TK & Helio Need To Bury The Hatchet

When I saw Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves get together at Sonoma this past Sunday, I winced. Not because I thought any physical harm was going to come to either one of them. Instead, I was afraid that it would intensify the bickering that has been going on between them since the end of the 2006 season. Since then, they have taken their animosity to Twitter – a new form of high-tech finger pointing. In the latest game of on-line “he-said/he-said” – Kanaan acknowledges that it may have been his fault, but it is time to quit taking this public and move on. I agree.

Racing traditionally thrives on feuds and rivalries. AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti battled each other on-track and off-track for years. They both had respect for each other’s driving abilities, but deep down they really didn’t like each other. Growing up in the sixties, you were either a fan of Foyt or Mario. You couldn’t like both. You had to choose.

More recently, the feud between Helio and Paul Tracy has been stoked by the media to promote interest in the series. The same when Danica Patrick and Dan Wheldon got into a well documented one-sided shoving match on pit lane after the race at Milwaukee. Eddie Gossage had a promoter’s dream that he took full advantage of, the following week at his track in Texas.

Yes, racing has always benefited from the publicity of a healthy rivalry. That is, until now. I personally don’t care for this ongoing feud between Castroneves and Kanaan. It is uncomfortable to watch. It’s like watching a married couple that you care about, starting to throw objects at each other. You care for both parties and you know that they are both normally above such antics. You want to tell them that they are better than that.

Maybe an even better example would be to compare them to a set of brothers. They practically grew up together. In fact, their lives and careers have been intertwined since Kanaan was thirteen and Helio was twelve. Kanaan had just lost his father to cancer. He was racing in karts in Brazil, when Helio’s father befriended him. The boys had different backgrounds, but began to do a lot together away from the track.

Helio grew up in Ribeirao Preto, which was considered a country town compared to Kanaan’s home in Sao Paulo – Brazil’s largest city and about 150 miles away from Helio’s home. Kanaan’s family was considered upper middle-class before the death of his father. The Castro Neves family was considered more rural and blue-collar. Kanaan has always kidded Helio about being a hillbilly.

Late in their teen years, their paths took different directions. Both pursued their racing careers separately in Europe in the early to mid-nineties. Then fate would put them back together in 1996 as teammates on Steve Horne’s Tasman Indy Lights team. The race for the 1997 Indy Lights championship went down to the wire between the two teammates with Kanaan coming out on top. The two of them both graduated to the CART series for the 1998 season with Kanaan staying with Tasman and Helio driving for Tony Bettenhausen.

Kanaan got the better start to his career by winning CART Rookie of the Year in 1998. Both drivers had transition years in 1999. Tasman Motorsports was absorbed by Gerry Forsythe’s team, while Castroneves moved from Bettenhausen’s team to Carl Hogan’s one-car effort. Kanaan scored the first victory of the two by winning at Michigan that summer. Helio’s best effort that season was finishing second at St. Louis.

The 2000 season found the pair on the move to new teams again. Kanaan had gone to Mo Nunn’s new team after McDonald’s failed to renew their sponsorship with Forsythe. Castroneves had been tabbed by Roger Penske to be Gil de Ferran’s teammate after new Penske signee Greg Moore had been fatally injured in the last race of the 1999 season. This unfortunate event would be Helio’s big break.

This is where their fortunes turned. To this point, Kanaan had had the more solid career. He had won the Indy Lights championship; he was named CART Rookie of the Year and he had already won a race in CART. For the next few seasons however, their career paths went in opposite directions. Such is the effect of signing with Roger Penske.

Helio notched his first career CART victory at Belle Isle in Detroit in 2000. He proceeded to win two more races that season. He would win three more races in CART the following season, but most importantly – he won the Indianapolis 500. For 2002, Team Penske switched over to the IRL and Castroneves won at Indy again – while finishing second in the IRL championship. All the while, Kanaan was languishing with three disappointing seasons with Mo Nunn that produced no wins and a best points finish of ninth.

Then it was time for Kanaan’s big break. For 2003, Michael Andretti had bought Team Green and moved it to the IRL. He brought Dario Franchitti over from CART and hired Tony Kanaan away from Mo Nunn. Andretti-Green Racing had funding from Honda, as well as the powerful Honda engine. AGR quickly built a juggernaut and Kanaan responded.

Tony Kanaan won the IndyCar championship in 2004 and finished second in points in 2005. Up until this year, Kanaan had led in seven straight Indy 500’s but has failed to win the big prize that has eluded him – the Borg-Warner trophy. In the meantime, Castroneves won Indy for a third time this year, but has failed to ever win a championship – and it won’t happen this year, either.

The two began their quarrelling in the final race at Chicago in 2006. Castroneves was still in the hunt for the championship while Kanaan had already been eliminated. Helio was attempting to pass Kanaan who fought to keep him behind. Castroneves was incensed that his longtime friend would try to prevent him from winning the championship. Kanaan’s perspective was that he is not paid to let people go by him. Both had a valid argument, but it produced hard feelings during the off-season.

The childhood friends carried their public dispute throughout the 2007 season. The media had a field day with it as they watched the two stiffen up when they were around each other. They finally seemed to thaw things out at St. Petersburg in 2008, when both finished on the podium. By Indy of that year, they were back on good terms but you sensed that the closeness was no longer there. It was more of a professional relationship.

The latest chapter in this saga was written this week, when the two sparred verbally in the media and through Twitter. The childhood friends are acting like it – like children. It was funny to watch Eddie Cheever spar with the Andretti’s, Bobby Unser go at it with Sam Posey and Foyt whacking Luyendyk. It’s not funny to watch two lifelong friends and competitors, taking potshots at each other in the media. With the history that they share, it’s really kind of sad.

George Phillips

One Response to “TK & Helio Need To Bury The Hatchet”

  1. I think rivalries are good and healthy, but when I heard about the “twitter-fight”, it came across as quite sad.
    It’s the kind of thing that I associate with Z-list celebrities, when they “do battle” with ex-lovers for a bit of publicity in tabloid papers – it’s definitely not what I expect from two of the most professional racers I’ve ever seen. If they are going to have it out, they could at least strap on some underwear and have a wrestling match in the ring – it could make an interesting sideshow at Chicago and Versus could broadcast it as part of the pre-show.

    Back to reality though and I think “disappointed” is the main word that I’m thinking here.

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