Tony Kanaan leaned forward against the steering wheel of the utility cart and winced as if his lower back had seized. The morning air at Sebring International Raceway was cool, but pondering his position as the elder of Andretti Green Racing had made this erstwhile triathlete, standout IndyCar driver suddenly feel a lot older than 33.
"Yes, yes, the old guy,'' he laughed, bobbing his head and grinning.
Three years ago Kanaan was the defending series champion and ringleader of rascals. He, Dario Franchitti, Bryan Herta and Dan Wheldon combined to win 11 of 17 races and Wheldon the IndyCar championship in 2005. They won and they enjoyed it, hazing each other mercilessly, pressing each other competitively. They were a Rat Pack without the tuxedos.
But Wheldon left in 2006 for Ganassi Racing. Herta moved to AGR's American Le Mans series team last year, and Franchitti, who won the Indianapolis 500 and series title in 2007, jumped to Ganassi's NASCAR team. That one stung. Franchitti, 34, was his compatriot, his contemporary, had raced with him in the CART series before they came to the IRL.
"It was a hard hit for me,'' Kanaan said of Franchitti's departure. "He was my best friend. He was the guy that with (team owner) Michael (Andretti) made me come to this team … my wing man.''
Now it's Kanaan and Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti and rookie Hideki Mutoh. Kanaan has made 82 open wheel starts in CART or the IRL in 12 seasons, with 12 wins and the 2004 championship. Since that season, he has more points (2,150) than any other IndyCar series driver. His current teammates have combined for one win (Andretti) in 52 starts in parts of nine seasons.
"Me and Dario go back a long ways, Bryan as well. I got really close to Dan,'' said Kanaan, who led with eight laps left at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Saturday when Ernesto Viso wrecked in front of him and damaged Kanaan's car. "Now we are building the chemistry back up. I think we do have a lot of things in common that we can make this team as good as it was before.
"But you can never compare. It will never be the same, and not in a bad way.''
Kanaan seems interested in seeing how this life as the backbone of the organization suits him. But with adjustments.
"We have a lady now. We'll have to be a little easier on the pranks,'' said Kanaan, who last year threatened to shave Patrick's head if she wins a race.
Every current or former Kanaan teammate has a story of how the intense but helpful veteran in some way offered expertise that translated into better performance. A man who slept on a race shop floor in Italy as a Brazilian teen to continue his late father's dream of his son becoming a racer, Kanaan could guard his secrets selfishly, but instead shares them, though sometimes, said Wheldon, "in a not-so-nice way, but only because he's so competitive.''
"I don't think I am the best guy on the team. I respect my teammates a lot. I know that I am the oldest and I have the most wins combined between them, so if I have something to say, I'll say it,'' he said. "But if they have something to say, I'll listen as well. It's not like I act like I know everything.''
For Wheldon, it was 21/2 hours of tutelage on how to get around Twin Ring Motegi after a horrific first practice in 2004. Wheldon won the pole and the race, leading 192 of 200 laps.
"He could have just gone to dinner,'' Wheldon said, "but he helped me and my engineer do that.''
Patrick, 26, constantly compares data and opinions with Kanaan as she tries to establish a leadership role, a tough task without an IRL win.
"I would really hope Tony doesn't feel he doesn't have us to rely on because the only thing that makes you better over time is experience and we're all earning it,'' she said. "It's going to be tough to replace Dario, but we're going to try hard.''
Kanaan and Wheldon were both affected by Franchitti's move. Wheldon was interested in testing his abilities in stock cars before his former teammate filled the seat in Ganassi's No. 40 Dodge Sprint Cup entry.
"Their trust in one another was incredible and they were sort of the lynch pins of that team,'' Wheldon said of AGR. "You need stability in a team and you need a guy that is able to look at the big picture and try to lead that team down the path. When you take Dario away from him, that puts more pressure on you. (Kanaan) takes his job very seriously and he'll not want to lead them down the wrong path because it will hurt him. With Dario he had a good confidante.''
But ultimately, Kanaan is not as reluctant a leader as he lets on, Wheldon said, patrolling the paddock at Homestead-Miami.
"You've got a first-class guy there on the track and without being disrespectful of Marco's ability — he's a friend of mine — for whatever reason he hasn't caught up with what he needs from these guys to be consistent all the time,'' Wheldon said. "You take Tony out of that team — and I know it's Michael's team and Marco's his son — but if you take Tony out of that … Marco needs him a lot. If you lose him there's not a team leader on that team and that would be bad.''
A lot of pressure on a young old man.
|9:25||10:25||Indy Lights practice|
|4:30||5:30||ALMS autograph session|
|4:45||5:45||Indy Lights practice|
|10:55||12:25||IndyCar qualifying and Firestone Fast 6|
|1:25||3:20||ALMS Acura Sports Car Challenge|
|4:45||5:45||Indy Lights Race 1 (40 laps/72 mi.)|
|8:05||8:15||Indy Lights warmup|
|10:45||Indy Lights Race 2 (40 laps/72 miles)|
|12:00||1:15||Concert, Gym Class Heroes|
|2:45||5:00||IndyCar Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (100 laps/181 miles)|