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The Way It Is/ Tony Kanaan is Andretti-Green's spark plug

by Gordon Kirby
The only guy who was going to beat Team Penske on the historic Milwaukee Mile last weekend was Tony Kanaan. Tony was quicker than Sam Hornish and second only to his old friend and rival Helio Castroneves, and when both Penskes hit trouble in the closing laps with failed wing mounts Kanaan was able to lead teammate and Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti across the line in an Andretti-Green one-two.

Many people thought Kanaan finally was going to win the Indy 500 this year. He led the race's opening laps, battling fiercely with Castroneves, and led exactly half of the 166 laps or 415 miles which comprised this year's rain-interrupted and shortened 500. Kanaan was leading when the 91st running of the 500 was red-flagged after 113 laps and he appeared to be in command after the restart only to get caught out when at the back of the field for another restart just nine laps before heavy rain brought an end to a long day. After smacking the wall Kanaan limped into the pits for repairs and was able to make it home unlapped in twelfth place.

IRL champion with Andretti-Green in 2004, Kanaan also finished second at Indianapolis that year. He was on the pole at Indy in '05 and bounced back this year after a tough season in '06 for Andretti-Green as the team struggled to match Penske and Ganassi's level of performance. All five of AGR's cars were competitive at Indy this year and each of Kanaan, Franchitti and Marco Andretti had the speed to win the race. The team's regular four-car fleet was also very competitive at Milwaukee with Danica Patrick enjoying a strong race until colliding with Dan Wheldon and young Andretti also running well until crashing on a late restart.

In many ways Kanaan is the team's spark plug, always thinking and probing, alive with ideas. Over the years Franchitti and he have grown to be close friends as well as teammates. The pair work extremely well together and are co-team leaders with young Andretti and Danica Patrick benefitting from their friendship, knowledge and experience. And of course, at Indy, team owner Michael Andretti made it a mammoth, five-car operation.

"Having five cars in the team is a real advantage for us the way we use it," Kanaan commented at Indianapolis. "We know working together for so long, apart from Danica who just joined us, that we can divide things between us and we cover a lot more bases this way. Dario and me are working really well together. We made the big steps at Indianapolis and then Michael contributed to the tuning of the setup with his experience and Marco always tried to contribute.

"The biggest thing at Indianapolis and any other place is to be calm and not to get wound up by other people's speeds. You've got to go by what you feel and do your own thing and eventually you see where you are compared to other people's work. That was the biggest jump we made over the years and I think that comes with experience."

Kanaan says winning the IRL championship three years ago helped him grow to a new level. He says the same process has also helped the team this year. "I think after I won my championship I matured a lot more just because when you become a champion it takes a big weight off your back," he remarked. "I'm not saying that you relax, but that championship is there and nobody's going to take it away, and you mature with that.

"And I think that's the biggest difference this year for us as a team. We've matured and we said we weren't going to worry about speeds. We're not going to worry about what Wheldon, Dixon, Sam and Helio are doing. Let's do our own thing and as long as it feels right we keep doing it, and that's what we did.

"First rule is, stay cool," Kanaan added. "Second rule is, only worry about things you can control. Things you can't control you shouldn't even think about--the weather, what's going to happen in the race. Forget about it. We don't know. The guy who's going to win the race, it's going to be his day. He's going to be lucky. He and his team will have done a good job and optimized their chances, but it's still going to have to be his day."

It's very difficult to make a large, multi-car team work so effectively. Nobody has done it successfully on a continuing basis in modern open-wheel racing. You need drivers who get along well professionally and can work together with as little ego as possible. You also need a great team of mechanics, fabricators and engineers like those assembled over the years at first Team Kool Green and now Andretti-Green, including veteran team managers and crew chiefs like John Anderson and Keith Badger and engineers like Tino Belli and Peter Gibbons as well as many other behind-the-scenes veterans of the sport. Andretti-Green employs 130 people and at Indy this year each driver had a back-up car so they had ten cars in the garage, all of them ready to go.

"Big teams with a lot of engineers like we enjoy here have a lot of great minds," Kanaan observed. "But it's a lot easier to get lost because everybody comes up with their own ideas. So between the drivers and the team owners and team managers we all have a role. The first rule is, we're going to keep each other calm. When I see this guy getting out of control, or when Dario sees me getting out of control we calm each other down and we try to maximize the ideas. Everybody has a different idea so let's evaluate them and find out who has a point and what the priorities are.

"It takes a lot of time when you have five drivers debriefing and ten engineers. It can take four or five or six hours. And then we have to listen to guys working on the cars to tell us what's practical or not, and again, to calm us down, to keep us steady.

"It's such a psychological game too," Kanaan added. "It's approaching the right people at the right time. If you're going to make a big change and it's going to be a lot of work and take a lot of time, the mechanics can feel that. It's a lot more complicated than people think. It's easy to say we have a big advantage from having five cars, but it's a big distraction, too.

"We're making it work. So far, so good. When we started this thing everybody was expecting us to fail. And trust me, we have our problems, too. The bigger the family, the bigger the problems. That's the way it is."

In last week's Thursday column about the IRL's Car of 2011, Kanaan expressed his strong support for the new car project and for the IRL's recent management of its aerodynamic package. Between those technical issues and the IRL's steady expansion onto street and road courses Kanaan is pleased with the IRL's overall direction.

"We're diversifying a lot more," he said. "We're going back to the old days--short ovals, big ovals, road courses and street courses. If you look at it, every year it's going more that way. I totally accepted the criticism in 2003, but after that we're going back to what we used to be."

Three weeks ago in this space, teammate Franchitti ruminated about the sad effects the IRL/Champ Car split has had on racing's separated open-wheel fraternity. "How many times have we talked about how we need to have one series?" Franchitti mused. "There's no question that it would be so much simpler and better if there was one series. We're all old pals, regardless of where we race, and it would be so much fun if we were all racing together."

Kanaan is equally passionate about the sad state of affairs. "I understand that the split in open-wheel racing was the most stupid thing we've ever seen," Tony commented. "We all have the same opinion, but it's getting old and none of us can fix it. The only people it's hurting are you, me, and all the longtime fans.

"We all lost friends, not lost maybe, but we've become separated. I never tried to slam CART or Champ Car. People keep bringing it up that we don't like each other and when they do I say, 'Where are you guys getting that?' Some people don't seem to understand that if the two series go to hell, we're all out of jobs. I hate when drivers from this side or that side slam each other because you know what guys? You shouldn't do that because you don't know what's going to happen.

"I have a bunch of friends back there who I don't get to see any more," Kanaan added. "Jimmy Vasser is one of my best friends and he became a team owner on the other side and we kinda had our friendship choked a little bit. It's such a sad thing and a lot of it has been fanned by some people in the press making out that we're all enemies with each other. It's not true and it's not healthy for any of us, or for the sport."

That much we all know. Whether it's Champ Car's new Panoz spec car or the IRL's Car of 2011, there's no question that the greatest salve for American open-wheel racing would be to have the two depleted series back together as one. I'm deeply aware that differing business interests and agendas mean all this is mere crying in the wind, but as Kanaan says, there won't be any business for anyone unless sanity and good business sense ultimately prevail.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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