Even in tribute, peers have fun with Castroneves, Kanaan

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PHOENIX — Four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon was asked what first comes to mind about Helio Castroneves.

“He’s just like a big ball of fun, isn’t he?” the Chip Ganassi Racing driver said of his always-energetic Team Penske rival. “He’s like a cute little person, you know?”

What about the other Brazilian driver honored and roasted by the racing community in Thursday’s “Celebrating Legends: 20 Years of Legendary Driving” tribute at the Heard Museum? What initially stands out to Dixon about teammate Tony Kanaan?

“The nose,” Dixon said, chuckling.

Even Kanaan has made a career of kidding about his large, defining facial feature. When he won the 2013 Indianapolis 500, he couldn’t resist gushing in victory lane about finally having his “ugly mug” on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

“Especially at Indianapolis, the crowd goes crazy when ‘Big Nose’ walks out,” Dixon said. “They really do. I said to him the only reason is because he’s so recognizable. Everybody knows it’s Tony because nobody else looks like him.”

That was merely the beginning of an entertaining kickoff to a racing weekend that will culminate in Saturday’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix Raceway (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).

Longtime Kanaan teammate and friend Dario Franchitti (shown at right in photo above during the celebration with Kanaan (left) and Castroneves) would have his say before the night was through.

So, too, would longtime rival Paul Tracy, who couldn’t resist teasing Castroneves about the second of the Brazilian’s three Indianapolis 500 wins. Tracy, forever convinced he passed Castroneves before a final caution flag came out in a controversial 2002 conclusion, asked if Castroneves was keeping “my Baby Borg” shiny and properly displayed.

The room erupted in laughter, Castroneves included.

Then again, even at 41, after 29 career victories and with a legacy secure at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Castroneves approaches each day with the same seemingly limitless enthusiasm he’s always shown. That’s Spider-Man, the guy who climbed the catch fence to celebrate at IMS. Wherever he is, he’s excited to be there.

“Helio is Helio. He’s not acting,” said Franchitti, a four-time series champion and three-time Indy 500 winner. “That’s the way he is all the time. Gil (de Ferran, the former Team Penske driver) used to say how irritating Helio was in the mornings. Everybody is sort of waking up and Helio is already bouncing around.”

If Castroneves is the proverbial “Tigger,” what is Kanaan? Aside from 17 career wins and a 2004 series crown, who knows this wildly entertaining 42-year-old character best? Yeah, Franchitti.

It was Franchitti who, with help from a couple other drivers, “initiated” Kanaan into the series “off track” in 1998. They’ve played their share of unforgettable pranks on each other.

During Thursday’s tribute, Franchitti conceded he took it easy on his friend. That’s because too many of the stories about Kanaan can’t be shared.

“I’ve got a lot of goods on TK,” Franchitti said.

One of the most memorable pranks involved Kanaan’s Ironman bicycle.

“I hacksawed Tony’s bike in half after he threw a cake in my face,” Franchitti said.

The Scottish driver, who retired in 2013 and still works with Chip Ganassi Racing, shook his head when thinking about how Kanaan and Castroneves have been around for two decades.

“These boys, they actually came from nothing,” Franchitti said. “They came to America, made something of themselves, and it’s bloody impressive.”

But enough of the serious stuff. How about some more inside info on Kanaan?

“Tony does like to exaggerate,” Franchitti said. “He does about everything. He’ll go to a Honda appearance and say, ‘Oh, it’s so nice to be here. I’ve been coming here for 25 years,’ when he’s actually only been in Indy car for 20 and five of those were with Chevy.

“You have to call him out all the time. He’s like the unruly kid in class. As soon as he steps out of line, say something.”

And, if nothing else, never forget the schnoz.

From the fans