This is the story of two race car drivers, but of far more than auto racing.
This is a story that began almost 30 years ago, in the midst of sadness, before a go-kart race in their native Brazil. They came to America at the same time, where opportunity awaited, but sometimes at a tragic cost. They won their sport’s pinnacle event, the Indianapolis 500, and lost in heartbreaking finishes.
They are IndyCar racing’s two most charismatic and gregarious drivers in a series largely bereft of popular — ticket-selling — names. They are now in their 40s, still fast, but winless since 2014. The checkered flag of retirement is within sight.
This is the story of their parallel yet amazingly intersecting professional lives. And, at times, a neck-straining whiplash of a personal relationship — including almost three years when they didn’t speak — a challenge for even Hollywood’s most creative scriptwriter to one-up.
This is a story set against the backdrop of Saturday night’s Phoenix Grand Prix. Now, in their 20th IndyCar season, it may be the last time on-track as friends and rivals at Phoenix International Raceway.
This is the story of Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan.
“We have a love-hate relationship,” Kanaan admitted. “Big time.”
They had spoken only slightly until April 8, 1988, the start of a three-day go-kart racing weekend in Sao Paulo. Kanaan’s father, Tony Sr., who had bought his son’s first kart and encouraged his racing ambitions, died of cancer the day before.
“My dad passed on a Thursday and Friday I went straight to the track,” remembers Kanaan, who was then 13. “I did not want to (sit at home and grieve.) His dad (Helio Sr.) approached me and said, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.'”
Castroneves, then 12, added: “Tony, if you need anything, let me know.”
“That was the beginning of our friendship,” Castroneves said.
“That’s when we started hanging (out),” Kanaan said. “Since then we spent many years, many vacations, together. He would come over on the weekends and stay at my house. I would go to his house for Carnival. New Year’s, we spent five of them together.”
Kanaan won that race from the pole position, then placed the trophy in his father’s bedroom.
Coming to America
Both idolized Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian sporting icon, who won the first of three Formula One world championships the year Kanaan and Castroneves met. They followed his path of competing successfully in various national series before heading to Europe and its assortment of junior championships, the route for promising talent to work their way toward Grand Prix racing.
But their careers ultimately tracked that of Emerson Fittipaldi, another Brazil racing hero, who earned two F1 titles in the 1970s. After retiring for a few years, Fittipaldi found a second career in America, and won the Indy 500 in 1989 and 1993.
So, in 1996, Kanaan and Castroneves were in the U.S. and the Indy Lights series, the training ground for aspiring IndyCar drivers.
“Coincidence or not, we kept crossing paths,” Kanaan said. “That put us head-to-head. We both wanted to beat each other. We made each other better.
“Anytime I come into the pits, no matter what position I’m in, I’m always looking: Where he’s at? He will tell you the same. Even if I’m 15th, if he’s 16th, it makes me feel a little bit better.”
The next season, as teammates, they finished 1-2 in the final Indy Lights standings with Kanaan four points ahead of Castroneves. That boosted both into what was then the CART-sanctioned series, competing with small teams. Kanaan again bested Castroneves in 1998, this time for rookie of the year. Each changed teams for 1999, with Kanaan scoring his first Indy-type victory in the Michigan 500.
Tragic turning point
Kanaan’s teammate that year was Greg Moore, a 24-year-old Canadian who was quick right from his first CART race in 1996 and already had five wins. Before the season ended at California Speedway, Moore had signed a contract to join legendary owner Roger Penske’s team for 2000, and was widely thought likely to be IndyCar’s superstar of the new decade.
Moore, however, was killed in a crash just nine laps into that 500-mile race.
Engine problems had sidelined Castroneves. Carl Hogan, his car owner, had already decided to close his team due to lack of sponsorship. Castroneves, who had a pole and a second-place finish that year, was pondering his uncertain future while quietly packing his bags to return to Brazil.
