Banter, competitiveness fuel Helio, TK in 20th IndyCar seasons
AVONDALE, Ariz. - The word “retire” is often thrown around to describe Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, as the longtime friends and rivals are now almost a quarter of the way through their 20th seasons in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
And then you consider Castroneves took the pole Friday night in his No. 3 REV Group Team Penske Chevrolet with a new track record at Phoenix International Raceway at 194.905 mph average speed - again, on a one-mile oval - and Kanaan led the way among the 13 Hondas on the grid in his No. 10 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, and you need to leave the “retire” word out of the conversation.
One of the great aspects about them both is that while they’ve endured through so much change in IndyCar, the series, their competitiveness, banter and great form is still as evident now as when they were kids being groomed for success in the Indy Lights series, as teammates for Steve Horne’s Tasman Motorsports.
Since 1998, IndyCar’s been through a boatload of different sponsors, drivers, teams, chassis, engine manufacturers, series chiefs, marketing firms, buzzwords, rivals, controversies, question marks and fantastic finishes.
But this pair of Brazilians, friends since before they were teenagers, has been a guarantee to endure.
Fittingly, then, in a city whose track’s history with North American open-wheel racing dates to the 1960s, the weekend kicked off with an homage to the two Brazilians at the Heard Museum, moderated by veteran broadcaster Gary Gerould.
These two hesitate to use the word “old” even though they are both north of 40 years old - and as Dario Franchitti joked, “no one knows how old Tony really is” - yet continue to kick ass on a weekly basis.
Before their CART and IndyCar careers started, only one of them was going to win the 1997 Indy Lights title, both in their second seasons. And although Castroneves - then hyphenated as Castro-Neves - held a three-two win advantage, Kanaan won the championship by just four points.
Not that Castroneves thought it was all fair and square, as he joked going into Thursday night.
“I didn’t win the championship because I didn’t finish where I needed to,” he told NBC Sports. “On the celebration lap, the cool down lap, I saw something stuck on his hula hoop – or roll hoop. I stopped and after that we talked about it, ‘Tony, I meant to ask you a question, you’ve got something stuck?’
“Man, I’m telling you we didn’t have HANS devices at the time. To try to disrupt the whole rhythm and get a caution I think he was going to throw his neck support! His plan didn’t work out – he got stuck. So it was funny!”
Kanaan, who won the championship over him, noted how intense the battle between the two really was because they were unsure what would happen if only one of them made it to IndyCar.
“Probably the best was the year we were going for the Indy Lights championship in ’97,” Kanaan recalled to NBC Sports during this year’s St. Petersburg weekend.
“That was ‘make it or break it’ for us. We actually got told that year that whoever won the championship was going to get a chance in IndyCar. At the time, in our heads, it was only going to be one of us. And we were going head-to-head. We had the same equipment. I ended up winning, but we both moved up.”
They survived that run in Horne’s team’s base of Columbus, Ohio - as the two of them joked Thursday night, there was not much to do - and then were in a sense lucky to both be able to advance into IndyCar the following year.
“Without Steve, we wouldn’t be anywhere,” Kanaan admitted. “It was a combination of Philip Morris in Brazil and him, But, he was the one who had a good team that picked us. We went to a test and it was ten guys and he hand-picked me and Helio out of those ten guys and gave us the opportunity. Without him, I definitely wouldn’t be here.”
Not that Castroneves would be sold short either. He pushed through in that aforementioned test at Firebird Raceway’s East road course - south of Phoenix - with a rib injury. While he exited the car in pain, the determination and pace shown was enough to justify Horne’s faith.
Horne was among many who paid tribute to the two Thursday night in a prerecorded message, and also gave them stick for when they collided on the first lap of an Indy Lights race in Toronto in 1996. Castroneves led Kanaan in a 1-2 in Toronto a year later, which was a welcome payback.
Others included two of Kanaan’s past teammates in Franchitti and Bryan Herta, part of Andretti Autosport (then Andretti Green’s Racing) fabled four-car lineup in the mid-2000s, and Franchitti’s old teammate and current NBCSN IndyCar analyst Paul Tracy. “PT” had perhaps the best one-liner of the night when he took the opportunity to ask Castroneves how he was taking care of his 2002 Borg-Warner Trophy, as Tracy always felt as though he and not Castroneves was the rightful winner of that year’s Indianapolis 500.
The one shock bit of news that came out Thursday night had nothing to do with the on-track product these two drivers have delivered. It came with the off-track product Castroneves uses to keep his hair as magical as it is.
“Bedheaded,” he laughed, which caught most of the room off guard. “It doesn’t take as long as you think to get it ready. People think it takes a long time but it’s quick.”
The two drivers reflected on their careers. Castroneves has spent all but two seasons with Team Penske; that incredible 18-year run, and counting, came after a year apiece with the midfield Bettenhausen Motorsports and Hogan Racing teams in the 1990s, where he scored his first career podiums. Sadly, with Tony Bettenhausen Jr. having died in an early 2000 plane crash and Carl Hogan dying a year later, his first two owners have long since been unable to see his career rise. His Penske opportunity also arose from tragedy with Greg Moore’s 1999 fatal accident in Fontana, but having been in the right place at the right time, he seized his chance.
Kanaan, meanwhile, had his heyday at Andretti after five stop-start years with Tasman, McDonald’s Championship Racing (a Forsythe satellite team, where he won his first race in 1999 at Michigan) and Mo Nunn Racing that always saw him showcase a lot of potential, but not consistent results. His post-Andretti career saw his attempt to lift KV Racing Technology to the top of the ascendancy, and did when he and the KVSH Racing effort broke through in the 2013 Indianapolis 500 - a result, as it turned out, which extended the careers of both entities when it was possible mid-2013 could have been the end for both.
A late career renaissance has occurred with Chip Ganassi Racing, Kanaan having been meant to be added in a fourth car for 2014 but shifted to become Franchitti’s replacement in the No. 10 car once injuries forced the champion Scot into retirement.
Castroneves holds the wins, poles and Indianapolis 500 victories edge, but Kanaan’s got two championships - one each in IndyCar and Indy Lights - that remain elusive for Castroneves.
Yes, they haven’t won since 2014 and yes, the questions are always whether they should move on and provide an opportunity for the younger crowd to step up to two of the primo, marquee seats in IndyCar.
But the younger drivers who have raced against them over the years will likely tell you that if you’ve beaten Castroneves and Kanaan, you’ve beaten two of the best. Doing so at Indy, where both drivers have starred and have a combined four wins, is even more of a successful feather in the cap.
Said Kanaan about his future, “In my mind, I’m still very young. I take care of myself a lot. I think I’m still in the game. I think I still I had a decent season last year, despite not getting a win. So, as long as I feel this way, I’m going to keep going. So, how I feel…I feel great.
“We’re raising the bar, between some guys in IndyCar and some guys in NASCAR, with how much we do nowadays to keep ourselves in shape. So, as long my reflexes and my health allow me to do it and I still have the motivation to stay away from the house…once this starts to weigh over me then it will be time to start thinking about that. But I still have the desire, especially with two young kids at home, I want to be on the road!”
And Castroneves added, “I was talking to someone else regarding our lives. We’re friends. We’re competing for the same job. The same seat. We were in separate parallel series, we were teammates, then we had a rivalry, and we have had all these scenarios together.
“But one thing I feel is awesome, we both work really hard and achieve the goals we’re looking for. And we still get it done!”