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Tony Kanaan: “This Is My Disneyland!”

IndyCar legend and Ford's Le Mans rookie enjoying every minute

Following Sebastien Bourdais’ injury in Indy 500 qualifying, veteran Chip Ganassi Racing IndyCar driver Tony Kanaan is making his Le Mans 24 Hours debut at the age of 42 – having watched the race since the age of five. He joins Bourdais’ erstwhile team-mates Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller (defending GTE Pro race winners) in the #68 Ford GT and we caught up with him on Thursday afternoon ahead of the final two qualifying sessions…

Welcome to Le Mans first of all! It seems like you’re enjoying it?
“Every day at the racetrack is a good day, but especially here. It’s one of the races I’ve always wanted to do and at my age being called a rookie is quite fun!”

Your drive has come about in unfortunate circumstances with Bourdais’ injury, but were you pushing to do Le Mans before?
“One hundred percent. I’ve seen this programme from day one, they’re in the same race shop as our IndyCars, I saw the cars being born and built, I watched them winning Le Mans on TV last year, especially Dixon who’s my IndyCar team-mate. I used the same principle as I did for the Indy 500 when I was a kid: I said to myself that I’d never show up to watch a race at the Speedway or at Le Mans if I wasn’t driving in it! I didn’t want to spoil that first impression. Obviously this has come about under very unfortunate circumstances, but I just spoke to Sebastien this morning as well about Wednesday’s sessions. He’s still extremely involved although he’s not here. He made me feel better when he told me he was glad I was the one picked to replace him.”

How was Wednesday’s running?
“It was busy, especially the night session. Nothing I wasn’t expecting though, having done a few 24-hour races in my life. I just had to do my five rookie laps and it was fun. Every time I go out of the pits I wish people could see inside the helmet: I’m smiling the whole lap, which is not a short one! I did 12 hours on the simulator before I came here, which was quite hard to do after a busy month of May, but what I knew coming in was the car – I raced Daytona 24 with it, so it’s familiar, which makes things a little bit easier. I just had to learn the track, and after being in the sim, you’re pretty much there after two or three laps, which is what they expect of me. I had to be on the pace straight away, so I’m glad we were.”

How are you finding the slow-zone procedure compared to the full-course cautions you’re used to in the States?
“It’s different, right? With a full-course yellow, it’s a full-course yellow – you slow down and that’s it. Here you have to think about it because when you get the call that the next zone is a slow zone, already you can’t pass. It’s yellow but it’s not yellow; you can still be at speed but you can’t pass. It takes a bit of time, but I was lucky enough Wednesday night to get it all in my five laps, a ‘next slow’, a ‘slow’ and the full safety car, so I was able to experience that and it’s not an unknown. In the States, if you go down 15-20 seconds, you know eventually there’s going to be a yellow and you’ll recover that gap, but here with the slow zones, sometimes you’ll lose more if you get caught in one and the others don’t.”

How did you prepare for the race at such short notice?
“I had to turn the switch pretty quick. I raced IndyCar last Saturday night and came here Sunday, but I’ve been around a while, done a few 24-hour races. I remember my first, I stayed awake and watched my team-mates run when I got out of the car, I didn’t rest, and before I knew it I was back in the car again, tired. So that’s not happening any more!”

When did you learn you’d get the chance to race here?
“It was over the Indy 500 qualifying weekend: Sunday morning of qualifying, one of the most stressful days for us, Chip calls me at breakfast and asks if I’m available June 17-18. It hadn’t even crossed my mind, Seb had only crashed the day before, so my mind was on qualifying for the biggest IndyCar race of the year. I said to Chip ‘don’t do that to me, you’re joking! You can’t add this pressure to me on the most stressful day of the year’, but he was just like ‘yes or no?’!

Have you encountered many French and European IndyCar fans so far?
“It’s crazy. I last raced in Europe in 1995 and it’s so cool here. In America it’s different, they’ll come and ask you to sign a picture, but every fan here seems to have pictures of every car I’ve driven – all 20 IndyCars, so I’m doing 20 per person, which is fun. Sometimes you feel weird when somebody asks you to sign 10 copies of the same picture, you get suspicious, but here they keep reminding me of my past, they have pictures of my first IndyCar or my old F3 car! The fans are pretty passionate here, I like that, it’s like the Indy 500, so I’m used to it.”

How are you finding the compromise on setup with two other drivers?
“Me being the rookie and the new guy, I leave that up to Dirk and Joey and try to adapt for what they need to run. It’s never going to be 100 percent the way any one of us wants it, so you have to compromise on seat position, steering position, setup and so on. As long as we’re all on the same page, the priority, especially for me is to follow what they do. If I’m not comfortable I’ll voice it, but I’ll also say whether I can deal with it or drive around it. As long as you’re consistent it doesn’t matter if your two or three tenths off the ultimate pace.”

This is your first Le Mans, presumably it’s not going to be your last?
“That’s up to Chip and Ford. You know why I’m here and I have no desire to take Sebastien’s place. As soon as he’s healthy enough, this is his car again for as long as he has a contract. So if there’s any other spaces available in the Ford family I’m up for it! For me, as long as I’ve been doing IndyCar, there’s been space in the schedule for Daytona 24 and IndyCar and being that close to the team with four cars here every year, I’d love to do it!”

Having raced in top classes or at the front of the field most of your career, how are you handling the prototypes passing you?
“When we won Daytona in a DP we were passing everyone, so it takes some time to adjust. Over the years you try not to get in people’s way, but what I’ve learned here and the first time I did Daytona in a GT was just not to move and let them find their way around. I think I worry about getting in the way, but after while you just have to relax and say ‘this is what I’ve got, you’re faster, you figure out how to pass me!”

Thinking back to your first laps at Indy, did you get a similar buzz here on Wednesday night?
“Nowadays there aren’t many tracks I don’t know where they are and how to get there, so just following the GPS and suddenly realising at one point I was on part of the road section of the track was cool! My wife was looking at me saying I looked like our kids when we took them to Disneyland for the first time, I said ‘yes, this is my Disneyland!’ Even just going through the main gate and under the tunnel was awesome. Them driving the first lap I told the guys ‘I know I have to learn the track, but I’m going to do my first lap really slowly so I can enjoy it’ and I definitely did that. So far it’s been an awesome journey. Despite all the pressure on us to repeat the win from last year, I’m enjoying every bit of it!”

Do you feel ready for the race?
“I’m ready. I tend not to worry too much – I’ve studied the rules and prepared as well as I could before driving the car. That’s not to say there isn’t more I can learn, but I feel I’ve prepared as well as I can in the time I have. I’m trying to play my part and contribute to the team. I’m not trying to prove my point and set the fastest time or anything.”