Koch with Jim Swintal after his title print last year. Photo courtesy of IMSA

IMSA: Kenton Koch goes for another title after a balancing act year

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BRASELTON, Ga. – The driver who once compared himself to “Gumby” can wiggle his way into a fifth consecutive championship in sports car racing at this weekend’s Petit Le Mans.

If Justin Wilson was considered IndyCar’s “gentle giant,” then Kenton Koch is well on his way to being sports car racing’s version of the man who balances his lanky frame, incredible talent and even more incredible humility, all at the tender age of 22.

Most drivers who would be in Koch’s situation this year would have struggled to comprehend why they aren’t in a full-time ride.

Instead Koch, to his credit, did not let it get him down publicly and has maximized his limited opportunities throughout the 2016 season.

“It’s definitely difficult being in the position I’m in, but, I also have to be so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had,” Koch told NBC Sports. “I’m here driving a racecar, and I get to try to have other opportunities like this for a full ride next year.

“Brent (O’Neill, Performance Tech Motorsports team principal) helped me a lot on this. It’s cool to have someone like this in your corner. They just got the ‘Extreme Spirit’ award; he’s a super good dude, and they worked hard to get me in the car.”

He looks to complete the quintet of titles after driving for two different teams this year, JDC/Miller Motorsports and Performance Tech Motorsports, in the Prototype Challenge class as he goes for a Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup crown.

In 2013, Koch firmly “arrived” on the sports car scene after making selected Mazda MX-5 Cup starts in 2012 and winning the Mazdaspeed Challenge class. He won the Skip Barber/Mazdaspeed Pro Challenge class that year, and for good measure, added an overall win in the rain at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park while in the class.

A year later in 2014, Koch advanced into the primary class of MX-5 Cup with Alara Racing and edged the driver who he’d lost the Mazda club racing shootout to in 2012, Patrick Gallagher, for the overall title.

In IMSA’s Mazda Prototype Lites presented by Cooper Tires (then called Cooper Tires Prototype Lites presented by Mazda) in 2015, Koch controlled the season with 11 wins in 14 races en route to his fourth straight title.

Koch seemed a natural, then, to follow in the footsteps of Tristan Nunez, Sean Rayhall and Misha Goikhberg as a full-time Prototype Challenge driver in 2016. Instead, Koch was only confirmed for the opening two races in PC with JDC/Miller Motorsports as a third driver alongside Goikhberg and talented South African teammate Stephen Simpson.

Koch was immediately on pace and despite an incident at the Bus Stop at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, was trusted enough with the car to bring it home to the finish in his race, series and class debut.

It was mission accomplished, and his win was one of the most emotional of 2016. It came just more than a year after in 2015 his mom, Karen, had undergone a heart transplant and was on site to witness the achievement. His dad, Chris and girlfriend Dani have also provided support at nearly every race along the way, as well.

Koch’s two IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship starts since ended fourth with JDC/Miller at the waterlogged Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, and then second for Performance Tech with Kyle Marcelli and James French at Watkins Glen International in the team’s No. 38 Oreca FLM09.

Koch leads the PC points standings, 34-32 over the PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports trio, heading into the fourth and final round of the Patron Endurance Cup. If he can secure the title, he’ll follow in the footsteps of Cameron Lawrence and Al Carter, who were last year’s GT Daytona Patron Endurance Cup champs while doing an endurance-only schedule.

All the while, Cal State Fullerton business student Koch has maintained a presence at the track in the races he’s not driving, doing a mix of either testing the new Global Mazda MX-5 Cup car, driver coaching, or providing color commentary for the Mazda MX-5 Cup races with IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam.

“The Mazda ladder system has helped me in that, there are other things than just trying to go fast in a race car,” Koch explained. “There’s a lot more involved than meets the eye from an outsider perspective. Being a part of that has helped me see things from a different perspective.”

Koch accurately predicted who’d emerge victorious in MX-5’s crazy photo finish at VIRginia International Raceway in the form of Nathanial Sparks, even though Sparks wasn’t leading out of the last turn.

