FORT WORTH, TX - JUNE 10:  Tony Kanaan of Brazil, driver of the #10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, prepares for Star-Telegram Qualifying for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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Kanaan set for banner January with Race of Champions, Ford GT debut

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Tony Kanaan turned 42 on December 31, but is doing the opposite of slowing down. He’s speeding up and intensifying what was already serious dedication to his craft.

Since the Verizon IndyCar Series season ended on Sept. 18, Kanaan re-signed with NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing, has tested twice in the team’s now Honda-powered car (Gateway in October, Sebring last week), been confirmed for the Race of Champions (Jan. 21-22) and the Rolex 24 at Daytona (Jan. 28-29), and welcomed another new son – Max – into the world (October).

So much for a break in the schedule.

“It’s been great to me,” Kanaan told NBC Sports. “Obviously, hard work pays off. People definitely see my potential I guess, otherwise I wouldn’t be around for this long and I wouldn’t be doing the races I do.

“I’m excited about it. I planned my vacation and the only thing I had to do in January was a test in IndyCar and the Race of Champions on the 21st and 22nd, and then all of a sudden my month filled up completely, which is a good problem to have! I’m excited.”

Kanaan made his debut driving the Ford GT for Ganassi’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship effort at last weekend’s Roar Before the Rolex 24 test.

Kanaan said last year he was keen on eventually getting the chance in the GT, making his confirmation something of a bucket list item. He actually made his Rolex 24 debut in a Tom Gloy-owned Ford Mustang Cobra in 1998, and now is coming around full circle to the GTE-specification beast this year.

At the test, Kanaan only got five laps in Friday’s first session, and a total of 59 for the weekend. Although test times are largely irrelevant, Kanaan got with the program pretty quickly. A 1:44.645 best lap time was third among all drivers in GTLM for the test, only behind his Ford Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon.

Kanaan has more Daytona race experience than do his teammates in the No. 69 Ford GT, Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell (Tincknell’s a rookie, while Priaulx has raced at Daytona each of the last three years), and won the race overall with Dixon, Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson in 2015. However, Kanaan will be drawing on the FIA World Endurance Championship pair’s car expertise to learn the rest of the way.

Kanaan and Priaulx (standing). Photo courtesy of IMSA
Kanaan and Priaulx (standing). Photo courtesy of IMSA

“When you’re sharing a car like this, it’s never going to be enough laps,” Kanaan explained. “I’m here to learn. What I do have, is probably more experience at Daytona than my teammates, which I can help them with that. If they have more than me, it’s more hours in the car. Having done this race for so long, you have to get in the right mentality here. It’s not only your car and it’s not only your time. You have to work as one team and make sure we’re here to win the race.”

“The 69 car I’m driving was the backup car for Ganassi USA team and got put on track and we ran the entire session right away. So that tells you that the preparation here has been very good.”

Kanaan is set for at least the 2017 campaign in IndyCar with the goal of extended that beyond into 2018. While he sees an eye for racing in more sports car races down the road, he doesn’t want to do so until the end of his IndyCar career, which this year celebrates its 20th season after his debut back in 1998.

“I think it’s in my future. I’d probably say it’s in my near future at some point because I’m not that young anymore,” he admitted.

“I’m going year by year in IndyCar. Of course, I still feel I’m very competitive where I’m at, but this will be the next step for sure. With the right opportunity at the right time, I’m pretty sure this is what I’ll be doing in the next chapter of my career. I love this, I love the tradition, I love cars. IndyCar is a race car, but this is like cars you have on the street, some of these cars I own, some are ones I drive every day, so this is something I’ll do, for sure.”

There have been many presents for Kanaan this offseason but the Ford GT call, which came two days before Christmas, was one he truly appreciates.

“I was about to post something to Instagram (before interview) and my caption was a picture of me inside a Ford GT and I said, ‘Life is about challenges and I’m fortunate enough to have the opportunities I got and to do what I love.’

“This was definitely the best Christmas present I got. I got the call two days before Christmas for me to do this. I wasn’t planning on it.

