An Interview with Tony Kanaan and Jimmy Vasser
Tony is the 2004 IZOD IndyCar Series champion. It was a big day yesterday for both him and the KV Racing Technology Lotus team because the team announced that Tony will drive for the team in the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series season. Tony will have primary support from GEICO and will drive the No. 82 GEICO KV Racing Technology Lotus Honda-Dallara Firestone entry. He joins Takuma Sato and E.J. Viso in KV Racing Technology's three-car effort for the 2011 season.
Jimmy Vasser is the co-owner of the KV Racing Technology team. He and Tony go back a long way. They raced against each other both as drivers and also Jimmy has competed against Tony as an owner in the IndyCar Series the last few years.
Tony and Jimmy, thank you for joining us.
Q. Tony, first of all, congratulations on the deal. Talk about your excitement and, considering you've had a pretty interesting off-season here, your relief about not only getting a ride for the 2011 season but getting a ride with such a solid team and familiar faces like Jimmy.
TONY KANAAN: Somebody said, 'Well, it was a scary moment.' I said', It was beyond scary, it was desperation at the time it came.'
I have to say, I always believed it was going to happen. Obviously, I didn't know where I was going to land, especially this late in the year. To have a team like KV to pick me up like that, I don't think I can express how happy and thrilled I am with obviously GEICO coming onboard and a lot of my sponsors back in Brazil. After the thing with Gil dropped, I started getting phone calls from sponsors trying to help. That doesn't happen very often.
I'm very, very, very happy to be with Jimmy. He's a good, old time friend, like you said. We go back to the Champ Car days with Zanardi, him and myself. It's a thrill. I think I'm still overwhelmed. We're at the racetrack today doing some shakedown in the car. I'm getting to know the team and I spent a little bit of time with Jimmy.
Very happy, glad that this is happening. I'm ready to do what I know actually, the fun part, which is the driving.
Q. Jimmy, as we head into the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this weekend, talk about what Tony, considering how many wins he's had, his strength in setting up a car, just his championship pedigree, what that brings to KV Racing Technology and what is does?
JIMMY VASSER: He's a champion, multi-time race winner. He's a professional, a pro. He's been out of the car all winter long. He jumps in the car and his lap times are right there and very consistent, so we're not surprised at all with that.
He's got a great reputation around the paddock and the sport as being the sport's best teammate. He's been a great leader at Andretti Green. He's been a great teammate for everybody there.
We're looking forward for him to bring that sort of leadership into our team. We got two great teammates for him in E.J. Viso and Takuma Sato. But they're still relatively young and new to the sport of IndyCar racing. Tony is a veteran and is really going to be able to help them polish their game. They're both very fast drivers, but they're still learning the nuances of what it takes to win in IndyCar. That's what Tony brings to us.
Tony is a winner. For me it's almost like if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. We're thrilled to death to get Tony Kanaan on the Lotus KV squad. It legitimizes us a little bit more. We've been working hard over the years to position ourselves with the likes of Ganassi and Penske. We started out, even Andretti Green was one of them. Now it's Andretti Autosport. Next stop for us is winning races, building.
Where we land on that path this year of cutting into Chip and Roger's dominance basically of the sport remains to be seen. But certainly having Tony Kanaan on the team is a step forward for us.
Q. Tony, how competitive do you think you can be with no testing, right out of the box this weekend? We're seeing that two teams win almost all the races in this series. How competitive do you think that team can be this year?
TONY KANAAN: Well, I mean, obviously no testing. But after today, I'm only going to be one day behind everybody else because the testing in the series has been very limited.
I think the biggest challenge for us as a team is to get everybody working together. If I didn't believe we couldn't win, I wouldn't have joined Jimmy and KV, and I don't think Jimmy would have hired me.
Obviously we have high expectations, but we're being realistic. I think we can be competitive. We're going to have a lot of work to do. I'm going to have to adapt very quick with the team and mechanics and everybody.
