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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!”

IMSA: Sebring Day 2 of two-day test notebook

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Testing across several IMSA sanctioned series continued at Sebring International Raceway on Tuesday as preparations continue for next month’s events during the weekend of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

Below are highlights from Day 2 of testing around the 3.74-mile road course.

Eurosport Racing Continues Work with Mazda Prototype Challenge Chassis

Teams in the Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda championship completed their second day of testing on Tuesday. Among them, Eurosport Racing continued their work with the only Mazda Prototype Challenge (MPC) entries in the field, in the hands of drivers Dr. Tim George (in the No. 24 entry) and Jon Brownson (in the No. 34).

“Right now, I’m driving by myself so we’re trying to make the car comfortable enough to last an hour and 45 minutes with just me in the car,” George said of their preparation efforts. “We’re trying to set up the car where it’s quick, yet it and can last, both the car and for me to make sure we don’t tire out, get fatigued and make mistakes.”

The 1 hour 45 minute window that George referenced represents the race times for the 2018 season, up considerably from last year’s sprint format that featured a pair of 45-minute races across a race weekend.

Though that change represents a drastic shift in driving philosophy, it is one that George welcomes.

“The new rules for the endurance races are great, I enjoy it a lot,” said George. “It gives you a chance to think through things differently with strategy. It also gives you a chance if you blow it…in a sprint race if you make a mistake you don’t get a chance to come back.”

Florida Drivers in Continental Tire Challenge Eager for Hometown Race at Sebring

A strong contingent of drivers from Florida are represented in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, and next month’s 12 Hours of Sebring weekend will see them compete on home soil.

“I grew up in Tallahassee and I live in Orlando now, so Sebring has been my home track since day one,” said Paul Holton, driver of the No. 76 Compass Racing McLaren GT4, which finished 14th at the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway. “I’ve spent a lot of time down here and really enjoy the place. It’s a nice, quaint little town not far from Orlando so it’s a quick, easy drive down for me.”

Fellow Floridian Ramin Abdolvahabi, a native of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida and driver of the No. 09 Automatic Racing Aston Martin Vantage, revealed that, even though Sebring is only two hours from his hometown, this week’s test was his first time at the track in two years.

“I haven’t been here for two years, so coming back is like coming home,” he said. “It’s a fantastic track and it’s one of the iconic tracks in the world so being at Sebring – a small town, my hometown, welcoming – it’s fantastic. I went on the track a couple of times yesterday and it’s just like wearing an old shoe, it just fits and it’s fantastic. Hopefully, the race will go well and the weather will hold, so anyone who’s out there, come and see us!”

Frank Raso Trades in Airplanes for Porsches at Sebring

Several IMSA drivers boast “day jobs” outside of their racing gigs. Among them, Frank Raso’s work falls outside of ordinary jobs like doctor or lawyer. Rather, Raso flies airplanes for a living.

“I’m an airline pilot for a major airline,” said Raso, who tested the No. 10 Topp Racing Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car at Sebring. “I’ve been flying for almost 30 years, and it’s allowed me, with all my time off and things like that to do this and fall back into racing again. I messed with it a little bit when I was younger, but it was, of course, expensive, so I got away from it for a while. I decided I wanted to get back into it in kind of my last couple of years before I get too old.”

Raso explained that the skills he practices while flying planes are more than transferable to his driving duties in a Porsche GT3 Cup car.

“Flying an airliner or flying any airplane, we have checklists, but everything is kind of done in order. It’s almost in a robot fashion type of a thing where you do this, you do this, you do this and you have to make sure you hit all your marks and fly the airplane with precision.

“So, when you get in these Cup cars, with no anti-lock brakes, no traction control, and no driver assist items, you have to make sure you hit your marks, when you’re accelerating, when you’re turning in. You have to be alert. It keeps your wits about you. The car can step out at any time. They’re a very difficult car to drive, but they’re a lot of fun.”
The 54-year-old Raso posted a best finish of fourth, on four separate occasions, in a part-time schedule during the 2017 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama season as a competitor in the Gold Cup class.
Newcomers Get Taste of Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge
A number of new drivers got to sample Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge cars during the two days of testing at Sebring. Among them was amateur racer Scott Welham, who got his first taste of professional racing during the two-day outing at Sebring.
And he had a strong support system backing him up in the Kelly-Moss Road and Race team, the defending Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge champions with driver Jake Eidson.
“Here, you’ve got somebody that actually does coaching, data acquisition, track management – these are all separate people – plant manager, owner, a car-setup guy, you’ve got someone that bills you – which isn’t always a good thing, but you know, you just have that huge, huge support group that enables you to focus on driving,” Welham said of the team’s influence on his development over the two days.
IMSA’s next visit to Sebring will be for the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring on March 17.