“Of course, I follow it closely because this is home and seeing my teammates at Le Mans last year and the team winning Le Mans. As a driver, you want to be part of it. Winning Daytona two years ago with Ganassi was awesome for me and I secretly wanted to be part of it. I always made sure I told Chip that. With the relationship with Ford, by winning Daytona with the EcoBoost on the DP Prototype a few years back, I think it counted.

“Larry (Holt) of Multimatic and my teammate on the 69 car, Andy (Priaulx), they pushed for this.

“It’s a dream come true, to be honest. The car is a legend itself, it’s part of motor racing history. To be able to drive that and to be able to say this is what I’ve driven, I’ve won Daytona – whether this time or not – but just to be part of this program, it’s awesome. I’m extremely excited.

“It’s funny, the life of a race car driver, we had a vacation planned with the kids. We weren’t doing Daytona this year so let’s take it easy. But the family, I had to jeopardize a little bit, but we’ll do vacation in Daytona – in the infield!”

CJ Wilson completes first test in Porsche GT3 Cup car

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Photo courtesy of CJ Wilson Racing
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CJ Wilson’s new career is officially underway, following his retirement from professional baseball and now having completed his first test last week at Texas World Speedway in his new 2017 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car.

Wilson, who formally announced the news he’d be transitioning into racing full-time during Rolex 24 at Daytona race week, did a two-day test at the still active oval/road course combo track in College Station, Texas. Wilson tested one of the team’s Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsports (the team runs two in IMSA’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge) and then advanced into the Cup car.

Wilson got fairly close to teammate Marc Miller’s times during the test as he acclimated to both the Cup car and the Yokohama tires.

“It’s great to take another step towards my goals,” Wilson said. “We had a chance to burn through two sets of tires today and I made a lot of progress. Having Marc as my coach was incredibly helpful because we have a lot of faith in each other and communicate using the same terms. Having sat in driver debriefings for the past six years with the race team, I was able to take all the input logically and make progress each session.

“The only odd thing about the test is that nobody else was here, which was the first time I have ever been on a track completely alone, so when we did a race simulation I had to use my imagination. TWS is a really fast and bumpy track. Looking forward to getting back in the car in ten days and pick up where I left off.”

Miller added, “CJ did great job, but I expected as much. He is logical and methodical which makes him easy to help and that translated into a very quick progression along the learning curve. Like any professional athlete though he is never truly satisfied because he wants to be perfect. He took quickly to the new Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car. It is confidence inspiring and such a capable platform so that suited him well in getting up to speed. Overall, it was a successful first outing and I look forward to working with CJ this season. I expect he will have a solid debut at Sebring. He better or I’m likely fired.”

A teaser of on-board footage is below, along with a couple other social posts from the test:

Danny Watts: ‘Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain’

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  (l to r) Strakka Racing drivers Danny Watts, Nick Leventis and Jonny Kane pose during the 2013 FIA World Endurance Championship Photo Call on March 22, 2013 at Potters Fields in London, England.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Watts (left) with Leventis and Kane in 2013. Photo: Getty Images
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Sports car veteran driver Danny Watts has announced his retirement from active competition, but is in the news for an entirely different reason on Monday.

The 37-year-old Brit has announced he’s gay, penning a first-person piece for the Huffington Post and also doing interviews with both Daily Sportscar and Autosport. The latter article features a well-written op-ed from author Matt Beer.

In the Huffington Post piece, Watts, an eight-time starter and 2010 LMP2 class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, wrote that hiding his sexuality in the heavily white male heterosexual world of motorsport was simply becoming too much to keep under wraps.

“There isn’t any one moment that stands out in my mind as the moment I realized I would need to live in the closet if I wanted my motorsport career to go anywhere; it was just a general feeling I got,” Watts wrote.

“All the other guys in the paddock had girlfriends, so I got one to blend in. When that relationship ended, I got another one, and so I continued pretending to be straight for seventeen years.

“Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain.

