Heroes affirm Kanaan's championship feeling

Alex Zanardi and Rubens Barrichello are just as amazed as the IRL titlist is.

Published March 6, 2005

HOMESTEAD - Tony Kanaan had just completed a run to his first Indy Racing League championship, dodging peril and defying statistical probability.

He had won three times - one more than his career total coming into the season. He had earned 15 consecutive top-five finishes after placing eighth in the opener.

But most impressive, he had completed all 3,305 laps, becoming the first driver in any major series to do so. Heady stuff, considering the array of ovals he had to contest, including the 0.75-mile ring at Richmond International Raceway, where an untimely pit stop can drop a driver three laps down.

Kanaan should have been full of himself. But he had to make sure he was a worthy champion. So he made two phone calls, one for each of his racing heroes.

"First I called Alex Zanardi. Everybody knows what he has done," Kanaan said of the two-time CART champion. "Then I called Rubens Barrichello, who is a good friend of mine who races F1. They're fellow drivers, you know. I just had to realize if I had done well or not.

"I just asked, "You're a driver. You guys are my heroes. I respect you a lot. What do you guys think? Everybody - it was unanimous - thought it was a great year."

Kanaan realizes it will be tough to replicate such a season as he begins his defense today by starting 14th in the Toyota Indy 300. Challenges figures to come from the powerful Team Penske stable of two-time champion Sam Hornish and two-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves; reigning Indy winner Buddy Rice; and Andretti Green teammate Dan Wheldon, the 2004 series runner-up.

"We've talked about it," Kanaan said, "and I don't know if it is possible to do that again. But we will try."

If he struggles, Kanaan knows where he can find an honest critique. He has come to trust Zanardi's candor.

"In 2003 he called me after the Indy 500 (won by Gil De Ferran) and asked if I was proud of his third-place achievement," Zanardi said. "Having watched the race on TV I noticed that on the last restart, which was close to checkered flag, he was more concerned to defend his position rather than give everything and try to win the race even if the two Penske cars definitely showed more speed. I therefore told him that unfortunately I could not have been proud because I witnessed, in my opinion, a wasted opportunity.

"I could tell that it wasn't the answer he was looking for, but I felt good when he called back the next day and thanked me for the advice. Since that day I've noticed a change in his attitude. Now I can say that I see Tony's aggressive driving style, but also a calculating smart driver when needed, and that's what I told him when we spoke."

Zanardi met Kanaan in Italy in 1994 when Zanardi's Formula One career was unraveling and Kanaan's was taking shape in the Alfa-Boxer Series.

"Being Tony is a person that is open and fun to have around, I must say you don't forget him easily," Zanardi said.

The friends became teammates in the CART series at Mo Nunn Racing in 2001. With six races left in the season, on Sept. 15 during the American Memorial in Germany, Zanardi lost both legs in a crash. He has since tried to return to racing with artificial limbs. Kanaan raced another full season with Mo Nunn before joining Andretti Green in the IRL.

Zanardi has since watched Kanaan slowly grow from a driver that went winless in 2002 to a first-time IndyCar winner in 2003, to a champion.

"I sense that Tony is now much more self-confident, and that is because he is experienced enough and has on-track results that back him up," Zanardi said. "When things come your way and you're able to keep them that way, it's human to benefit from your own success. I was please to talk to a confident - and rightly so - Tony."