At 42 years old and in his 20th season racing Indy cars, Tony Kanaan likes the feeling of being a rookie again.
The Chip Ganassi Racing driver is in France this week to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the first time. As if the pressure of competing in the world’s most prestigious endurance sports car race wasn’t enough, Kanaan is filling in for injured Sebastien Bourdais on the defending GTE class champion team in the No. 68 Ford GT.
Kanaan is relying on Verizon IndyCar Series teammate Scott Dixon, who experienced Le Mans for the first time a year ago when he was part of the third-place Ford GT entry, to guide him through the nuances of the iconic race week.
“I’m a rookie so I do whatever they tell me,” Kanaan (at right in photo above, interviewing Dixon on an Indianapolis TV station in May) joked before leaving. “Which, at this point of my career, being a rookie kind of sounds OK.”
Kanaan drove one of the Ganassi Ford GTs in January at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, hinting then that he would love to drive at Le Mans. The opportunity arose when Bourdais sustained hip and pelvis fractures in a May 20 Indianapolis 500 qualifications attempt crash. Since being named as Bourdais’ replacement, Kanaan has spent most of his available time in racing simulators and watching videos of past races.
He also used Dixon as a sounding board leading up to the trip.
“He’s been extremely helpful,” Kanaan said of his good friend. “I don’t think he had anybody like that to help him (last year). Obviously, he tries to add pressure on me every day.”
To which Dixon chimed in, “Yeah, man, you better step it up.”
Both veterans said the transition to sports car racing is made much easier since it is with their same team. Familiar faces abound within the Chip Ganassi Racing contingent. Kanaan said one of the biggest issues he had to overcome mentally was the sheer length of the 8.47-mile road Circuit de le Sarthe.
“You learn to compromise at Le Mans, it’s such a long lap,” offered Dixon. “If you mess up the first corner, you’ve got like three and a half minutes to go to try and set up the next one.”
Kanaan will team with Joey Hand and Dirk Muller, who co-drove to victory in 2016 with Bourdais on the 50th anniversary of the Ford GT’s celebrated first Le Mans triumph. Dixon is once again paired with former Indy car driver Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook. Chip Ganassi Racing also has its two World Endurance Championship Ford GTs entered.
“It is one of the marquee events, for sure, and as far as endurance racing it is the event,” Dixon said. “You only go there to do one thing and that’s to win. It was cool last year to go there for the first time and be on the podium. Obviously, it sucked not winning but to see teammates win and we were third, it was a hell of an experience.”
Kanaan was taking it all in from his Miami home, wishing he were there.
“Watching them on TV last year, I was jealous in a good way,” Kanaan said. “Like Scott said, it’s a team that I know, it’s a team that I’ve been with. It makes it a lot easier. I’m not there to prove myself, they know what I can do. I’ve just got to do my job.
“I’m looking forward to everything, it’s a new experience. The daunting thing I think is the responsibility I’m going to have, not letting those guys down.”
Dixon, 36, stressed to his teammate to enjoy the experience as much as possible. He pointed to Friday’s parade, which he said is like the 500 Festival parade preceding the Indianapolis 500 – but more like Mardi Gras with drivers tossing shirts and hats from the cars they’re riding in and fans taking full advantage of the party atmosphere.
“It’s a lot more R-rated,” Dixon said, who learned last year to be flanked in the car by his teammates to avoid fans who can become overly friendly on the parade route. “There’s some interesting things along the way. My advice is to sit in the middle.”
The pressure of performing for the defending champion notwithstanding, Kanaan won’t refrain from taking in the sights, sounds and excitement of the revered event. It’s something he admittedly failed to do the first few times he competed in another iconic event, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.
“I never really started to enjoy the 500 until after a few years,” Kanaan said, “because you had all that pressure and that’s all you think about. I don’t want my Le Mans experience to be like that. So, I’m going to enjoy every bit of it and when it’s time to do your job, do your job.”
Dixon, Kanaan and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver Mikhail Aleshin, who is competing for his Russian-backed SMP Racing team in the LMP2 category, are the only current Verizon IndyCar Series drivers competing at Le Mans this year. Practice at Circuit de la Sarthe began Tuesday. The first qualifying session was today, with two more set for Thursday. There is no track action Friday, with the twice-around-the-clock event set to begin at 9 a.m. ET Saturday.