Tony Kanaan

Tony Kanaan walks with purpose to the No. 11 car idle on pit lane and briefly reviews the plan with engineer Eric Cowdin before donning helmet and gloves.

He’s meticulously strapped in for the initial practice session and is off quickly on the demanding 2.385-mile, 12-turn Sonoma Raceway road course in a blur of tire smoke and chassis colors.

Through the four-minute ritualistic procedure, nary a smile breaks Kanaan’s game face. The scene is repeated throughout the race weekend, just as it has hundreds of times previously and will again this week for the Grand Prix of Baltimore presented by SRT.

Click it: Grand Prix of Baltimore presented by SRT entrant list

The lone difference will be additional cameras focused on the reigning Indianapolis 500 winner’s movements as he’ll become Indy car racing’s ironman with his 212th consecutive start. The streak began on June 24, 2001, at Portland after he sat out the previous race, the Detroit Grand Prix, because of a concussion suffered in qualifications. He went on to compete in the final 14 races in 2001 and in every race over the next 12 seasons.

“That’s a long time when you think about it,” concedes Kanaan, 38, of Brazil. “I’m getting old, but I’m still going; that’s what matters. I have the passion. It’s always nice to break a record, regardless of what it is.  The most consecutive starts is something that I’m looking forward to.

“It’s something that you don’t hang on for this long just because you’re lucky, so I think it’s a proof that I still can do the job.”

Luck might be a confusing concept given the numerous injuries during his career. Still, they didn’t curtail the streak that will have begun 4,452 days ago on a rainy Sunday in Oregon with Kanaan starting 21st in the Freightliner/G.I. Joe's 200.

In 2003, Kanaan suffered a broken left arm at Twin Ring Motegi, sat out the first week of practice for the Indianapolis 500, but competed in the race. In 2009, he suffered a broken rib in the Indianapolis 500 but hobbled to the car the following weekend in Milwaukee without a hint of distress.

Two months later, he suffered burns to his hands and face in a pit lane fire at Edmonton but remained in the race and competed the next week at Kentucky. This April, three ligaments in his right thumb were damaged in a late-race crash at Long Beach.

“I have pain all the time but I just live with it,” said Kanaan, who has 14 screws and two metal plates in his left arm that he broke the first time in qualifications at Detroit in 2000. "The one that I shouldn't have raced actually, I had a concussion in Detroit, which I stayed out. That's when the streak started out after in Portland. That concussion, back in the day, the technology and all the resources we have were not as accurate. I still think I wasn't right the week after that I went to Portland."

The resolve is borne, he agrees, partly from the situation he found himself at age 13 following the death of his father – who he called “hero” – in 1988 from cancer and cultural influences. He was thrust into being "the man of the family” and compelled to negotiate the role to the best to his abilities.

“I learned a lot from him during those years,” said Kanaan, who went out and won a go-kart race a few days after his father’s passing. “The strength and power to keep persisting in something I think I got from watching him fight to the end. I use that in everything in my life.”

Such perspective aided Kanaan as he sought to advance his racing career in Europe despite a lack of funding that would provide opportunities. Results in the Italian Formula Alfa-Boxer and the next year in the Italian Formula 3 Europe were noticed, and in 1996 -- despite an offer of a factory-backed ride from Audi in touring cars in Italy -- Kanaan followed his heart to open-wheel racing in the United States after being quickest in a test for Tasman in Indy Lights.

The next year, he won the championship. In 1998, he graduated to CART with Tasman, winning the Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year award. The next year, he won his first pole and then his first race. There have been 15 Indy car victories, one championship and thousands of miles logged since.

"Yes, it's been tough," Kanaan acknowledges, "but it's been rewarding. I get to do something that most people only dream about, so I consider myself fortunate."

Such trying times also developed his sense of humor, charisma and gregariousness, which is what most fans see away from pit lane.

Walking to the team transporter following the practice session at Sonoma Raceway, Kanaan stops to sign a poster and pose for a photo. Instantly, he’s besieged by other fans seeking a moment with the 2004 IZOD IndyCar Series and 2013 Indy 500 champion.

“Good luck in the race,” a boy in the gaggle – not much older than Kanaan’s 6-year-old son Leonardo – offers.

Kanaan’s game face quickly dissolves into a broad smile.

Vasser's streak goes 14 years

Vasser’s streak started with Hayhoe-Cole Racing (co-owned by Jim Hayhoe and Rick Cole) in the Toyota Grand Prix of Monterey at Laguna Seca on Oct. 3, 1993, in the final race of the CART season and continued through the 2006 season-opening Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 9 with PKV Racing.

He retired from open-wheel racing, but returned to drive in the 2008 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach -- the final Champ Car race.

Vasser registered 238 total starts, making his CART debut in the 1992 opener at Surfers Paradise (starting 17th and finishing 15th). He won the 1996 PPG Indy Car World Series Championship, driving for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, with four victories (it also was Honda’s first title). Overall, he won 10 races, finished in the top 10 in 136 and was running at the end of 149 of his final 194 starts (dating to Milwaukee in 1995).

Vasser said he pleased that a close friend is the one to break the record, and is working to finalize a commercial package to have Kanaan extend the streak with KV Racing Technology.

"It's a great honor to have Tony do it," Vasser said.  "He's the right guy. I think his streak would have been longer, he missed some races when he broke his wrist in Detroit. My first couple years in Indy car, we didn't do full seasons.  So these are consecutive starts. It just means primarily you're able to keep a job for that many years, which is hard to do. That's a tough feat in itself.

"It's fully our intention to keep the band together, so to say, the great team that Tony has helped put around him.  I know there may be other opportunities for Tony, but we hope to keep him at KV."

Up and coming

Two-time series champion Scott Dixon will attempt to make his 154th consecutive start this weekend, while Marco Andretti will attempt to make it 130 in a row. Ryan Hunter-Reay, with 104 consecutive starts, is the only other driver surpassing 100.

Tony Kanaan's Ironman Streak 

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