The driver-engineer relationship is paramount to success in the Verizon IndyCar Series. It’s been proven time after time.
If the length of that relationship is any indicator, AJ Foyt Racing is sitting pretty for 2018 with Tony Kanaan driving the team’s No. 14 ABC Supply Chevrolet and Eric Cowdin as his engineer. Their connection dates back more than two decades and includes a series championship and Indianapolis 500 victory.
Kanaan and Cowdin were introduced Oct. 5 as the newest members of the Foyt team. In addition to serving as Kanaan’s engineer, Cowdin is the team’s technical director overseeing both Kanaan’s No. 14 entry and the No. 4 car whose driver for 2018 is yet to be named.
Cowdin recalls vividly meeting Kanaan for the first time.
“Our first day in open-wheel racing in North America was the same day together,” Cowdin said.
It came in December 1995 at a three-day tryout involving eight South American drivers vying for two seats in the 1996 Indy Lights season for the Tasman Motorsports team operated by Steve Horne. Kanaan and Helio Castroneves were the last drivers standing. Twenty Indy car seasons later, they are two of the most successful and popular drivers in the sport.
Cowdin had just joined Tasman after working in sports-car racing. He liked what he saw immediately.
“Tony was the quickest all three days, there was no question about that,” Cowdin said. “Helio only drove the first day because he had broken some ribs in a karting accident. Steve had seen enough on the first day and then Helio basically went to the hospital to get x-rays on his ribs.”
Even then, at age 20, Kanaan exhibited the take-no-prisoners style that has drawn him a legion of fans in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
“It’s the aggressiveness,” Cowdin said. “You could see that the way he drove the car, and he still drives the car the same way.
“The pleasure of working with him is every time the car leaves the pit lane, you know exactly how fast it’s going to go because that’s how he runs. There’s guys that drive at 90 percent and then suddenly jump up a little bit in qualifying. You might miss something (that way) because they haven’t pushed the car to that limit. But Tony’s in the 96-97 percent every time he leaves the pit lane. It gives you a little bit more of a reference point.”
In addition to working together at Tasman, Kanaan and Cowdin teamed at Andretti Autosport, where they captured the 2004 Verizon IndyCar Series championship by winning three races and completing all 3,305 laps run in the season. They reunited at KV Racing Technology (shown at left) when Kanaan won the elusive Indianapolis 500 he’d been chasing for a dozen years in 2013.
Most recently, both resided at Chip Ganassi Racing but struggled to concoct that winning formula. 2017 marked the third straight year that Kanaan did not win a race. The 42-year-old Brazilian believes he and Cowdin can rekindle success at AJ Foyt Racing, which has seen just one race winner from its stable in the last 15 seasons – Takuma Sato at Long Beach in 2013.
“Having the opportunity to have Eric as my engineer, which he’s been engineering me for 20-plus years,” Kanaan said, “we won the 500 together, we won the championship together, so I think we can bring a lot to the team. It’s exciting.
“Bringing Eric to the table is going to make it a lot easier.”
Kanaan, Cowdin and the No. 14 car and crew will be based at Foyt’s shop in Speedway, Indiana, with the No. 4 car and crew at the home base of Waller, Texas. Cowdin and team manager George Klotz – another former Andretti employee – are focused on getting the team structure set this offseason and prepping the cars equipped with the new universal aero kit for 2018 testing in January.
Having that innate working relationship – where the engineer almost knows what the driver is thinking without words being spoken, developed from years of reading each other’s signals and countless hours of debriefs – will be key to hitting the ground running.
“We’ve worked together now so long that he doesn’t even have to say anything,” Cowdin said of Kanaan. “He’ll come in the pit lane and just put up his visor, and I can tell from his eyes or he’s shaking his head. Or we know it right away on lap time if it’s a good time. It speeds the process up for us as far as hopefully getting down to the brass tacks of sorting this package out.”
Cowdin believes it’s only a matter of when, not if, for those winning ways to return.
“Honestly, we’ve had more success together than apart,” he said, “so it seemed like an opportunity to continue that relationship and try to build on the success that we’ve had in the past.”