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PRN Ignition Exclusive: Interview with Tony Kanaan

Tony Kannan Borg Warner Trophy at 2013 SEMA

PRN IGNITION continually gets lucky when we hang around the Borg Warner booth at the SEMA Show. Last year, we were lucky enough to catch up with Dario Franchitti and speak with him about his 2012 Indy 500 win. This year, Las Vegas had more luck for us in the cards, and set us up with 2013’s Indy 500 winner, Tony Kanaan, at the very same booth! Our Group Managing Editor, Shaun Keenan, spoke with Tony about his career, his cars, his hobbies and, of course, his win in the fastest and most competitive (a record 68 lead changes) Indianapolis 500 to date!

Shaun: Why don’t we start there Tony? How big was winning the 2013 Indianapolis 500?

Kanaan: I think it is probably the biggest achievement of my career! I mean we’ve been trying for so long. Since I was a little kid, when I dreamed about becoming an Indy car driver, that was the goal. I think the name of the series says it all – Indy – Indy car belongs to Indianapolis. It’s definitely a dream come true.

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Shaun: How long has your career in IndyCar been?

Kanaan: I’ve been trying to win the Indy 500 for 12 years, so it took me 12 tries to do it. Obviously the dream of winning has been around for 30 years, since I was eight years old and I started go karting. I've wanted to put my face on the Borg Warner trophy since I was a little kid so I think that’s a long time dream. When I’ve really tried was the past twelve years.

Shaun: You are joining a new team in 2014. Tell me, what are you most looking forward to next season?

Kanaan: Well, obviously joining Chip Ganassi, which is a bigger organization. They’ve won five out of the last seven championships. Between me, Dario and Dix, we’ve had the past three Indy 500s, so that’s quite remarkable. I would say it’s a big challenge for me, especially at this point in my career. Coming back to a big team that just won the championship this year with Scott, and having Dario back as a teammate is great. A lot of weight, a lot of eyes are on us right now for next year. We’re gonna come pretty strong as an organization but for me, as a race car driver you want to drive for the best team, you want to win the most amount of races you can, so I think I’m in the right place.

Shaun: Is there going to be a big difference between the 2013 and the 2014 cars?

Kanaan: I don’t believe so. We’re working on it right now as far as a couple of the accidents that we’ve had this year – with Justin Wilson and Ashley, the one with Dario in Houston – to try and figure out if there’s things we can improve. Obviously, we’ve proved the car’s extremely safe. But, I also see big changes coming. We’re holding on to the aero package for 2015, so next year will be probably be the same aero kit that we had this year.

Shaun: And, you’ve driven with all sorts of different engines with these cars over the years. Tell me about the turbos and how you’ve had to change your style perhaps?

Kanaan: For many years I’ve driven the turbo cars. We went to normally-aspirated engines until a couple of years ago and then they’ve come back with the turbo. I’m a big fan of turbo engines, I always was. Since I was a little kid I remember cars on my street and the one thing that I wanted to have was a turbine that made that turbo noise. To me it’s the most sexy thing in the car. Being a car guy, you do have to change your drive style a little bit depending on the turbo that you have. With us we have two Borg Warner turbos in the car, which is different from the Honda engines and the Chevy. For us to drive a Chevy engine is extremely good because of the two turbos. We get the best out of both so it’s not that difficult, but definitely the bottom end on our engine. It was something that we had to work really hard, once the turbo kicked in, to keep the drivability something that we could be able to control coming off the corners. This year we’ve made huge improvements with Chevy and it showed when we won a Manufacturers Championship and the Indy 500. We didn’t win the Championship because Scott won with the team on a Honda engine but as far as manufacturing and the 500, Chevy did it.

Shaun: Do you think there will be a big difference between last year’s car and this year’s car if you really break it down on Honda versus Chevy?

Kanaan: I’m not sure. I know that coming out it’ll be the same turbo for all the engines now. Honda used to have a single turbo and now we’re both going to twin turbos, so I see it being very competitive. I don’t think it’s going to be a big disparity. Obviously in racing you never know, but hopefully we’ll have a competitive year like we did this year.

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Shaun: Was there an event, a race in 2013 that you came close and you’ve vowed to make 2014 the year that you’re gonna win that or do that?

