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Been Here, Won That

When it comes to clinching a racing title at Fontana, Kanaan has

September 28, 2004|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

Who was that, doing high-altitude conditioning with Lance Armstrong's trainer in Aspen, Colo., last week?

Who was that, pedaling furiously down Biscayne Boulevard in Miami a few days earlier, acting as if he were Lance Armstrong?

Both were triathlete-race car driver Tony Kanaan, the gregarious Brazilian who is on the verge of winning the Indy Racing League championship for Andretti Green Racing.

After driving 13 races in a Honda-powered Dallara -- he has won three times and has not been worse than fifth -- Kanaan will be at Fontana this week needing to finish only fourth or better Sunday in the Toyota Indy 400 at California Speedway to clinch the title. He has a 75-point margin over teammate Dan Wheldon, last year's IRL rookie of the year from England.

"For sure, it's deja vu for me," Kanaan said, explaining that seven years ago he came to California Speedway 12 points ahead of then-teammate Helio Castroneves in Indy Lights and won the championship.

"I remember walking into Fontana in '97 on Sunday morning, I said, 'I won't get out of here today without a championship in my hand.' For sure, it reminds me of a lot of good things. It's a special place."

In his last three races at California Speedway he has finished fifth, fourth and third.

"Championship-wise, I know that I have a good chance to clinch at Fontana, but first I'd like to win the race," he said.

Kanaan, 29, has been the point man in Andretti Green's domination of the IRL season. He and teammates Dario Franchitti, Bryan Herta and Wheldon have won eight of the 14 races and are in the top eight in points. Franchitti is fifth and Herta eighth.

Kanaan, who has earned $1,743,590 this year, won at Phoenix, Texas and Nashville, and finished second at Japan, Indianapolis, Michigan and Nazareth, Pa., where the Andretti drivers finished 1-2-3 in the shadow of the Andretti family home.

"I know people doubted us, having a four-car team, at the beginning of the year, but I keep saying again and again, we have such a great relationship that it's helping us all," Kanaan said. "When drivers work closely, the way we do, to make the car better every session, we can go four more times [testing] than a single-car team and twice more than a two-car team. So, it's definitely a big advantage."

The 5-foot-5, 147-pound Kanaan was hired when Michael Andretti formed his IRL team last year. Andretti brought Franchitti with him from CART and got the rookie Wheldon as his own replacement when he retired after the Indy 500. When Franchitti was injured, he brought in the veteran Herta, who had been racing sports cars.

"It was a moment I felt we were changing too many things," Kanaan said of Herta's arrival. "I mean, Dario gets hurt, Michael's retiring, Bryan is hopping in. All of a sudden, I found myself the only one left from the original staff.

"But we had this thing going that everybody fit in. Dario came back, Bryan stayed on and we had a beautiful thing going. I swear, I don't think I will ever have a thing like this again, so we are going to try to make this last as long as possible."

Kanaan said that even though he and Wheldon were battling for the championship, there were no secrets.

"The drivers and crews share information across the board," he said. "There's nothing I'm going to hide from my teammates just because we're fighting for the championship. It's a matter of my principles first, and the team's as well.

"It's so different from Europe and Formula One, where there are team orders. There, the first guy you hate is your teammate, because he's the first guy you want to beat. I know, I raced in Europe. I also raced with some wonderful teammates, Helio in '97 and [Alex] Zanardi in 2001, but I never had this, what I have with these guys."

Their relationship may be a major factor in Andretti Green's success, but so is the powerful 700-horsepower Honda V-8 Indy engine, developed at the factory racing facility in Santa Clarita in cooperation with Ilmor Engineering of Plymouth, Mich.

"Honda has done a great job, but they're making it tough on me because the guys that are second and third in the championship both have the same engine," Kanaan said. "So it's making my life harder."

Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice is 20 points behind Wheldon.

A Toyota-powered car won the season opener at Homestead-Miami, but since then it has been all Honda, winning 13 races. Besides the Andretti team's eight, Rice has won three and Adrian Fernandez two.

Kanaan said part of Honda's success was because of the factory's work with the aerodynamics of the Dallara chassis.

"It's pretty amazing a manufacturer like Honda, instead of just worrying about the engines, they worry about our aero program too," Kanaan said. "I think they proved with the results how much effort they're putting into it and how much work they did to get us to the point we are.

"It just goes down to a very, very good group of people working really hard to get one goal, which is to win. That's what they did."

Kanaan's work with Chris Carmichael, Armstrong's trainer, and the bicycle riding have a dual purpose -- to make Kanaan as fit as possible for the remaining two races, Sunday in Fontana and Oct. 17 at Texas Motor Speedway, and to train for the triathlon.

The running-cycling-swimming format has become Kanaan's other passion. He competed in the Ralphs California Half Ironman triathlon before the racing season and says he'll be back for the next one.

"I'll definitely do a lot more triathlons," he said, "but right now I'm training really hard with one goal in mind, which is the championship."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The Facts

* What: Toyota Indy 400

* When: Sunday, noon

* Where: California Speedway, Fontana

* Television: ESPN

* Radio: IMS Radio Network

* 2003 champion: Sam Hornish Jr.

IRL Driver Standings

*--* N DRIVER POINTS 1 TONY KANAAN 538 2 DAN WHELDON 463 3 BUDDY RICE 443 4 HELIO CASTRONEVES 379 5 DARIO FRANCHITTI 366

*--*

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