The Indy Racing League IndyCar Series trucks are slowly filling the paddock at Homestead-Miami Speedway today as they prepare for four days of testing and talking in the first of two pre-season practice sessions
Testing is set for both road and oval circuits and the cast of characters assembled has one goal in mind: to do better than 2004 IndyCar Series champions Tony Kanaan and Andretti Green Racing. That's a tall order.
After all, Tony finished every lap of every one of 16 races during 2004, with a worst placing of eighth in the season opener. For those of you keeping track at home, that was 3305 laps; Kanaan led 889 of those tours in 13 races, including the final ten contests. His title was in the bag with one race left to run, an anomaly in the nine-year history of the League.
The first four-car full-time team in the IRL, Andretti Green Racing drivers finished first, second (Dan Wheldon), Dario Franchitti earned sixth with fourth driver Bryan Herta taking ninth place in the standings. That's plenty awesome, isn't it?
During a year when their Honda engine annihilated the competition, Toyota and Chevrolet, causing the latter to announce departure from the IRL after the 2005 season these four AGR drivers carried home eight of 16 first-place trophies! That's plenty awesome too.
In addition to winning the series title in his and the team's second try, Tony Kanaan received a huge honor from members of the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association (AARWBA) just this past weekend.
When he came to the AARWBA awards banquet in California last weekend, Tony already knew he'd made the 35th All America First Team.
Then he discovered he received more votes than any other driver in open wheel, stock car, touring car, drag racing, sports cars and at-large categories to bring home the coveted Jerry Titus Award, named for the exceptional writer/driver (or was he a driver/writer?) who died well before his time.
Some of the best shoes in the business have taken this award over its duration. At this year's banquet, a lot of people thought John Force was about to add to his metallic kitty. But the prize went to an open-wheeler for the first time in a long, long time.
There's more to Tony Kanaan than simple excellence behind the wheel, although his prowess got the Brazilian his current job when Michael Andretti chose him . Kanaan got the nod when Andretti, Kim Green and Kevin Savoree began their team in late 2002, together with Dario Franchitti, one of Kanaan's best buds.
Tony has exceptional wit and an attitude that could light Times Square. Rarely is he seen without a smile on his face, but I recall one time last season: when Kanaan was snookered by Buddy Rice and a rapidly dropping fuel gauge and forced to settle for second place at Michigan International Speedway after leading 183 laps. Oh man! He was pissed.
Kanaan came to the United States to drive in 1996 after surviving the Steve and Christine Horne "gong show" Tasman Motorsport trials for Marlboro Latin America's Indy Lights campaign in CART. At the time he was teamed with Helio Castroneves and many people thought they were the best of friends. Not so. They run in different groups. In 1997 Kanaan won the title after taking second place a year earlier.
That seems to be his trend.
Perhaps 2005 will be Tony Kanaan's year at Indianapolis Motor Speedway; after all, he finished second to Buddy Rice in the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race last season. It's one of the few honors that's eluded this 30-year-old master.
It wasn't until he came to Andretti Green that Tony Kanaan had the engineering backup and quality teammates he needed to succeed. What about Mo Nunn Racing you ask? As with many of Morris Nunn's enterprises, his Champ Car and Indy Racing League teams have been less than well funded. Or perhaps he hasn't spent the money as well as he should have? Hard to say.
During his years with Nunn, Kanaan had only one teammate and that was Alex Zanardi. They were friends and teammates. 2001 was a tough year for Zanardi, returning to Champ Car but Kanaan always kept the Italian's spirits high.. He was there for Zanardi after the accident in Germany and he's still there for him today - and vice versa.
Tony Kanaan is one of those people who forms friendships for a lifetime; you meet the guy; you like him and he never gives you a reason not to like him. That's unusual in all kinds of relationships.
Just as the right guy won the IndyCar Series title in 2004, the same right guy earned this year's Jerry Titus award from AARWBA. Tony Kanaan is a racer's racer, a good man, a true friend.