Showdown at Firebird launched careers of Castroneves, Kanaan

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PHOENIX — Two hungry Brazilian drivers came to the desert in search of a racing destiny.

For as much as Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan grew up friends and racing rivals in Brazil, this turned out to be a life-changing 1995 test at what was then Firebird International Raceway in the suburb of Chandler, Arizona. Tasman Motorsports’ Steve Horne intended to hire only one Brazilian driver and another Latin American hopeful from 10 candidates to run in Indy Lights, the top open-wheel feeder series leading to Indy car racing.

“It was going to be me or him,” Kanaan said of Castroneves.

They had faced each other before, but not with this much riding on a performance. 

Twenty-two years later, they’ve returned to the Valley of the Sun with the spotlight shining brightly on their celebrated careers. They made names for themselves in a sport that inspired them to travel the world. They’ve been rewarded with fame and fortune. They’ve withstood the test of time, as well as that fateful test with Horne.

Tony Kanaan and Scott DixonOn Thursday night, the racing community honored them with “Celebrating Legends: 20 Years of Legendary Driving,” a tribute at Heard Museum. (To watch the entire program, click here.) The toast and roast included video snapshots of Castroneves winning three Indianapolis 500s for Team Penske and Kanaan celebrating an Indy 500 victory as well as a Verizon IndyCar Series title (watch the videos below). They’ve combined to win 46 series races and adamantly insist at their seasoned ages that they’re far from finished.

On Friday night, they sped onward. Castroneves, 41, wore a king’s crown to celebrate the 49th pole of his career as his No. 3 REV Group Team Penske Chevrolet qualified quickest for tonight’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network). Not far off the pace, Kanaan, 42, will start sixth in his No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.

After all they’ve experienced, from the accomplishments to the bitter disappointments, mention Firebird to Castroneves and Kanaan and their recollections are instantaneous and their memories vivid. They haven’t forgotten, nor will they.

Kanaan was quickest that day. Castroneves thought he had blown his opportunity after the pain of a previous injury forced him to quit early.

“I spoke zero English, not that I do better now,” Kanaan said. “I had never been to the States before. We did the test. Helio actually had a broken rib at the time, which I was kind of glad about at the time because he was really in pain and could not go fast enough.

“But typical Helio, I was the fastest and he only did a few laps in that test but he was two or three tenths (of a second) off my lap, which impressed the hell out of Steve (Horne). We both got the job. We both got to go live in Columbus, Ohio, which, ‘Wow!’”

Horne had seen enough from both Brazilians to realize they were keepers. The New Zealander shared his recollections in a video message aired during Thursday’s tribute.

“Helio, remember when you went out there and did your initial 10 laps and you came in after five or six and stopped in pit lane?” Horne said. “I was thinking, ‘What’s wrong with Helio?’ You took your helmet off and you were actually in tears. I didn’t realize it, you hadn’t told anybody, you had some severely (injured) ribs from an accident the week before and you just couldn’t stand the pain. You thought you had blown the deal, but I could see straight away that you were going to be extremely fast and be one of our drivers.

“Tony, you went out and as has been proven, your first out lap was faster than anybody else, your braking was definitely way deeper than anybody else. Instantly, again, I could see within two or three laps you were going to be on our team.”

Although Horne hired them both, he wasn’t shy about providing harsh motivation.

“Steve kept pushing us,” Kanaan said. “When we signed the contracts, he looked at both of us and said, ‘One of you guys is going to make it to Indy car. Only one. It’s a two-year deal. You’re going to learn the first year. If you don’t win the championship or if neither of you win the championship, you’ll go back home to Brazil to do whatever.’”

Once again, Castroneves vs. Kanaan, this time week in and week out. Or whatever?

“Helio made me better,” Kanaan said, “I hate to say it.”

“Going against this guy,” Castroneves said of Kanaan, “you’ve got to really push it. At the end of the day, the same way, he made me better.”

In the beginning, Kanaan thought of Castroneves as a “hillbilly” because he came from the country, whereas Kanaan was a city boy. But after living in an Italy race shop for about three years, Kanaan welcomed any change.

While Castroneves chided Kanaan for being too cheap to buy a car, he purchased a 1978 Toyota Cressida Deluxe for $1,500.

“The seatbelt choked me every time I sat in that car,” Kanaan said.

But Castroneves soon showed he could be frugal, too.

“I knew there was some noise going on. I said, ‘Something is not right,’” he said. “I remember pressing the brakes and it wasn’t stopping very well. I asked one of the mechanics, ‘Hey, how do you change the brakes on this car?’”

Kanaan couldn’t help but interrupt.

“No, shut up, you wanted to buy new brake pads but you didn’t want to spend the money,” he said. “You had the brilliant idea to get used Indy Lights pads and we could cut it in the same shape, but it didn’t work.”

Somehow, Castroneves did change the brakes on that car.

“I don’t know how I didn’t die, by the way,” he said. “The car lasted eight months, then I think I sold it to one of my mechanics for like $300. Not a good investment.”

“I was just laughing,” Kanaan said. “It was so stupid.”

They’ve come such a long way since, when a good week meant a road trip of six or seven days with Horne paying a $25 daily per diem. They would save that money to go to a nearby movie theater and cultivate their competitive natures with video games.

That first Indy Lights season, Kanaan finished second with two victories and Castroneves was seventh with one win. In 1997 (when the photo at top was taken), Kanaan won the series title with two triumphs while Castroneves was runner-up with three wins.

Kanaan earned a CART ride for what turned out to be Horne’s final year in Indy car racing. Horne talked the late Tony Bettenhausen into giving Castroneves a chance that same year. Their careers were on their way.

In addition to the wins and championships, they’ve created lasting legacies of endurance in their 20th season of Indy car competition. Kanaan will start his 269th consecutive race tonight at Phoenix Raceway, the all-time best streak that began in 2001. Castroneves will make career start No. 331 tonight, ranking third behind only the great Mario Andretti (407) and A.J. Foyt (369). When he takes the green flag tonight, Kanaan will make his 330th career start and move past Al Unser Jr. all alone into fourth place all time.

Before walking into a crowded room and being praised as a legend, Kanaan was asked to summarize what has happened since Firebird Raceway.

“It was a lot better than we planned,” he said.

Castroneves spoke of destiny, how it brought them together and to where they are.

“I would say we’ve made it,” Castroneves said.

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