Big Nose, Big Heart

Anne Proffit
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AGUANGA, CA, October 5, 2004 - Tony Kanaan is the 2004 champion for the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series and he's accomplished the title with speed and grace. Kanaan's ongoing assault on IRL record books shows his ability to literally win, place or show at will.

With 14 straight Top Five results in the 15 races held thus far in the 16-race campaign, to go with completion of every single one of the 2105 laps of competition and leading 884 laps in the process, Kanaan has shown the type of innate ability that crowns true champions before the season's done.

The competition level in the League this year with champions from all forms of the sport - not to mention the nosebleed abilities of Kanaan's Andretti Green Racing teammates Dan Wheldon, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta - makes this title truly sweet, even if it hasn't sunk in yet.

Beyond Wheldon, Buddy Rice, Helio Castroneves, Adrian Fernandez and Franchitti have all been chasing Tony the entire season, ebbing and flowing but never quite catching.

In a sport known for the success of many who bring money, Tony Kanaan is a throwback. He's a throwback of the best sort who has overcome the loss of a beloved father at 13, subsequent family thievery, slept on garage floors in Italy when he had to and always had the will to back his great talent with a good-natured sense of humour.

Since Tony came to the United States with Tasman Motorsports in 1995, as part of the Marlboro Latin America driver development program created with Emerson Fittipaldi's blessing, he's always shown his driving chops. Rubens Barrichello taught him a few valuable words in English and Tony was on his way.

Tony's engineer since the start of that American adventure, Eric Cowdin is with him now and they're sharing victory for a second time at the same track where they snared the 1997 Indy Lights championship. At California Speedway, for a second time Cowdin and Kanaan have known the highest of the highs.

Kanaan is the glue at AGR, one of a group of practical jokers who put together the cake-in-face throw for Dario's birthday at Indy this May, collecting Gil de Ferran and John Kernan, among many. It is Animal House at AGR, folks. It's no act.

Tony Kanaan is wonderfully ebullient outside that green and white race car and totally down to business inside it. You don't come from the very last position on the grid (due to an undisclosed engine malady) and finish second, never falling lower than sixth in a 200-lap Toyota Indy 400 race without being all business.

Michael Andretti, Kim Green and Kevin Savoree chose Tony Kanaan as their second driver - after signing Kanaan's good friend Dario Franchitti - because in Andretti's own words, "I raced against Tony and it was always clean racing. He's very aware of what's going on around him. And he's got a great personality; he's a great guy."

Leading up to this penultimate race of the year, Tony Kanaan spoke with a lot of friends like Gil de Ferran, Alex Zanardi and Rubens Barrichello, champions all. Zanardi, one of his two racing heroes (Ayrton Senna is the other) was Tony's teammate in 2001; Kanaan had to race the weekend after Alex crashed and it was one of the most difficult things he's done.

Tony ran his own race on Sunday. Starting 21st - and knowing he needed to finish better than fifth to clinch the title no matter where runners-up Wheldon or Rice were - Tony was fifth after the first round of pit stops during the Lap 9-13 caution #1.

From there he hounded Castroneves and Rice mercilessly as the trio traded positions constantly within laps. Helio led the most laps, 145, Buddy faded to fifth and Tony brought home a second place car in second. He admitted he had nothing for winner Fernandez, who nipped Kanaan at the flags by the seventh slimmest of IRL margins, 0.0183 seconds.

It's been his goal to run like that, to get the car to do what it can and make the most of it. No race finish lower than eighth in 15 events yields an average final position of 3.067. With last weekend's start of 21st Kanaan's average starting position fell from 3.5 to 4.67 over 15 races.

Now Kanaan has one more race to complete at Texas Motor Speedway, site of his second 2004 victory in June. He says his goal is to help Wheldon retain second place points. His comments and, even more his actions show how Tony Kanaan is part of a team and it's Four Musketeers - five if you count Andretti - yelling "all for one and one for all."

Could this result have happened anywhere else? Possibly. Could this kind of camaraderie occur without the wondrous Tony Kanaan? Unlikely.

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