It's May, and in the racing world, that means one thing: The Indianapolis 500. This year marks the 98th running of the driving spectacle, and it marks the first year Tony Kanaan will enter the race as the defending champion. A lot has changed for the Brazilian since then. For one, he's no longer with KV Racing Technology, thanks to jumping onto the biggest racing team in the sport, Chip Ganassi, taking over the No. 10 Target car, which Dario Franchitti ran before having to retire. TK stopped by the Complex offices in New York City and sat down with us to talk shop.
Interview by Tony Markovich (@T_Marko)
What’s the past year been like since you won?
It’s been awesome. I think a lot of new things have developed with the win. It's a big responsibility to be an Indy 500 champion. I always knew that, but now I felt it too. I got a new job with Target Chip Ganassi Racing, which was a little unexpected with Dario’s departure. But before that, I already was hired by Chip to race for the other cars, so it's been busy.
What sorts of responsibilities?
Well, you’re representing IndyCar. You’re representing the Indy 500 and it is a big deal, so now all of a sudden you’ve become a role model, not that I wasn’t before, for a lot of kids. And that's what I watch the most. You watch yourself a lot more and you try to send the right message. And you have to embrace it. Everywhere you go now, people only know you as the IndyCar champion and they call your name.
What’s that like?
It’s awesome. I didn’t start racing to be famous, but it gave me a lot of exposure. And nowadays, back home in Brazil and Indianapolis, you feel like a superstar. In America, at least three or four people know who I am wherever I go, which is kind of neat in a way. And Indy, you can barely walk anymore.
Well, you're definitely famous.
And my wife’s from there, so we spend a lot of time in Indy. Today, coming from Indy to [NYC]-- I got on the plane and at least 15 people walked by and said something. And the pilot was from Indy and he made an announcement on the PA: "So today we’re going to New York and the flight’s going to be an hour and thirty five minutes and I have a big responsibility. I’m taking the Indy 500 champion apparently to the wrong place, because he’s leaving Indy." That was cool.
How do you like all the attention?
I don’t mind at all and it's the responsibility that you have. With the increase of attention, with the increase of the fans, it's overwhelming, but you have to take the time because these people are there. And they’re happy for something that I accomplished. If you think about it, they have nothing to gain. It’s not that they benefit from it. So, I always treat my fans nice.
Wherever I go, I have to go with more time. I went to the Pacer’s game and I watched probably half of the game, and the other half was people who would approach me and say, "can we take a picture?" And it’s one guy that you say no because you were having dinner that you can gain or you can lose a fan. If you don’t prepare yourself, sometimes you want some privacy, but I think my experience coming from Brazil, the attention was always huge. I think I was kind of used to it so I’m always of the opinion that if you don’t want attention, just stay home. You can’t go to a mall and expect people not to stop you and take a picture. People want to say nice things to you.
Especially now with social media. Everybody wants to prove they met you with tweets and everything.
Some people don’t even want to speak to me. They’re just, "hey TK!" Pop. They just run away, that’s all they want. Same thing when I was at the airport in Indy waiting for my flight. I was at the gate and I was tweeting and I look up. There was this guy taking a photo of me and I just pretended I didn’t see. It’s part of my job and I have to deal with it.
Have you seen any negative aspects of it?
Not really. The negative would be if you don’t give the attention that people expect, sometimes somebody will say something, "I saw Tony Kanaan at the restaurant and he only said hi and started to talk to me only five minutes. Now just because he won the race, he thinks that he can..." But those kind of things, that's the price of fame. My fans are pretty nice to me and I try to take as much time as I can.
How has the racing been this season?
It was a big change for me. It was an unexpected move when I signed with Chip to move to the 10 car, which is a lot of responsibility there. That car has won a lot of races and championships with them and Dario, so the beginning of the season, the series became extremely competitive all of a sudden. It’s the third year with this car and we’re all very, very tight. With the team, I’m still adapting.
It’s a much bigger organization than I was used to, so there are quite a few things that work out different. Long Beach was a shame, we got caught in an accident that wasn’t our fault, in 'Bama we kind of had a slow start in the race but we had the biggest move of the race-- we started last, we finished ninth--I think we had good momentum, and going into Indy, I think the whole team’s spirit was up. I’m the reigning Indy 500 champion and they've won so many times there.
