he attributes his early successes to simply having fun. “Why not have fun? Why be so tense all the time, stressed about results and everything else? You know, if you have talent and a good team, and you're doing your job the way you're supposed to do, the results will come,” he advises.
This ‘fun' attitude was especially helpful during the time when he struggled to come back after injuries. “I never thought to give up. I had a really hard time to pick up the pace, and my teammate was winning all the races. I found that I should have fun again, the way I did when I was 12 or 13, when I started racing go-carts. I had to find my own way back to who I am, and I found it,” he adds.
Ruling to track
Since joining Andretti Green (AGR) before the 2003 season, Kanaan has won 13 IndyCar Series races, not to mention finishing as champion in 2004. In addition, he is the IndyCar
Series' all-time leader, with 63 top-5 results, receiving plenty of help from then teammates Dario Franchitti and Dan Wheldon, each of whom have won an IndyCar Series championship for AGR in their own right.
But the whole dynamic within AGR changed over the past years, from having three veterans and a rookie, to one veteran - Kanaan - and three younger drivers. And Kanaan, who never has finished lower than sixth in the IndyCar championship, knows the value of understanding and teamwork if he wants to add another championship trophy to his collection. Kanaan's 2008 backup group was, to put it simply, not up to the job, and, adding insult to injury, he was not given No.1 driver status by AGR despite his vastly superior level of performance.
Kanaan is experienced enough to realise that the camaraderie and chemistry he enjoyed when teamed with Franchitti and Wheldon is unlikely to be replicated. “Those days are gone.
You can never compare. There are different people and different personalities in the team, but as long as we can get along, that's all we care about. I think the chemistry was totally different, and it took us a year to adjust. I'm going to do my job and help them as much as I can with the time I have,” Kanaan says.
“But I'm going to keep moving forward. If they can't keep up with me, I'm not going to come back to get them. I don't want to sound greedy. I'm not saying I know everything, or I'm going to beat them all the time, because that's not the case. They might be ahead of me, and I might be the one who has to catch up. Experience-wise, I think I can help, but as far as talent goes, they all have it,” he adds.
He is hell bent on making amends for the ‘flop' of last season. As he says himself, racing is his life. “I was in a go-kart when I was in kindergarten. For 26 years, I've been doing this. Racing has always been first. It's always been racing and then everything else. I planned my wedding for the offseason.
Before the honeymoon, I went to a race. I take my vacations after the season. We planned to have a baby during the offseason. That tells you how important racing is to me,” he says.
Like all motorheads, Kanaan has amassed himself an impressive array of personal sports cars, which currently includes an '08 Porsche GT3, an '08 Porsche Cayenne, an '06 BMW M3, an '08 Mercedes-Benz CLK63 AMG Black Series and an '05 Ferrari F430.
Being a professional racer, Kanaan enjoys the perks of having a team of engineers who tune his race cars for him at his disposal, but tinkering around under the hood is still something he loves to do. “Working on my cars is something that I really enjoy doing when I have free time. It's like therapy for me,” he shares.
But among all the fancy cars, one holds a special place. “I think everyone who loves cars wants to have a Ferrari,” he says. “I bought it as a gift to myself after I won the IndyCar Series Championship back in 2004.” And he has had even more memories while driving the f430. “It was brand new, and I was just being stupid with it,” he recalls. “I turned the traction control off and I took a corner and accelerated, and got the car sideways - on purpose, obviously.” Police were quickly on to him, and sensing that he was about to get a fine, he said to the officer, ‘Sir, I am so scared. This is a brand-new car. I don't know what happened. This car is totally out of control! I am going to sell it. I am taking it straight back to the dealership. I have no interest in having this car anymore. Look what it did to me! I almost killed myself!'”
The police officer, clearly not recognising Kanaan, bought his story and proceeded to offer him some advice instead, saying that he shouldn't get this type of car and should learn to drive in a car with a different type of engine and then upgrade later on. “So basically,” Kanaan laughs, “I got out of that ticket by pretending that I didn't know how to drive.”
Now that Kanaan's son Leo is demanding more of his time, has he ever considered hanging up his racing gloves? “Racing is great – the life is great – but people don't realise what it takes. If I get to the point where I want to spend more time with my son and racing is a pain, then I'll retire. I can't go risk my life if I don't want to do it. There's not enough money on the earth,” he explains.
For now, Kanaan has everything to race for, and with the sheer determination and passion that he has, it will hardly be a surprise to see him on top again.
Article by : Arabian Man
Posted: May Issue 2009