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Diane Pucin

Engine Quits, but He's Not Off Track

April 15, 2002|Diane Pucin

First one out is not a good thing.

Tony Kanaan kicked a retaining wall and put his helmeted head in his hands. Kanaan stared at his No. 10 Pioneer-WorldCom/Mo Nunn Racing Honda-Reynard. The car's engine had died, just stopped. The fast car stood still and Kanaan had just become the first driver out of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday.

In two events this season, Kanaan has scored zero points.

For a moment Kanaan's spirits were low. But not for long. Kanaan, a 27-year-old Brazilian whose father had raced stock cars on a Brazilian circuit Kanaan says "is as big as NASCAR," has an understanding of his life and the place racing has in it. He walked off the track waving and smiling at the fans. On the way to his garage, Kanaan signed autographs and told those around him who thought the day a disaster that they didn't understand disaster.

"I have had three big things, very bad, affect my life and myself deeply," Kanaan said. "From these things I have grown in my understanding of what is important and what is not. Being rich and famous and winning all the races would be nice but not so important. Helping my friends and family and being a good person who is happy, that is important."

Last September, in the first major worldwide sporting event held after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Kanaan watched in shock and despair as his best friend, Alex Zanardi, escaped with his life but without his legs after a horrific crash at the American Memorial 500. The race in Germany had been renamed to honor the U.S.

Zanardi, an effusively happy and popular Italian CART driver, had befriended Kanaan nearly a decade earlier. Kanaan had come to Italy with no ability to speak Italian and no money. The teenager slept on a mattress on the floor of the garage of the Italian team that had tabbed Kanaan as a future star. Zanardi, already established as a driver, took it upon himself to help Kanaan learn the language of both the word and the car.

The two had remained friends, close enough to talk on the phone several times a week as Kanaan made his way from Italy and Formula 3 racing; to the U.S., and the Indy Lights series (in 1997 Kanaan won the Indy Lights season championship); and onto the CART series in 1998. Last year, for the first time, Kanaan and Zanardi became teammates on the Mo Nunn Racing Team on the CART circuit.

"It was the best thing, to have my friend on the team," Kanaan said. "And then came the accident."

Kanaan spent six days in the hospital with Zanardi, helping Zanardi's wife, waiting for his mentor to come out of a coma and then come to grips with the new life ahead, the one where Zanardi would be without his legs and without his life's love, racing.

"You want me to say what I have learned from Alex?" Kanaan said. "You must never despair. Alex has never been in despair. He walks now, on his new legs. He buys shoes. He takes care of his wife and his son. We talk on the phone, just as before. No different. I don't treat Alex different because Alex wouldn't want that. We talk like normal and that's how life must be. You make the new normal."

Kanaan is pretty good at making the new normal. When he was 13, a driver of go-karts with a derring-do attitude he inherited from his father, Kanaan suffered the first of the three tragedies of his life. His father, Tony, died of liver cancer, a shocking illness in a man who never drank and always had been strong. Kanaan said that as his father got sicker, "my father put the business of our family into the name of my uncle, his brother.

"Suddenly my mother, my sister and I had no money. We had been comfortable and now we had nothing."

As the man of the little family in Sao Paolo, Kanaan went to work. He gave go-kart driving lessons and built go-karts to sell. Four years later the great Brazilian racer Ayrton Senna, who died in a 1994 race crash, recommended Kanaan to an Italian racing team looking for young, talented Brazilian drivers. "I knew nothing of Italy or the language, but I wanted to race and so I went," Kanaan said. "I had nothing but my love of racing and determination to make it."

In so many senses, Kanaan has made it. His two proudest accomplishments on the track were that Indy Lights title and winning the 1999 Michigan 500. He lives in Miami now with his 23-year-old sister, Karen, who is going to school. He is able to send money to his mother.

But as happy a moment as that 1999 victory was to Kanaan, it is a year that also brought Kanaan deep sadness. Kanaan's other close friend in racing was Greg Moore, the young Canadian who was killed in a 1999 crash in the Marlboro 500 at the California Speedway in Fontana.

"To lose my father and to have the bad consequences for our family, and then to lose Greg, my good, dear friend, that was very hard. From those things, and from Alex's accident, I think I understand life more. I understand the things that matter are having great family and great friends and being there for them.

"People laugh when they hear I live with my sister. But my sister and I were separated for so many years and now we are being reunited in a way. We have so much fun together. I would be the sad one if she moved out."

Kanaan had been pleased with earning the sixth spot on Sunday's starting grid and, on the first turn, had moved up to fifth. His car had recorded the second-fastest practice time Sunday morning. To have the engine quit was a huge disappointment to the team but Kanaan chose to look ahead.

"Tough luck, huh?" Kanaan said. "We'll get 'em next time. That's the only way to respond to something like this because it's totally out of your control."

It is the way of racing and of life. Kanaan gets it.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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