INDIANAPOLIS -- Tony Kanaan's fierce determination as an IZOD IndyCar Series driver is like watching a pit bull attack -- once it gets a hold of something, he's not one to let it go.
"If you can't pass him, you have to force him to make a mistake," Kanaan once said of how he attacks the leader of a race. "That is how you have to be strong. Some people don't and some people do. I like that term -- pit bull. I grab your leg and I won't let you go."
But when Kanaan lost his longtime sponsor 7-Eleven and was released from his contract by Andretti Autosport in October, he began to have doubts that he would be able to line up an IndyCar ride for 2011.
Just two days after that release, I approached Kanaan about the possibility of joining forces with fellow Brazilian driver Gil de Ferran at De Ferran-Dragon Racing. It was a combination that made sense, as I pointed out in a
On Monday, it became official that Kanaan would drive for de Ferran. The 2004 IndyCar Series champion replaces Raphael Matos and the combination has the potential to challenge for victories in 2011.
"From my standpoint, Tony brings many things to the team," de Ferran said Monday. "We are a very young and developing operation, I would say, with big ambitions. I think Tony brings us a wealth of experience and I think we can benefit a tremendous amount from that. He's also a champion. He's a race winner. He's driven all sorts of cars under many situations. I have no doubt that not only he'll bring his speed and determination, but his experience will help us shortcut a lot of the development process and hopefully bring us a little closer to our dream of becoming a major force in the IZOD IndyCar Series."
Kanaan jokingly referred to de Ferran as "Santa" because he provided the gift he really wanted this Christmas -- a full-time IndyCar ride in 2011.
"I was trying to be mentally prepared to spend Christmas and New Year's thinking about what kind of car I was going to drive next year," Kanaan said. "Gil made that easier for me. Now I'm happy to explain to my son [Leo] that Gil is not Santa Claus, but somebody that gave me what I wanted anyway."
De Ferran may not be St. Nicholas but he is certainly a team owner who was able to provide a friend in need with a tremendous opportunity for next season. While the decision to hire Kanaan was best for the business, Kanaan realizes their friendship was a big help.
"Well, I think because our friendship, we've been really close friends, our families spend weekends together, we travel many ways on vacation together," Kanaan explained. "I don't even know when it started. I think when Gil knew I was available, he looked at me one day, I looked at him, said, 'Should we be talking?' He said, 'Yes.' With our friendship, it was much easier to be open about it.
"I was negotiating with a few other teams at the time. But I was honest with Gil, he was honest with me, and we started to talk. I was on vacation doing my tryouts. I did the test and it went really well. I really liked the people I saw what I wanted for me as far as a race team. From that point on, it made it much easier for me to make my decision. Since then we've been working on the details. Finally last week we reached an agreement. We can move forward."
While the trend in IndyCar racing seems to be multi-car teams -- team owner Chip Ganassi has four drivers, Team Penske has three and Kanaan was part of a four-driver team at Andretti Autosport -- Kanaan will be the sole focus of attention at De Ferran-Dragon Racing.
"I remember we went to Sebring on the test. I got there on the test. I asked Gil, 'Where are the guys?' He said, 'This is it.' I was like, 'Oh, OK,'" Kanaan recalled. "Obviously it has been eight, almost nine years with a big team. So it took me a little bit to get used to it. But in a funny way, I think it's great. It's a big challenge for both of us. I'm enjoying every moment of it. Everything downsized three times for me right now. I just have to get used to it."
The addition of a top driver such as Kanaan also elevates the expectations for the team. When Matos would race in the top-5 during his tenure on the team, it was a sign of progress for the operation. But with Kanaan behind the wheel, the expectations become winning races and possibly contending for a championship.
"It increases the expectations undoubtedly, but I guess that's what we're here for," de Ferran said. "I was asked the very same question when I joined Team Penske. How do you feel? Do you feel more pressure that you joined Team Penske? For sure, the expectation is higher.
"My thought on that is that, you know, you work all your life to put yourself in that position, to be working with the best people and the best team. There's no point choking once you get it, you know. This is, frankly, a little bit similar. Having Tony around, I think we were able to secure one of the best talents in the series. I was really excited, frankly, when I felt there was an opportunity to sign him up. I think it really makes it clear to everyone what we're trying to do with the team and the type of results we would like to get in the future. Otherwise we wouldn't have tried as we can to secure Tony's service."
Kanaan's return to IndyCar is another positive sign to the racing series as it continues tremendous momentum in 2010. Last month, Chevrolet and Lotus joined Honda as engine manufacturers beginning in 2012. Last week, talented American drivers Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball were named to another two-car team owned by team owner Chip Ganassi.
Now that Kanaan is back in a car, 2011 shapes up as an impressive season for IndyCar.
"I think that's great because I think for a competition to be meaningful, you need to respect your competitors -- frankly, even admire them," de Ferran said. "As I see the new combinations that are being announced, Ganassi with more cars, everything that's going on with Team Penske that we got to find out over the last few weeks, I think that's great. I certainly have a great deal of respect but also a lot of admiration for our competitors. That's what it's all about. It just means that you if you do well, it means that much more. I welcome it. I certainly think, like I said, it's not getting any easier."
For the past 13 years, Geoff Smith has been a fixture in the NASCAR garage area as president of Roush-Fenway Racing. Smith is retiring from that position next week and has been replaced by Steve Newmark, who will take over the multi-car NASCAR operation.
The former shareholder of a law firm, Newmark joined Roush-Fenway as senior vice president of business operations in April 2010.
"It is truly a privilege to be afforded the opportunity to lead one of the most successful organizations in professional sports," said Newmark, who spent the last six months getting acclimated to the organization's overall operating procedure.
"At the same time, the position carries a great deal of responsibility to the drivers, employees and fans to continue the tradition of excellence established by Jack Roush and Geoff Smith. Fortunately, I believe we have one of the deepest organizations in professional sports, and are well prepared to remain a leader in NASCAR. Despite the recent challenges in the motorsports industry, I really like the tools that we have to work with and believe strongly in our assets, both on a competition and sales and marketing level. Particularly with how we finished the 2010 season, I know everyone in this organization, including myself, is excited to get started on 2011."
A graduate of the College of William and Mary, and University of Virginia School of Law, Newmark had worked as outside counsel to Roush Fenway since the early 2000s and was involved in the creation of the joint venture between Roush Racing and Fenway Sports Group in 2007 and the sale of its merchandising division in 2006. His background includes vast experience in sports and entertainment, mergers and acquisitions, technology and e-commerce and venture capital transactions.
"If you sat here on a Monday and ran a 500-mile race with 43 cars, did it again Wednesday and again on Friday, you'd have three different races probably. It's not a recipe. It kind of folds out the way it folds out. Kind of like my recipe, you don't know if it's going to taste good or not." --
The offseason in racing gives me a chance to celebrate the holidays this week in cold and snowy Indiana. And while the engines will roar back to life before we know it, it's time to pause and celebrate the true meaning of the holidays.