ST. PETERSBURG — A few dozen school children sat in front of Tony Kanaan on Wednesday to hear the IndyCar Series veteran talk about a subject he has learned a lot about through an up-and-down racing career.
The importance of understanding science, engineering and math in motorsports.
The 38-year-old Brazilian is still trying to reinvent his career after dropped sponsors forced him out of a powerhouse Andretti Autosport team with four series championships in nine years to up-and-coming KV Racing Technology, which has only been around for a decade.
"It was a big wake-up call," Kanaan said after career day at the Science Center of Pinellas. "In a way I think I was spoiled for a long time. It was a big back-to-reality thing."
And that new reality hasn't always been kind to one of the sport's most respected drivers.
Kanaan established himself as one of the top open-wheel racers with an eight-year career at Andretti. He won 14 races, including a series-best five in 2007.
He claimed the 2004 series championship, was runnerup in 2005 and never finished outside the top six in points. Kanaan finished in the top five at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg every year from 2005-09.
But the bottom fell out on Kanaan in 2010 when his top sponsor dropped him and he split with Andretti. In a sport dominated by three powerhouse teams — Andretti, Ganassi and Penske — Kanaan slipped from the sport's upper tier and its loaded pocketbooks. He landed at KV Racing, which has claimed only two victories since joining the sport in 2003.
"I was in one of the top-three teams in IndyCar," Kanaan said. "All of a sudden we lose the sponsorship and you have to move."
Kanaan's No. 11 Chevy team doesn't have the budget of the sport's bluebloods, so he has had to adapt.
His garage values camaraderie as much as it does technical expertise and swooped up five of his former Andretti crew members. To keep up with younger drivers, he spends more time working out on race-specific training, such as neck and shoulder exercises, and less time running or swimming for fun. And as he has matured, he has changed his expectations.
"Before I won the championship, it was something I was hunting," said Kanaan, who had mechanical problems last year at St. Petersburg and finished 25th. "It would make me secure. I thought after 2004 when I did it, 'I finally did it. No one can take that away.' Then you can relax. Then you focus on other projects. As you get older, you have a family. You have kids."
Kanaan no longer thinks about racing every minute, as he did when he was a 23-year-old CART rookie of the year in 1998.
He spends time with his family, pushing his 5-year-old son in a chair to simulate racing. He was married two weeks ago and didn't make his bride honeymoon at a test in Alabama. And he doesn't stress over a 41-race winless streak or obsess over the Indianapolis 500, which he has led eight times but never won.
"When you're a young kid … I was dreaming about winning 10 championships and seven Indy 500s," Kanaan said. "Obviously as you grow up, it becomes reality. You try to evaluate every situation you're in. It's not just about winning. You've got to put yourself in the right place at the right time with the right team with the right money."
Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.