Penske needed a driver and all of the experienced ones were already committed. (Kanaan was headed to a new team backed by Mercedes-Benz.) Yet another Brazilian racer, Gil de Ferran, who also had signed with Penske for 2000, said to his new boss: “Let’s talk to Helio.”
“It was a tragic blow to lose Greg,” Penske said. “Quite honestly, it really set us back, personally, but then also: ‘What do we do?’
“Gil was the one who came to me and said we should see if Helio had any interest. I had seen him race for Carl so knew he had speed.”
Castroneves, asked to process the extraordinary turn of events that would place him with Penske and lead to three Indy 500 victories and celebrity status as 2007 “Dancing With The Stars” winner, repeatedly chooses the same word: destiny.
“Destiny creates the way and you don’t have control,” he said recently during a break while testing his REV Group-sponsored Chevrolet at PIR. “In my case, that’s exactly what happened.
“Destiny put me at Team Penske in a situation that, OK, I was the only one at that time, I think, available. I didn’t have anything and, all of a sudden, I had an opportunity with Penske. It was my destiny.
“I was a little concerned because of the way I was getting in. But I spoke with Greg’s mother (Donna). I went to her and (said), ‘I’m sorry for the circumstances.’ She said, ‘If not you, it would be someone else.’ It was kind of like asking for (her) blessing. After I talked to her, then I was like, ‘OK, I’m ready to take off.'”
Rick Mears, retired as Penske’s four-time Indy 500 winner and now team consultant and Castroneves’ spotter, watched as Helio came to accept the situation.
“He stepped right in, picked up the ball, and ran with it,” Mears said.
Castroneves got his first win the following June on Detroit’s Belle Isle course, jumped out of his car, and climbed the fence separating him from the grandstands. His now trademark “Spider-Man” victory celebration was born.
Ironically, it was another serious accident that opened the seat of the Chip Ganassi team’s NTT Data Honda for Kanaan. Multiple injuries forced three-time Indy winner Dario Franchitti to retire after crashing through a fence on the last lap of a 2013 street-course race in Houston.
Castroneves won the 2001 Indy 500 as a rookie. He repeated in 2002, in a disputed result with Scottsdale’s Paul Tracy (now an NBCSN race commentator), the first back-to-back winner in three decades, then finished second to de Ferran in 2003 by .2990. Castroneves got to drink again from Indy’s traditional bottle of milk in 2009, but Ryan Hunter-Reay edged him by .0600 second for the Borg-Warner Trophy in 2014. Only Mears, with six, has more than Castroneves’ four Brickyard poles.
“That place suits him,” said Mears, the Indy wins record-holder along with A.J. Foyt and Al Unser. “He’s one of those guys who you rarely see put a foot wrong there. He and that place get along.”
Penske, with a record 16 Indy 500 owner wins, says “when it comes down to work or ethics around the car, there’s a lot of similarities between Rick and Helio.”
Kanaan, too, was consistent — often in a frustrating way.
Starting in 2002, he led in his first seven races — unprecedented in Indy history — with three top-5 finishes, and was only 1.2 seconds behind winner de Ferran in 2003. Kanaan was second to Phoenix’s Buddy Rice in the rain-shortened 2004 event, earned the pole in 2005, and led the most laps in 2007 but spun to avoid an accident. He was heavily bruised in a fiery 2009 wreck when a mechanical failure rocketed his car into the wall — twice — while in third place.
Finally, after fourth and third place results in 2011 and 2012, respectively, Kanaan won in 2013 on his 12th try.
It was in pursuit of an IndyCar season championship that the Castroneves-Kanaan relationship crashed. Hard.
Kanaan won three races (including PIR for the second consecutive year) en route to the 2004 title. In 2006, it was Castroneves (the 2002 PIR winner) who started the season finale at Chicagoland Speedway leading by one point.
Castroneves was penalized for a pit speeding violation and dropped to 20th. He spent the rest of the race trying to slice through traffic, including Kanaan, who wasn’t in championship contention. But Castroneves could only get back to fourth place and lost the title by two points to Sam Hornish Jr.