But KV has proven they had fast cars in the past. I think with my experience combined, we can have great things together, and the goal is to try to break the dominance of the Penske and Ganassi guys.
I think the field this year, it's tighter than ever, adding a couple different combinations here and there. It's going to be a fun year. I'm looking forward to it.
People need to make sure that KV and myself, we're not the last options for each other. As you can tell, people are talking in the press, bashing us, or propping us for everything.
There's a reason we signed this deal. As a team, they had other options and as a driver I had other options, but I chose to be here. I believe this is going to be really good.
Q. How many races would you think the non-Ganassi and Penske teams could win this season? There were two last year and one the year before. Jimmy, what would you think?
JIMMY VASSER: Well, I mean, I guess it's a stab in the dark. I think a handful of races could be one, for sure. Obviously I think 78% is the number that I heard Robin Miller throw out that those two teams have won in the last five years. I think things are getting more competitive. Teams are stepping things up. I think you look at the driver lineup.
I think, you know, probably four to five races can be had this year from outside teams. I think with Tony on our squad, we could probably take care of the lion's share of those.
Q. Jimmy, you also had a deal for Indianapolis. You haven't announced that. Is there still another program for your team for Indianapolis?
JIMMY VASSER: There's going to be an announcement made in the future on that.
Q. But still one more?
JIMMY VASSER: Yes.
Q. It seems as if from the outside the deal with GEICO came together rather quickly, which would seem impressive given today's sponsor environment. Can you explain how that happened? Were they waiting in the wings all along in case somebody like T.K. became available?
JIMMY VASSER: Not really. T.K. became available so late in the game, GEICO, from what I understood, was not going to do anything in IndyCar racing. We had a relationship with them with Paul Tracy in the past two years. They said they were not going to be interested.
When Tony became available, the way the sponsorship package worked out, we were able to shotgun basically out to many companies the opportunity.
The thing that was a game-changer for GEICO really was not only the value of the sponsorship we were able to offer but Tony Kanaan. Tony Kanaan swings a heavy stick in the marketplace. I think people were very surprised that he was available.
With the sponsorship that Tony was able to drum up working his butt off in Brazil added to what we had as a team, as well, really enabled GEICO to get a value package, so to say. With a championship driver, they were surprised that a guy like Tony was available.
Q. Tony, there's still a couple of big names around the sidelines with Paul Tracy and Dan Wheldon for St. Pete. In the case of Wheldon, a former teammate, someone you were close to. Is it mixed emotions, a sense of relief that you're back, but unfortunately some other veterans are not going to be there for the opener?
TONY KANAAN: For sure. The three of us tried to support each other being out of a job. I was fortunate enough that I got a ride right before the first race. Now that I'm relieved, obviously I feel bad for Dan and Paul. I think they deserve to have a ride.
Now that I've been through their shoes, I know how hard it is. I feel for them and I'm hoping they can announce something soon.
Q. Tony, was it surprising or stunning to you how hard a driver with the accomplishments and a good rep has to work to land a deal? Was this sort of an enlightening experience for you?
TONY KANAAN: Well, I don't know. I had mixed emotions about that because, you know, I was just in a different position before. I was hired by a team and I got paid by the team. I think nowadays, more and more situations have changed. You have to do this kind of stuff.
I think I've been through a couple things this off-season because of the choices that I made, as well. I think if you think back to December, we finish the season in October, it took me a month and a half to sign a deal with a team, and unfortunately it didn't go through.
It wasn't a lot to go through; I would just have to say it was different. It definitely made me appreciate a lot more a couple things that I probably didn't before. I learned a lot.
I think now with all the sponsors that I was able to gather, hopefully starting this relationship I can make things happen in the future and I can have obviously I think a control of my own future.
Starting to build a relationship with KV, we can move forward over the years and take care of my sponsors. Between my sponsors and their sponsors, we can begin to have a solid program.