Kanaan: Yeah, the Brazil race. Obviously it’s my hometown race. We led the entire race and with 10 laps to go we ran out of fuel in the lead. It was kind of sad, it was the race before the Indy 500 so it’s always the race you want to do well. Apart from being in my home country, you want to carry the momentum to the biggest race in the world, which is the 500. So we had a big disappointment there. I kind of promised myself two things, that I was going to come back and win that thing for the Brazilians and that I was going to go to the Indy and win. So I guess one thing I did already, so we’ll see.

Shaun: I’ve heard here and there some talk about Nascar. Is Nascar something that is in your future?

Kanaan: Well, I was a free agent for a little bit and I’ve had some talks to a couple of the teams, but honestly my heart was always in IndyCar. But, as a professional race car driver, I had to look around. At the time I didn’t have any offers so I went to talk. I mean, you never know. Anything that has four wheels, a steering wheel and an engine, I will drive it. I wouldn’t say no, but right now my commitment is to IndyCar. We have a multi-year deal with Chip Ganassi, so I can say for now that not in the near future, no.

Shaun: Talking about your personal collection, do you have some cars that you like to drive away from the track?

Kanaan: I have a few cars at home with my wife. I’m not very popular with the wife sometimes because I have a history of every time I win a big race I give myself a gift, and that’s usually a car. It’s an excuse that I use all the time. When I won the championship in 2004 I went to Maranello and I bought myself a Ferrari, which I still have.

Shaun: F50?

Kanaan: It was actually the Scuderia at the time. It was a deal I made with my wife because it was my championship car; every time a new one comes out I need to replace that. So right now I’m up to the 458 Italia, and I have a couple of other ones. My daily drive is a Chevy car obviously; it’s a Chevy Tahoe. But I have a C 63 AMG Black Series, a Mercedes-Benz that I’m a big fan of. I have the new M5, which I enjoy it a lot, and I just got my pace car delivered last month, which is the new Corvette Stingray. That one I didn’t buy, it’s like a trophy. I’m babying it. I haven’t driven it, I took it around the block a couple of days in Indy, but I’m shipping it to Miami now.

Shaun: Future plans for that car?

Kanaan: Obviously being a car guy, it’s going to have to have a bigger turbo, a supercharger and wheels and brakes. Like, my wife says to me I cannot get a hold of a car and not change it: at least the wheels or the suspension. You know this is what we do. I think that the pace car I’m gonna try to keep as stock as possible maybe, but maybe a little bit more power wouldn’t hurt.

Shaun: We’ve got some time still here so, why don’t we talk about some of your hobbies. What do you like to do when you’re away from racing?

Kanaan: We don’t have a lot of time, but I enjoy doing triathlons a lot. That’s something that’s to obviously keep me fit for the race car, but it’s something that I do quite often. I did the Ironman in Kona in Hawaii a couple of years ago. That was probably the hardest thing I’ve done. I still do once or twice a year half Ironmans and stuff, local races, but apart from that, go karting with my son. He’s six years old. He’s starting to get into racing right now, which I don’t know if I’m okay with, but I have to support him. And other than that I enjoy tuning my cars a lot. You know being associated with Borg Warner they can give you some power in your car and being in a show like SEMA to take a look at the things, I enjoy that too. But other than that, just really the time I have off I try to spend it at home just really enjoying my time home.

Shaun: Obviously exercise is going to be part of your regimen, what are some of your favourite exercises to prepare your body?

Kanaan: I love weight lifting, I’m a big fan of weight lifting. Obviously I started doing it to be strong for the race car, shoulders neck and some abs, but I mean I love to go to the gym and lift weights for the entire body. I think it’s fascinating. I would be a lot bigger if I could, if I wasn’t a race car driver I would, but that’s something that I really enjoy.

Shaun: Do you have a need for simulators; do you work in simulators often?

Kanaan: For me, I enjoy playing with them, I don’t use it as a tool for racing. I know Formula One they do use that a lot as part of going with your engineer to the real simulator. I know that Dalara is making a real one here in Indianapolis. I think that next year it should be ready. Maybe we would be using that for IndyCar, but I play a lot and I have all kinds of simulators at home, video games, computers and, actually, that was an excuse I had to have a bigger garage at home because the wife doesn’t let me have it all in the house. So I do play online a lot. Obviously with my son now, you know the PlayStations, the Xboxes, we have it all. Honestly, I think we have two or three games, that are non-racing. That’s actually a lot. Probably one or two. All the games are related to racing, you know Mario Kart, Forza 4, whatever.