What’s it like taking over Dario’s car?
I think its an honor to me. We have to remember that, first of all, it’s Chip’s and Target’s car, but Dario’s been so good to that team, and now he’s working for us. And for me, it’s an honor when he looked at me in the face in December and said, "if I can’t drive it anymore, I’d love for you to be in my car." It was a relief,because he’s my best friend and you’d hate to take anything from your best friend, and I think he was happy too for that, so it’s been great.
And it’s not really like you’re taking it. It’s more like a passing.
Exactly, I didn’t come in and take his job. He was forced to retire and that seat was open. Somebody was going to take it, you know.
What’s that been like working with him? And how has he helped the team so far?
It’s been really good, because I was teammates with him before, but now that he’s not driving and he’s fresh out of the car, he’s been speeding my process of adapting to the team and how it likes to work. And all his secrets that he wouldn’t probably share before. He’s not driving, so he’s there with me and I’m learning a lot of things. I say, "Dario, how do you do that? Because I saw you doing it last year and you wouldn’t tell me." Now he’s like, "yeah, here and here," so it’s an open book and it’s been extremely helpful for me to have him around.
Is there one specific thing that he’s said to you that stands out?
There are a couple corners in a couple different race tracks that I knew he was really good. So, he took me there and just showed me the way or what he did with the breaks or the setup of the car to be able to do what he was doing, so it’s kind of nice.
What’s it been like not having to worry about sponsorships at all this year?
It was weird in the beginning. It’s awesome. I went from being extremely busy on my off-track days to like, okay, what now? You know, even in the office nowadays with the people that I have, they’re half as busy, but it’s awesome. I think that with the Target sponsorship, it just made my life a lot easier. I don’t have to worry about that anymore. I have to worry about winning, which takes a lot less time, so I have more time for my family, for my kid, and that’s actually been extremely helpful.
What do you think about the new Grand Prix?
I like it. I helped in designing the track, so it was a personal project of mine, but I think people cannot relate the two races. There’s not going to be another Indy 500 anywhere, even if you make another oval race at the speedway at another date. But it's a road course, it's the quickest road course that we go on through the season.
At the speedway, the Indy 500 is more of an International race; everybody comes from all over the place. And maybe the Grand Prix will be more local. You’re from there, but not just Indiana, but Ohio, people can drive to that race, it’s easier access. It’s just not the Indy 500. I think it's going to be a good show. I think the crowd’s going to be a lot bigger on opening day, which is the goal. It’s just a little bit diversified. We lost some tracks in the past year and we needed to replace them.
And you're going to have all different cars for each race.
I’m racing the Luxor car on Saturday. Sunday, I’m driving the 10 car, the Target car, the red car. And then Monday, we’re running the silver car that we unveiled in Vegas, so I’m driving three different cars in three different days. Back to back to back.
What’s that like preparing for that many different cars?
The good thing about it is that our seat is custom made. It’s the same seat. So I don’t feel that it's different. It’s a different color, but they put my seat in the car, it's the same thing. It’s not like you jump in my car, you have to adjust the seat. It’s there. If you wouldn’t tell me, I wouldn’t have known the difference.
Right, but the cars are completely different.
The first one you’re running on a road course and you’re going the opposite way. The next day, you’re going to do 80 laps on Saturday going backwards on the front straightaway and then on Sunday you’re doing 220 mph the other way, so that’s going to take a little bit of time to adjust.
How difficult is that doing three in a row?
Well, if you think about it, we’re going to go Thursday and Friday and Saturday on the road course and then Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday on the oval. We usually had a break at least for one or two days to recover, but for this we’re not going to recover. It’s only going to build up, because qualifying is so intense, so you’re going from a stressful race weekend to an opening day to a stressful week to a very stressful weekend, then finally have three days off before the biggest race of the year for you.
How have you prepared both physically and mentally?
Physically, I haven’t done anything different than I’ve done in the past. I think it worked out pretty well for me. I’ve always been fit, I’ve always loved fitness, so I didn’t increase or decrease. But mentally, it’s where you’re going to have to pace yourself. Like, I already started my week. I’m here, I’ll in Bristol tomorrow, then I got to be in Indy Wednesday, and we have more interviews and then Thursday on the track.