Q. The Andretti camp has come out saying that perhaps you weren't as much of the team leader over there as we all sort of perceived. Is that surprising to you, hurtful in any way? What are your thoughts?
TONY KANAAN: No, I turned the page. I have a lot of work to do with KV. I got to thank them for everything they've done for me. I won a lot with them. I have to say I had my time there. If they have something to say, they can say it. Before somebody starts running their mouths, they probably have to win as many races as I did and the championship before they say anything.
I'm not surprised they're not going to miss me, but it's just people's opinions. I wish them the best. I got to spend my time with my team now and making sure we can have a car to win races, not to worry about what people talk about me.
Q. Tony, I wanted to ask you about the field this weekend. Wheldon doesn't have a ride. Sounds like Sebastien (Bourdais) is coming back, you're back. Graham Rahal is in a good car. Pretty interesting field. How do you think it shapes up this weekend?
TONY KANAAN: It's very interesting. I think we have some old-timers coming back, some new guys on very strong teams. I don't know. First of all, I need to get used to the new colors. I haven't been to Barber. I'm going to get to the race and try to sort out people's number and people's car.
I think it's going to be interesting. I think, like Jimmy was saying, we as a team and a couple other teams have a better chance to be able to break Penske and Ganassi's streak as far as winning races.
I know every year we say the same thing: this field is the hardest. But I think this one is definitely going to be the most competitive.
Q. Is this a multi-year deal? How long of a deal is this?
JIMMY VASSER: Right now it's a one-year deal. We got together so late, we don't have funding past this year. But I can assure you that we're already starting to try to line things up and hopefully be able to sew things up mid-summer for a multi-year deal.
Q. Jimmy, what is your feeling on being able to get Tony at such a late date?
JIMMY VASSER: I mean, I'm over the moon. Not only have we known each other for a long time, just think about it, Tony, think about all the things we've done through the happiest of times and the saddest of times. We've lost friends on the racetrack. We've had friends hurt very bad. We've got great championships we celebrated with friends over the years.
To have Tony on the team, bringing his level of professionalism, his leadership, you know, he's so polished. I know this. It's so hard to create on a team, it's very hard to create on a team from an owner's standpoint, because in reality the drivers are the ones that create the energy and the chemistry in a team. But once the chemistry's right, and you only know it when you've felt it before, but once the chemistry's right, great things happen and races just seem to come your way.
I know Tony had it there for a bit with his friends Dan and Dario. I certainly had it throughout my years at Target Chip Ganassi with Zanardi and Montoya. I'm really looking forward to watching Tony help bring that sort of chemistry to our team, and then I can help move it along.
Q.: Jimmy, give us a rough idea of a timeline of how this all came together. The situation with Tony was well-documented, but when did you first start talking with him about coming to KV Technology Lotus?
JIMMY VASSER: We started talking mid-November, end of November. Obviously he was talking with Gil and other people at the time. We weren't able to get it to the position that it needed to be signed.
Tony went to de Ferran Dragon. That's documented. It wasn't until really about Tony La Motta called me a week before the February 15th deadline I think they had and we started stoking the fires again. We had our third car still available. Then I think there was a brief period, correct me if I'm mistaken, that I think they still thought they had it put together, and they pulled Tony back off the table. Then I think it was the week after February 15th that the de Ferran Dragon situation wasn't going to happen.
So I think that we really had to push and get rolling on it hard probably starting February 20th, mid 20's, when we thought, We can do this. We had to put our heads down. It was a difficult time for Tony, as you can imagine. He had some options, but time was closing in. Things had to really fall into place quickly, and they did.
I really have to commend Tony for, once again, working his butt off in Brazil. He was there constantly working. I could visualize him with a suit and a tie, bouncing all over the country, going in and out of boardrooms.
Unfortunately it's not what a race driver is good at. But in this day and age, I think Tony is learning to become more and more an integral part of a modern-day racecar driver.
