Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tribute To Tony Kanaan

It is only fitting Tony Kanaan is set to break the record for most consecutive starts at Baltimore. Nearly, eighteen years to the day Cal Ripken, Jr. played in his 2,131 consecutive game in Major League Baseball, breaking the record previously held by Lou Gehrig, Tony Kanaan is one start away from passing Jimmy Vasser and becoming American open-wheel racing's iron man.

It has taken Kanaan eleven years and driving for three different race teams to get to this point. When the streak started at Portland in 2001 (a race where Kanaan only completed lap one), Kanaan wasn't the best driver on the grid but he was in the top ten. He had a race win but it was going on two years since he got by a slowing Max Papis who ran out of fuel and held off a charging Juan Pablo Montoya at Michigan. He had a dream partner at Mo Nunn Racing in Alex Zanardi who returned after a season in Formula One and a year sabbatical. Zanardi would have his near fatal accident at Laustiz later that year and Kanaan was then teamed with a Mears. Casey Mears to be more specific. After another year with Mo Nunn, this time without a teammate, Kanaan made a change. A big change.

Kanaan was not only leaving Mo Nunn but leaving CART for the oval-only Indy Racing League and the new super team known as Andretti Green Racing. The switch took Kanaan to the next level. He won the first two pole positions of the 2003 season. He won the second race of the season at Phoenix, he had nine top fives, twelve top tens and finished a career best fourth in the standings behind Scott Dixon and fellow Brazilians and Indianapolis 500 winners Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves.

The following year, the super team that was AGR, flexed their muscle. Dario Franchitti returned after missing most of 2003 after a motorcycle accident. Bryan Herta was healthy. Dan Wheldon was the young gun who could keep up with his veteran teammates. In the first race at Homestead, Kanaan started eighth and finished eighth. That was his worst finish of the season. He would go on to win again at Phoenix and picked up back-to-back second place finishes at Motegi and Indianapolis. He won at Texas, finished fifth at Richmond, third at Kansas and won at Nashville. His second half of 2004, mirrored the first half in consistency: Fourth, second, fifth, fifth, second, third, second and second. Kanaan completed 3305 laps of a possible 3305 laps. Fifteen top fives in sixteen races. Sixteen top tens in sixteen races, not to forget mentioning two pole positions. Despite it happening during the ChampCar-IRL split, it has to go down as one of the best seasons in American open-wheel racing history.

It was a golden era for Andretti Green Racing. Wheldon would win the IndyCar title and Indianapolis 500 the following year. Franchitti would do the same in 2007 and Kanaan was still in the 2007 championship fight in the final race at Chicago thanks to a career high five wins in a season. And it wasn't just IndyCar. Kanaan, Franchitti and Herta won the first race for the Acura LMP2 program at the 12 Hours of Sebring. The team was on top but the changes would take their toll. After Wheldon and Franchitti left and Herta moved to Acura's LMP2 efforts, Kanaan and AGR took a step or two back. Penske and Ganassi took over as the dominate teams. Kanaan was the only senior member with young drivers Marco Andretti, Danica Patrick and Hideki Mutoh as teammates. It even led Kanaan to consider a switch to Ganassi Racing for 2009 but he stayed loyal to Michael Andretti, who took over sole control of the team and named it Andretti Autosport. 2009 was terrible. Kanaan didn't win a race for the first time in seven years. He had a big accident at Indianapolis end his day when he was in great position to get his first Indianapolis 500 win. Later that season at Edmonton, a pit fire ended his day and he escaped with only minor burns. Kanaan needed help. Enter Ryan Hunter-Reay. The veteran came to Andretti Autosport in a what was suppose to be a limited role in 2010. Thanks to a second at São Paulo and a win a Long Beach, the American was their to stay and work with Kanaan setting up the cars for Andretti and Patrick. The partnership got Kanaan back to victory lane at Iowa, a place where he was snake-bitten before. All was improving for Kanaan.

And then the rug was ripped out from underneath him. Kanaan's sponsor 7-11 was cutting back and would no longer be a primary sponsor for him or the team. Kanaan was out of a ride for 2011. It appeared Gil de Ferran and Dragon Racing was going to be his saving grace. That flamed out before the season started and it looked like Kanaan was out of ride for good. Enter Jimmy Vasser. A week before the season opener at St. Petersburg, KV Racing Technology stepped up to field a car for Kanaan, painted in a Lotus livery and numbered 82 in honor of Jim Clark's 1965 Indianapolis 500 winning car. In the first race at St. Petersburg, Kanaan finished third. He had three top tens in the first four races and finished fourth at Indianapolis. Though 2011 started out great, it couldn't have ended any worse. Kanaan had only one top ten in the final five races. He went winless again and he lost his friend Dan Wheldon.

A change would occur it 2012. He got the opportunity to team with his lifelong friend Rubens Barrichello for the IndyCar season. He got his number 11 back and was hungry for that Indianapolis 500 win and to be next to Wheldon's face forever on the Borg-Warner Trophy. He came up short finishing third. 2012 saw Kanaan on the podium but not the top step for a second consecutive year. Barrichello left IndyCar after one season. Kanaan picked up a new teammate in Simona de Sivestro for 2013 and with time and money running out, Kanaan was running out of shots at the Indianapolis 500. A broken wrist at Long Beach didn't stop him. He didn't miss his home race in Brazil but retired after running up front all day. Entering Indianapolis, Kanaan was the emotional favorite but not the favorite. Andretti Autosport and Penske Racing were dominated. Ed Carpenter was on pole. Kanaan qualified twelfth. He wasn't even one of the ten fastest Chevrolets. But Kanaan got to the front of the pack early in the race and stayed their. His crew was spot on all day. He never faded. He traded the land with Hunter-Reay, Muñoz, Carpenter, Andretti and Allmendinger as it was impossible to pull away from the field. When the time came though, Kanaan went for it. He got the lead and was able to hold on as the caution came out with three laps to go, ending the race. Finally Tony Kanaan had won the Indianapolis 500.

Despite the changes and increased competition after reunification, Kanaan remains at the top. He has finished in the top ten in points for all but one season during this streak. He has won fifteen races during the streak and thirteen pole positions. Though the times are tough and Kanaan is still struggling with sponsorship despite his Indianapolis 500 victory, which probably kept this streak alive, his passion in the race car has never faded.

Kanaan, like Cal Ripken, Jr. has remained a fan favorite all these years. Fine one person who dislikes Kanaan? I dare you. However, just like Ripken, there is probably that 1.47% (the percent amount that kept Ripken from being a unanimous Hall of Fame inductee). Kanaan has been nothing but a great leader to all drivers in the paddock, a great driver to the fans and a great spirit for IndyCar as a whole.

Kanaan deserves the weekend to be dedicated to him. With all the crap that has gone down in IndyCar over the past few days, the series needs to blow this record out of proportion.

Why?

1. Kanaan deserves it.

2. IndyCar needs as much good publicity as it can get.

3. It would look fantastic for IndyCar if Cal Ripken, Jr. was the grand marshall and the B&O Warehouse, located behind pit lane had a banner with 211 on it that switched to 212 once the race becomes official (the same way they did when Ripken passed Gehrig) signifying Kanaan as starting more consecutive races than anyone else. Baltimore should be all about Kanaan, IndyCar's Iron Man.