Tony Kanaan is the oldest driver on the IndyCar circuit this year. He may also be the best, thanks to a career-long devotion to fitness that makes him feel almost half his age.
Kanaan, 40, ended the 2014 season by winning at Fontana for only his second victory in his last 79 races dating to 2010. He backed up that success by being part of Chip Ganassi Racing’s winning team at the Rolex 24 (-hour race) in January at Daytona, Florida, and he reached the podium again by placing third in the 2015 IndyCar Series opener March 29 in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Eleven years removed from his only season-long championship, he began preparing for the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana on Thursday with the belief he could make another serious push for the points title.
“When people ask me what’s my secret, I say there is no secret,” he said. “If you eat healthy, you work out and you keep yourself on top of your game, age is just going to be a number. By taking care of my body, I made sure I was going to have a much longer career. To be honest, I’m in better shape now than I was when I was 20 years old.”
He’s not exaggerating.
Kanaan, a native of Brazil, completed a full Ironman Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii in 2011. For the uninitiated, that entailed a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.2-mile run.
He has competed in numerous other half-ironman races after beginning to train for them in his mid-20s at a friend’s suggestion, overcoming one initial hang-up.
“I said, ‘I didn’t want to do it; I’m not good enough,’ ” Kanaan said. “As a race car driver, you are so competitive that you want to be good at everything that you do. Obviously, I’m nowhere being as good as the professional (triathlon) guys, but that’s not what I do. I do it to be fit for the race car.”
It was an edge he felt he needed because of the extreme physical and mental toll of IndyCar driving, possibly the most underappreciated aspect of the sport.
“When you’re driving for three or four hours in your street car and you start getting tired, you lose your reflexes and you’re not concentrating enough,” he said. “If you do those kind of things in a race car, you are either going to go slower or you are going to crash. For me, that’s the importance of the workouts. It’s to be able to sustain all the G forces the race car requires and be ready to do another race.”
Everything appears set up for Kanaan to excel. He is in his second year with the high-profile Chip Ganassi Racing team. He has a new engineer and the extra motivation of an addition to his family, two-month old son, Deco.
“As race drivers get older, they have a choice,” Ganassi managing director Mike Hull said. “They can cruise and collect based on the ability and experience they have or they can continue to make themselves better. Tony continues to work at his craft. If nothing else, he wants to win races to have more money for his kid’s college fund.”
Kanaan feels more comfortable all the way around. He finished in the top three of only one of his first 11 races last season before doing it five times in his last five events.
The move to Ganassi after three years with the smaller KV Racing Technology team proved difficult at the start.
“It was a lot of pressure,” Kanaan said. “You show up, and they have a different mentality of working and they want so much, but I’ve also been racing for a long time, so sometimes you have different opinions about things. It took a little bit for both of us to adjust to what each other liked and didn’t like.”
What he likes best is Ganassi’s long-term record of success. Teammate Scott Dixon is a three-time IndyCar points champion, and Ganassi’s drivers have won 54 races overall.
“The Ganassi history speaks for itself,” Kanaan said. “The championship is more competitive than ever, I do believe we have a good chance of winning.”