“It’s just what happened in the corner before. ‘Sparky’ was there sitting pretty. There it was! I was like oh, ‘He’s gonna do it!’”

Few drivers pack his combination of pace, poise, maturity and humility at once.

And to be able to be on the verge of a title while driving for two different teams, with two different sets of teammates and setups, speaks to a true talent who’s as adaptable and bendable as his 6’4” frame.

IndyCar’s revised schedule gives Tony Kanaan an extra race in 2020

INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski
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Tony Kanaan got a bit of good news when the latest revised NTT IndyCar Series schedule was released Monday.

Kanaan’s “Ironman Streak” of 317 consecutive starts would have concluded with the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 15. That race was postponed, and the races that followed have been canceled or rescheduled later in the year. The season tentatively is scheduled to start June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is the reason for the tentative nature of this year’s 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule.

Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner, started the season with a limited schedule for A.J. Foyt Racing in the No. 14 Chevrolet. That schedule included all five oval races, including the 104th Indianapolis 500.

A silver lining for Kanaan is that this year’s trip to Iowa Speedway will be a doubleheader, instead of a single oval contest. His schedule has grown from five to six races for 2020, should the season start on time with the June 6 contest at Texas Motor Speedway and the additional race at Iowa.

“I’m really happy that IndyCar has been very proactive about the schedule and keeping us posted with the plans,” Kanaan told NBCSports.com Tuesday afternoon from his home in Indianapolis. “I’m double happy that now with Iowa being a doubleheader, I’m doing six races instead of five.”

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Kanaan’s “Last Lap” is something that many fans and competitors in IndyCar want to celebrate. He has been a fierce foe on the track but also a valued friend outside the car to many of his fellow racers.

He also has been quite popular with fans and likely is the most popular Indianapolis 500 driver of his generation.

Scott Dixon was Kanaan’s teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing from 2013-17. At one time, they were foes but eventually became friends.

“I hope it’s not T.K.’s last 500,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “I was hoping T.K. would get a full season. That has changed. His first race of what was going to his regular season was going to be the 500. Hopefully, that plays out.

“You have to look at T.K. for who he is, what he has accomplished and what he has done for the sport. He has been massive for the Indianapolis 500, for the city of Indianapolis to the whole culture of the sport. He is a legend of the sport.

“We had our differences early in our career and had problems in 2002 and 2003 and 2004 when we were battling for championships. We fought for race wins and championships in the 2000s. I’ve been on both sides, where he was fighting against me in a championship or where he was fighting with me to go for a championship. He is a hell of a competitor; a fantastic person.

“I hope it’s not his last, but if it is, I hope it’s an extremely successful one for him this season.”

Even before Kanaan joined Chip Ganassi Racing, Dixon admitted he couldn’t help but be drawn to Kanaan’s personality.

“T.K. is a very likable person,” Dixon said. “You just have to go to dinner with the guy once, and you understand why that is. The ups and downs were a competitive scenario where he was helping you for a win or helping someone else for a win. There was never a dislike or distrust. We always got along very well.

“We are very tight right now and really close. He is a funny-ass dude. He has always been a really good friend for me, that’s for sure.”

Back in 2003 when both had come to the old Indy Racing League after beginning their careers in CART, the two drivers were racing hard for the lead at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on April 13, 2003. They were involved in a hard crash in Turn 2 that left Kanaan broken up with injuries. IRL officials penalized Dixon for “aggressive driving.” Dixon had to sit out the first three days of practice for the next race – the 2003 Indianapolis 500.

Kanaan recovered in time and did not miss any racing. He started second and finished third in that year’s Indy 500.

“We were racing hard and going for the win,” Dixon recalled of the Motegi race. “It was a crucial part of the season. Everybody has to be aggressive. I respect Tony for that. He was not letting up. That is what I always saw with Tony, how hard the guy will push. He will go to the absolute limit, and that is why he was inspiring and why he was a successful driver.

“Those moments are blips. You might not talk to the guy for a week, but then you are back on track. T.K. is very close with our family and we are with his.”

This season, because of highly unusual circumstances, T.K.’s IndyCar career will last for one more race than previously scheduled.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500