“I hope that there are a few people who are supportive. If the response I’ve had from the queer motorsport community thus far is any gauge, I feel hopeful that I’ll find a supportive group to start driving change for my queer siblings in the sport I love.”

Within the motorsports world, Watts’ name is best known to the sports car paddock, and he was a regular with the Strakka Racing team alongside co-drivers Jonny Kane and Nick Leventis. But he isn’t particularly known to the racing world at large.

This announcement comes as Watts has opted to call time on his full-time driving career and instead will focus on coaching for the future. It also represents one of the higher profile names in racing announcing his sexual orientation, which makes it newsworthy.

Despite some detractors (as you might expect), a number of other drivers and key motorsports figures have revealed their support for Watts, and why this news matters, on social media today:

Marino Franchitti returns to Mazda at Sebring

SEBRING, FL - MARCH 15:  Left to right, Marino Franchitti, Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett celebrate after winning the 12 Hours of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway on March 15, 2014 in Sebring, Florida.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
Franchitti (left) won at Sebring in 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Marino Franchitti will make his return to a Mazda entry for next month’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, to be run March 18, as third driver in the team’s No. 70 Mazda RT24-P with Joel Miller and Tom Long.

The Scotsman competed in the team’s RX-8 and 6 models in the GT ranks but has been out of a drive since his role with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing last season in one of the team’s Ford GTs in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Franchitti replaces James Hinchcliffe, who was the third driver in the No. 70 car at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He’ll test for the team later this week at Sebring prior to the race run in the second IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race of the year.

“A big part of those results are being with great teams and having great teammates. I’ve been fortunate in that regard,” said Franchitti, who co-drove to win overall at Sebring in 2014. “I love driving there, I always have since the first laps I did. It’s a proper old-school track. If you go over the limit, you crash, simple as that, rather than going onto some tarmac run-off like many tracks. I love the challenge of walking that tightrope. Of course, there’s the challenge of the bumps too, trying to get the car to handle over them and the beating the car and driver takes. There’s a reason people come from all over the world to endurance test their cars here, it’s the ultimate test of a vehicle and its durability.

No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“It’s so cool to be coming back into the Mazda family,” said Franchitti. “Like everyone else, I was blown away when I saw the first shots of the RT24-P and how incredible it looks, so there’s a lot of excitement at getting to drive it. I’m relieved I get a chance to test the car, as many times I’ve just jumped in and raced, so this is a bit of a luxury! Being a part of the development process of a car is something I’ve been lucky enough to do several times and it’s something I really love.”

Mazda Motorsports director John Doonan added, “He’s a proven winner there, and he’s been a part of the Mazda family for years. Just look at his record at Sebring! He has the experience that can really help our team. Because he’s driven with Mazda before, we know his personality is a great fit. That’s important to us, and it goes a long way in helping the team chemistry remain strong. He’s a great fit with Tom [Long] and Joel [Miller], just as Spencer Pigot has been great with Nunez and Bomarito.”

Pipo Derani set for IndyCar test with SPM at Sebring

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Pipo Derani has become a star in the sports car world the last couple years, courtesy of his drives primarily with Tequila Patron ESM.

Meanwhile for at least a day, the 23-year-old Brazilian will be returning to his open-wheel roots in a big way.

NBC Sports has learned Derani will test for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on March 1 in a rookie test for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Derani joins Mexican driver Luis Michael Dorrbecker, who will also make his test debut that day at that test at Sebring International Raceway’s 1.5-mile short course.

Derani raced a partial season in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2014 with Team Pelfrey, before shifting to sports cars later that fall, starting with Murphy Prototypes.

Derani excelled with G-Drive in 2015 before his star turn with ESM last year. This year, his schedule grows even greater, as he’s been confirmed with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing for the first three races of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing the No. 67 Ford GT with Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell.

It’ll be interesting to see what Derani does on the Sebring short course in one of SPM’s Honda-powered entries. He’ll be back at Sebring a couple weeks after his IndyCar test, as he prepares to defend his win in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with ESM.