Fans want Tony Kanaan to finally break through at Indy

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Which driver is the one that the IZOD IndyCar Series’ faithful really want to see win the 97th Indianapolis 500?

When one ponders that question, some obvious thoughts come to mind. Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal would certainly satisfy the longtime fans and intrigue the casual ones. Same goes for three-time “500” winner Helio Castroneves. You’d think Takuma Sato would be up there too after his brazen move for victory in last year’s race, which ended in the fence but still earned him a bigger following.

But then one comes to Tony Kanaan. And then the question is truly answered.

The Brazilian has been part of the series’ nucleus for a decade, going through good times (his IndyCar championship in 2004) and bad times (the death of good friend and former teammate Dan Wheldon in 2011). Through it all, he has garnered an almost universal measure of respect in the paddock and in the stands.

The latter part is represented vividly every May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Kanaan is often greeted with some of the loudest cheers.

“To me, the best memories I have [of Indianapolis], it’s [that] every time I drive my golf cart out there, I can hear my name – big time,” he said on Wednesday at IMS.

In 11 career starts at Indy, he has led laps in eight of them. He earned the privilege of leading the field to the green flag in 2005. He has come close to winning on the sport’s biggest stage. But he has yet to sip the milk and get his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Naturally, some believe the Brickyard owes him one. Perhaps they remember 2007, when he led 83 laps but wound up 12th. Or maybe they remember that vicious double hit Kanaan sustained in the 2009 race, in which his car suddenly broke right at full speed into the backstretch wall and then went skidding into the Turn 3 wall. Then there’s 2010 – coming from dead last in 33rd starting position to lead the race only to come in for fuel with five laps to go while running second.

Star-crossed moments like these have been prevalent for Kanaan at Indy, and he thinks that they may have made him an even more heroic figure amongst the fans there. But while he appreciates their belief that he is owed something, he knows full well that the Brickyard plays no favorites.

“I love the way the fans think that, because I think they know how much I work for it,” he said. “But it would be really unfair for me to say ‘I deserve to win this thing’ because there’s another [32] people here looking for that as well.”

Besides, he already has an idea of what it would be like to finally claim victory at the world’s most famous oval.

“The year that I started last [2010], we went all the way to the lead and we ended up finishing 11th because of a strategy [call] at the end,” said Kanaan. “I got out of the car, the entire place was screaming my name, and Dario [Franchitti] had won the race.

“If I never win this thing, I think I got the feeling from the people around here [on] how it is to win.”

But one can imagine what those cheers would be like if he actually did.

Let’s just say Tony Kanaan, the people’s champion, would make a very popular winner this month.

Oliver Askew: ‘I was starting to lose confidence’ after ‘hardest hit I’ve had’

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Oliver Askew knew something was medically wrong in the days after concussion-like symptoms began from “the hardest hit I’ve ever had” in the Indianapolis 500. He’d been evaluated and cleared to race after the Aug. 23 crash, but he just didn’t feel right.

The IndyCar rookie told The Associated Press on Thursday he has been experiencing dizziness, sleeping difficulties, irritability, headaches and confusion since he crashed in the Aug. 23 race. He continued to race in four more events as he tried to “play through it” until friends and family encouraged him to seek medical treatment.

He since has been diagnosed with a concussion and is working on a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, the same place NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. received care after concussions in 2012 and ’16. Askew will not compete in next weekend’s doubleheader on the road course at Indianapolis, and Arrow McLaren SP will put three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

“This is all I’ve worked for,” the 23-year-old told AP. “I don’t come from money, and I’ve worked my way up and have finally gotten my shot in a good car. And then all of a sudden, the results just weren’t there in a car I knew should be performing. And I just didn’t feel like myself, you know?

“So initially I felt like I needed to stay in the car and continue to improve. And then I didn’t feel like I could do that with my condition and what was going on. I was starting to lose confidence in myself.”

Earnhardt praised Askew for going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Micky Collins.

“Oliver is in the best hands when it comes to taking care of this problem and getting back on the racetrack. It was very smart of him to get in front of Micky so that he could understand the seriousness of the situation and begin the process of getting well,” Earnhardt said. “You can absolutely heal from this but not without taking the step of getting help. Often that’s the most difficult step.”

Athletes often hide injuries to continue competing, and even Earnhardt admittedly masked concussions during his driving career. Askew didn’t know what was wrong with him but was frightened to get out of the car.

He is a paid driver who brings no sponsorship money to the team (but did bring a $1 million scholarship for winning last year’s Indy Lights championship), and owner Sam Schmidt holds the option on his contract.

As he tried to race on, his performance suffered. Askew had finished third and sixth at Iowa — the previous two races before Indianapolis. After the crash, he was part of a multicar accident the next week at Gateway and has not finished higher than 14th in the four races since Indy.

A year after winning seven Indy Lights races, Askew has fallen from 12th to 18th in the standings and slipped considerably off the pace. He said he struggled in team debriefs, had difficulty giving feedback and has gone through a personality change that was noticeable to those close to Askew.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents Askew and was among those who pushed the driver to see a doctor, noted Arrow McLaren SP did not reveal that Askew was suffering from a concussion in its Thursday announcement he would miss next week’s race.

“Oliver clearly demonstrated his talent until Lap 91 of the Indianapolis 500, and I hope this does not become another case study of why athletes do not tell their teams they are injured,” said agent Jeff Dickerson. “The reason they do that is because more often times than not they are replaced. In motorsports, there is always somebody to replace you, and whether it was Dale Jr. or Oliver Askew, there is always another driver available.

“I hope this is not a barrier to progress for other drivers — especially young drivers afraid of losing their job — to notify their teams they are hurt. I hope the team proves me wrong because the good news is, the kid has had a head injury for the past month and has still run 14th in IndyCar.”

After finally seeking medical treatment, Askew said he was relieved to learn there was something wrong. He said doctors told him the injury has a “100% recovery rate” and he believes he will be able to race in the IndyCar season finale next month at St. Petersburg. He’s been rehabilitating with exercises and tasks that strain the brain such as deliberately going to grocery stores and the airport.

“Honestly, you know, if I had not gone to see medical professionals I would probably stay in the car,” Askew said. “But now after hearing what’s wrong and that it could get worse, God forbid I have another hit, I know I did the right thing. I think I can be an example for young drivers now in stepping up and saying something is wrong, I need to have this checked out.”