Q. Tony, one of the big topics of discussion at the Barber test was about how the series seems to be moving in a direction where the entertainment value of the races is almost considered as important as the purity of the competition with double-file restarts being implemented this year, talking about the free pass, the $5 million bonus for non-IndyCar races. Do you think that's a good direction for the series in terms of trying to grow the fan base?
TONY KANAAN: I think so. We got to believe that the people that are making those decisions are relying on some reliable information, on the fans as well. I think we won't know until we try those things. It's hard to say this is going to work and this is not going to work.
Obviously I can tell you that we're definitely in a better place than we were last year. The series is growing. You can see the field in St. Pete. I think it's the biggest field we've had in a while, so it is growing. I think we got to try a couple different things besides the race itself for us to be able to entertain the fans because at the end of the day that's who we race for. I think we're definitely heading to the right direction.
So, trust me, I'm happy with the double-file restarts. I can't complain about that (laughter). That's something that I think I'm going to enjoy a lot. All the other stuff, I think it's a plus. I'm a big supporter of the series. Whatever they need from me to be able to make it happen.
You know, we listen to the fans. I think that's the important part. We'll do whatever it takes to make them happy.
Q. Tell me a little bit more about your excitement on the double-file restarts. What do you think it's going to look like on street and road courses?
TONY KANAAN: It's going to take a little bit to get used to. As people know the way I restart and I start, I think that's why I'm happy about it.
Obviously, it's going to take a couple times for us to get it right. But like every rule change that we make, it takes a little while to adapt. Hopefully we can be smooth and I can pull some T.K. restarts eventually.
Q. T.K., since you haven't been asked about the bigger picture of the series, do you think for as competitive as this series appears to be, with all the progress that you'd expect from Power on the ovals, that it is possible that he might be that one guy who can pull off one of those seasons like you had in '04?
TONY KANAAN: Yeah, I think with all honesty, if he can pull it together, he'll be my pick. Dario won the championship in a very, very smart way last year. That's what it takes sometimes. I think a win is a win. I believe that you're right, I think if Power gets it right in the ovals, he will be a very, very tough guy to beat.
Q. Jimmy, what was your initial reaction to the league hiring Randy Bernard with no IndyCar racing background last year and what is your assessment after a year?
JIMMY VASSER: Initially I was just open-minded. I didn't know what to think. I went from it could be new blood could be a good thing. I thought Tony George's leadership was the right leadership at the time. But obviously other people didn't think so because they made the change.
I tried to remain open-minded towards Randy. Initially I might have thought that a racing background would be better for somebody in that position. But I was pleasantly surprised and I'm very impressed with his work ethic and his energy.
I don't think anybody's going to outwork Randy Bernard, that's for sure. He works very hard. He's very committed. He's proven to be very astute in learning fast about the business and is a very bright guy. I've been pleasantly surprised with his leadership so far.
Q. Jimmy, what is INDYCAR telling the team owners about the status of the Motegi race? I understand there's damage to the track. What is the feeling if that will come off at all this year?
JIMMY VASSER: From my understanding the damage is minimal, like very minute amount of damage. I don't think there has been really a statement from the league or any sort of a bulletin yet. I did notice that the Moto GP race wasn't canceled, it was postponed and moved to an October 2nd date, which is good news for our race, because they're going to run the Moto GP, then I think our race is a couple weeks before or sometime in September.
I would think that the race will go on. They're an amazing race of people, the Japanese. I don't think this is going to keep them down for long.
PAUL KELLY: If we have no further questions, Tony, Jimmy, we appreciate your time today, wish you the best of luck in testing today and best of luck this weekend at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. We'll all be watching on ABC. Thank you, again, for joining us.
JIMMY VASSER: Stay tuned.
TONY KANAAN: Thank you.
PAUL KELLY: That concludes the IndyCar teleconference for today. Everyone, thank you for joining us and we look forward to seeing you at St. Petersburg this weekend or at a race further along in the 2011 schedule.
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