Over 20 Years On, Mid-Ohio Marks Starting Point for Tony Kanaan’s Career

  9SG7445-1-min

By: Christian Ryan

Every success story needs a beginning.

Hailing from Brazil, Tony Kanaan is winding down his 20th season in the Verizon IndyCar Series while reminiscing on his storied career as one of the sport’s most successful and beloved figures. Some of those accolades are very visible and celebrated, such as his 2004 series championship and elusive 2013 Indianapolis 500 victory. As we look back on Kanaan’s career, we must not forget its beginnings in Ohio.

“Every time I come here, it’s always a little bit nostalgic because of a lot of good memories from the beginning of my career in America,” Kanaan says. “This is where everything started.”

In 1996, a young Kanaan would join Tasman Motorsports to compete in what is now known as Indy Lights. The team, owned by New Zealand motorsport journeyman Steve Horne, was based in Hilliard, Ohio and gave Kanaan his first taste of IndyCar racing as well as life in the United States.

“This is the first city that I lived in America when I first came here,” Kanaan explains. “This is where I learned how to speak English, because I spoke zero English when I first came.”

Kanaan would quickly thrive in his new home. By the sixth round of the 1997 Indy Lights season, he had claimed his first victory. He would find victory lane once more in the season’s closing race, finishing second in points. Kanaan returned the next season to dominate the series with a total of seven podiums, two of them victories, en route to claiming the 1998 Indy Lights title. His teammate in that campaign was another young Brazilian new to IndyCar: now three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves.

“It’s nice to see how far we came,” Kanaan says of his and Castroneves’ careers. “I remember we used to live in a one bedroom apartment, I had no car, we had no money to do anything when we were back here. Nowadays it’s a much, much different situation. It’s hard to believe that both of us lasted this long as well, we could never predict that. It’s always a nice feeling to come back here.”

From his success in Indy Lights, Kanaan would graduate to the Verizon IndyCar Series - then known as the CART World Series - full time with Tasman Motorsports in 1998. Kanaan impressed in his rookie season, claiming two podiums and rookie of the year honors. While Kanaan’s future was bright, his time in Hilliard, Ohio had come to an end. As the team moved away from IndyCar and Kanaan pushed further into the career he enjoys today, he maintains that appreciation for the opportunity that Steve Horne and wife Christine Horne gave him to reach the pinnacle of American open wheel racing.

“My first three years - the two Indy Lights years and my first year in IndyCar - they gave me the opportunity to drive an IndyCar so I owe a lot of my career to [Steve] and Christine,” Kanaan explains. “That’s what made me who I am! This is where everything started. The beginning was here, and that’s something I will never forget.”

Now, in his 20th season, Kanaan returns to Ohio for the 2017 Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Having achieved seemingly all there is to achieve in IndyCar in the past two decades, Mid-Ohio remains a void in Kanaan’s trophy case. With his personal history and ties to the state, Kanaan would like nothing more than to stand on top of the podium where his career started.

“It would be a big win,” Kanaan admits. “I’ve never won here, so for sure it’s something I’m looking forward to do especially for the special ties that I have here, and the ties that I have with having fans coming to the races all these years.

Hopefully this will be the year!”

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