Every time I can, I’ll take a break and decompress and just relax. I’ll just try to take a quick nap because its going to play a big role. If you don’t have a strong mind, especially the young guys, they’re going to suffer a lot more. I’ve been through it. We’ve done it, so you kinda know how, but my biggest challenge to the rookies is saying, "don’t worry about the race, don’t worry about the race car, the speed, you got to worry about pacing yourself." Because by the time I get to the parade on Saturday night, you're so tired and you have a 500-mile race to do the next day.
You have mentioned you have nothing more to prove to anybody. What's now your driving force?
To maintain my goals and maintain what I always aim, which is a win. What I meant by that was that if anybody had any doubt that I could win the 500 or I could win a championship, they can put that to rest. Now, it’s in my head that I need to keep myself in the game to do what I want to do. I’m racing for the biggest organization in IndyCar, the most committed guys, and all they want is to win.
So, at this late in my career, I'm probably in the best position I’ve been in my career. The pressure’s on me against myself. I wouldn’t mind if somebody would write an article like, "Kanaan is old or Kanaan can’t win or Kanaan can’t do this." That doesn’t matter anymore. It’s about what I want. And I know what I want. And until the day that I don't have this desire, I’m going to be racing. If it comes down to the point that I just want to be a part of the race, I think it will be time to just go do something else.
Now that you won the Indy, is there another race that you really want to win?
We don’t have it in the calendar anymore, but it was Brazil. It’s coming back next year, but last year the two highs and lows of my career happened in the same month. We raced in Brazil, I was leading the race and I ran out of fuel and the crowd went crazy. And right after that, we bounced back and won the 500. The 500 is always going to be the goal, but if I had to chose another one, it would be Brazil.
And there is no race there this year why?
Because of the World Cup. The race would have been this weekend, and It was too close for the city. It's a temporary course, and it takes a long time to build. It takes a long time to actually deconstruct it. And traffic is already terrible there. And let’s face it, Soccer against racing in Brazil, they’re still going to win. And how many times are you going to have a World Cup? Next year it’s happening again, but we had to take a break.
You mentioned that you guys have a new rookie. Are you excited about that? Are you looking at it as a mentor situation?
I like Sage [Karam]. We have a common sponsor, a guy that I introduced him to. He’s actually from New Jersey, he’s from Comfort Revolution. And him and Big Machine, they team up because this kid is really good. And I think at this point in the stage of my career, I’d like to see some young people coming up. I was very welcomed when I came to the series back in ‘98 and now Dario actually works very close with Sage too and luckily we brought him to the team and Chip saw the value in the kid.
Chip was really good at picking upcomers and young drivers that people never heard about. I think Sage has a bright future, so I’ll try to help him as a mentor as much as I can. If he listens, he has three good teammates there with a lot of experience. Me, Dario, and Dixon so I don’t think it can get any better than. If he’s smart enough, he’ll follow what we say. And we raced with him with sport cars. He was our teammate in Daytona 24, so I think he’s going to get there in a couple of years. You’re going to hear a lot from him.
How come nobody requests chocolate milk at the end of the Indy 500?
Because you can’t. You pay a big fine. If you remember, back in the day, Emerson Fittipaldi actually drank orange juice and he got a big fine. That’s part of the tradition, so that’s why. I would have chosen chocolate milk.
If you had to choose between the McLaren P1, the Porsche 918, or the Ferrari LaFerrari, which one would you choose?
I’m a Ferrari fan. I’ve seen the P1 in person, I’ve seen the 918, I haven’t seen the LaFerrari. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be the most uncomfortable one to drive, because that’s what Ferraris are, but I’d pick the Ferrari any day. Because it’s a Ferrari. I lived in Italy for a long time, and I’ve had Ferraris for the past 15 years. They’re uncomfortable. They’re bad. It’s like, how can you pay this amount of money for car that is not... you drive a McLaren, you can drive it everyday. You drive a Porsche, it’s an everyday car. The Ferrari is not, it's definitely not. And my biggest guage is my kid and my wife, because they get in the car and my wife’s like, "my boobs don’t stop going up and down!" My kid’s like, "Dah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-d!" But it’s a Ferrari. It has a name on it, you know. It is what is.