COMMENTARY | Once part of a group of young drivers who were seen as the future of IndyCar racing on an international level, 2013 Indy 500 champ Tony Kanaan is now a veteran of 17 years on the CART and IndyCar circuits. In 2014, the 2004 IndyCar champ steps into one of the top rides in the IndyCar Series today, as well as one of the toughest, as he succeeds two friends at Target Chip Ganassi Racing, both of whom had their careers cut short by the sport they loved.
Kanaan, who spent eight seasons at Andretti Autosport (and its predecessor, Andretti Green Racing) before joining KV Racing Technology for the past three seasons, was teammates with Dan Wheldon from 2003 to 2005 at Andretti. Following the 2005 season, Wheldon left the team for Ganassi, where he stayed for three seasons before being replaced by Dario Franchitti, who was returning to IndyCar after a stint with Ganassi's NASCAR team.
Sadly, fans know too well what happened to both of Kanaan's predecessors and friends. Wheldon lost his life in a Lap 11 multi-car wreck at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the IndyCar Series finale on October 16, 2011; both Kanaan and Franchitti served as pallbearers at his funeral. Nearly two years later, on October 6, 2013, Franchitti was involved in a terrifying accident of the final lap of the Grand Prix of Houston, with his car taking down a portion of the catchfence along the street circuit; Franchitti suffered two fractured vertebrae, a concussion and a broken ankle. Five weeks later, Franchitti heeded doctors' recommendations and announced his retirement.
"It's unbelievable," said Kanaan in a recent press conference. "This year has been an unbelievable year for me…I remember one of the toughest times this year when Dario was in my house in Florida doing all the tests to see if he was going to be able to drive it (the No. 10 Target Chevrolet). I didn't know how to talk to my best friend, when he broke the news to me. He looked at me in the face and said, You know, it would be really cool if you could drive the Target car and replace me. I think it's going to make it easier on my retirement."
Joining Kanaan at Target Chip Ganassi in 2014, in addition to the returning Charlie Kimball and Scott Dixon, will be Ryan Briscoe, driving the No. 8 NTT Data Chevrolet that Kanaan was originally scheduled to race. Briscoe also has a history with Ganassi: he competed full-time for Ganassi in 2005 - before being replaced by Wheldon - and drove for the team in the Indianapolis 500 in 2013.
"I feel like one of the luckiest guys out there at the moment," said Briscoe. "This is sort of full circle…The first IndyCar I ever drove was one of Chip's back at the end of the 2004. It's been a rollercoaster ride since then. Had a lot of great experiences all over the place. I've driven a lot of great racecars. But nothing beats being back here. Can't wait to get integrated into the team again, being teammates with Tony, Scott and Charlie. I think it's going to be an unbelievable year."
For Kanaan, the reigning Indy 500 champ after going winless in his first 11 attempts, his new association with Target should make him more visible and more popular - especially on the homefront.
"I'm extremely excited," said Kanaan. "It's a hard shoe to fill. A lot of good history in that car. Hopefully we'll be able to make more history. I'll be very popular when I go home tonight and tell my wife I get the 10% (discount)."
Source: "Transcript: Chip Ganassi Racing Team Announcement," IndyCar Media, December 13, 2013.
Paula is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in motorsports. She also covers the sport at Examiner.com.
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