Castroneves accused Kanaan of fighting him too hard for position. Kanaan responded that car owner Michael Andretti wasn’t paying him to let others pass.
“He felt that the relationship we had, and I wasn’t going for the championship, that I should have made it easier for him,” Kanaan said. “I didn’t. I see his point. At the same time, you have a team owner to answer to. I was Andretti. He was Penske. We were big rivals.
“Basically we went from being best friends to . . . not talking.”
That continued for almost three years. They would be in the same room together, doing interviews, speaking to one another only through the media. Then . . .
“We saw each other one day (and) it was just . . . over,” Kanaan said. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Come on . . . Look at the history we have.’ We never talked about what happened.”
Castroneves, in true Penske style, prefers to focus on now, not then.
“I feel we’ve crossed that over in terms of, it’s not worth it to be . . . right now we are at peace. We’re mature enough. We’re dads now. I respect him. I care about him.”
Castroneves still is without a championship. He’s been runner-up four times.
Kanaan, 42, has 17 career wins but is riding an 0-for-34 streak. Castroneves, 41, is tied with Mears on the all-time list with 29 victories but is 0-for-45. Both still show speed: Castroneves won the Long Beach Grand Prix pole a few weeks ago, his 48th, fourth all-time. Kanaan is IndyCar’s Iron Man with a record 267 consecutive starts, dating to June 2001.
Both adhere to intense fitness programs and Kanaan has competed in triathlons.
“I’m still up to my game,” Kanaan said. “I don’t think Chip would keep me just because he’s trying to do me a favor.”
Castroneves says he wants “to enjoy the moment. If, one of these days, Roger says, ‘Hey, listen, it’s time to move on,’ I believe he does know what he’s talking about.”
Whenever their retirements happen, it’s a big problem for IndyCar, which has young and talented drivers like Graham Rahal and Josef Newgarden, but precious few mainstream media headliners. Go a mile from PIR and it’s unlikely anyone could name the winner of last year’s 100th Indy 500 (Alexander Rossi) or reigning series champion (Simon Pagenaud).
“In a way it works in my favor, because if they (IndyCar) need me, they are going to try to keep me around longer, which is awesome,” Kanaan said with a laugh.
“It’s always fun with Tony,” says teammate Scott Dixon, defending PIR winner and four-time IndyCar champion. “He sits opposite me across the engineering table. It’s quite funny, the sounds and noises you hear. I think, even when you’re having a bad weekend as a team, it’s good to have that uplifting spirit.”
Kanaan seems ideally suited for the TV booth. He could also do some IMSA sports car racing for Ganassi’s Ford GT team. Castroneves could join Juan Pablo Montoya in an IMSA prototype-class car Penske is expected to field next season, and perhaps still race at Indy, as Montoya is doing this year.
Given their incredibly intertwined history — and Castroneves’ reputation for on-track blocking — how will the Boys from Brazil race each other in their closing act?
“We don’t have to have that conversation,” Kanaan said. “We know the boundaries. We know exactly where we can go, to a point that we like each other so much, that we don’t want to harm each other.
“But we’ll push to be this close.”
“Racing against him, and winning, there is always that satisfaction because he made me a better driver,” he said. “I hope he feels the same way.
“With us, it’s like this: You go watch movies to see a story. Tony, me, we have our own movie.”
IndyCar at PIR
What: Year two of the return of open-wheel racing to the Valley.
Where: Phoenix International Raceway.
Friday (gates open at noon):
USAC Silver Crown series practice, 12:30 p.m. and 1:45 p.m.
USAC Silver Crown series qualifying, 2:40 p.m.
Classic Racing Times sessions, 3:25 p.m. and 6:15 p.m.
Verizon IndyCar practice, 4 p.m.
Verizon IndyCar qualifying, 8 p.m.
Saturday (gates open at noon):
Classic Racing Times session, 2:20 p.m.
Phoenix Copper Cup USAC race, 3 p.m.
Classic Racing Times parade laps, 4:20 p.m.
Verizon IndyCar race: Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, 6:30 p.m.