Shaun: So it’s all about racing?

Kanaan: It’s all about racing.

Shaun: That’s cool. Circling back to IndyCar racing. What are some of your favourite tracks to race at?

Kanaan: I mean, that depends. Obviously the speedway, it’s because of the tradition in Indianapolis, it’s one of my favourite tracks. Road America, which is a pretty good track but we don’t race there anymore. Laguna Seca was one of my favourites as well, and Long Beach has a street course. So there’s plenty of good tracks in America. Some of them, unfortunately, we don’t go to anymore, but like I said, as far as the ovals I would say the Indy oval is probably one of my favourites.

Shaun: How about Toronto; what do you think about the Toronto facility?

Kanaan: I’ve been going to Toronto since my first year, so I’m trying to remember. It was 1996. I love the city; I mean if I could, if there was a place to live outside of the States it would be Toronto. Just the scenario, the track itself is an awesome track. Obviously it’s a street course but those long straightaways, a lot of opportunities to pass, and some high-speed and slow-speed corners, which makes your car never good enough for the entire track. So, I love the place, I love to come back there every year. We’re fortunate now that it’s a double header. Now we have two races there, which is great. I love it, I have a lot of good friends that are from Canada so it’s always good to come back there.

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Shaun: Do you like the new double headers?

Kanaan: Honestly, I think for the fans it’s awesome. For us, I don’t. It’s brutal on the drivers. We do two full races – 90 laps on the street course back-to-back, one Saturday, one Sunday. We don’t have enough time to rest, and I think it’s a little too much, but the fans liked it so we gotta do it.

Shaun: It’s certainly entertaining. Do you think the double headers are a good thing for the points chase or?

Kanaan: I think if you have a good car in Toronto, I guess I would say yeah, it’s a good point for you. If you have a bad car, I would say no. I think the biggest thing for us, the most important, is to keep the fans happy. That’s why we race. I think if the fans approve and the attendance of the race has grown since we announced the double header. Like I said if you have a good car yeah, to answer your question. It’s awesome to have two races in the same place, but sometimes it doesn’t work that way.

Shaun: What are your predictions for next season? Do you have any at all?

Kanaan: I wish I had some, but I think every year the championship is getting tougher and tougher competition-wise. Now look at Chip’s build, a good team with me, Charlie Kimball, Dario and Scott. Then you have Penske, who has Will Power, Helio, Joey and Montoya back. And then you have the Andretti boys. I think it’s going to be 12 to 15 drivers eligible to win the championship. If you look at this year, we have 12 different winners in 17 races so, it’s going to be a dog fight.

Shaun: Is that how you would like to see it?

Kanaan: I like domination on my end. But I think you know, for the sport, no fans like domination for anybody else. You don’t want to see a driver winning 10 races out of the 17. I mean it’s great for the driver but I think for the competition, if you could have 17 different winners, it would be awesome. So I’m all for competition. Then you go for not just wins, but you go for consistency. I think that nowadays, to be able to win a championship in IndyCar, it’s not just about winning most races. It’s about thinking about finishing some of them in the points because those are going to cost you in the end.

Shaun: Next to consistency, what is the most important thing for you for 2014?

Kanaan: Gotta go to every race weekend, thinking about how you got to win the race. That’s how you win championships. You don’t manage championships, you go out and you leave out and win, so for me, that’s my goal. I’m on a team that has a history of winning championships for the past 20 years. I have no excuses now. The pressure is on, and I like that. I like to wake up in the morning and have the butterflies in my stomach thinking that I have to perform. There’s no other way to win.

Shaun: Do you have those on practice days too?

Kanaan: It’s funny you said that because I was teaching my son a couple of life lessons the other day. We were driving and I was in the car, he was in the back seat and he was asking me about racing and I said, every day it’s a race day, no matter what you do. It’s not just about car racing. Life is a race. You have challenges, you have competition, you have fears, so for me yeah, I wouldn’t call it practice, I would call it a race. Every day is a race day.


Photography by LAT Photographic

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