INDIANAPOLIS – All Tony Kanaan really wanted was a full-time ride in the IndyCar Series. Team owner Gil de Ferran delivered his gift a few days early.
On Monday, the two Brazilian friends announced they were teaming up for the 2011 season, a move that gives instant credibility to de Ferran Dragon Racing's fledgling team.
"I want to call Gil Santa because he has all that white hair and that big belly," Kanaan joked during a conference call with reporters. "I tried to explain to my kids that I was going to ask Santa for a gift as well."
Kanaan, known for his playful image and genteel personality, is one of the series' most competitive drivers.
In eight seasons driving for Michael Andretti's team, Kanaan won 14 races, the 2004 series title and never finished worse than sixth in points. He won last season's race at Iowa and finished sixth overall.
And during the last three years, Kanaan, who turns 36 next week, had been the steadying influence for his younger teammates, including Danica Patrick. He usually spent the month of May driving all four cars in the Andretti stable, though he never did win the Indianapolis 500. It's the one glaring omission from Kanaan's resume, one he hopes de Ferran can help him eliminate.
De Ferran, who won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 driving for Roger Penske, returned to the series last season as a first-time team owner. Another Brazilian, Raphael Matos, was de Ferran's full-time driver last season with American Davey Hamilton driving part-time for the team.
Getting Kanaan, however, is a major move for de Ferran.
"We are a very young and developing operation with big ambitions, and I think Tony brings a wealth of experience," he said. "He's a champion, he's a race winner, he's raced all sorts of cars in many situations. Hopefully it brings us a little closer to being a major force in the Izod IndyCar Series."
The two also have a friendship that transcends the sport.
Kanaan acknowledged Monday that he and de Ferran have vacationed together with their families and they are so close that Kanaan couldn't even explain when the negotiations for this deal started. Terms of the contract were not immediately available.
The team has not announced a primary sponsor, but Kanaan will have a new number — 2.
"I looked at him one day and he looked at me, and he said 'Should we be talking?'" Kanaan recounted. "I said, 'Yes.'"
Things didn't become official, though, until Monday's announcement.
Kanaan's future with Andretti Autosports was put in doubt when 7-Eleven announced last season that it would end the longtime sponsorship of Kanaan's green-and-white No. 11 car. In October, Kanaan and Andretti agreed to a settlement that essentially made Kanaan a free agent.
Andretti's team has undergone major changes during the offseason — losing Kanaan and three major sponsorship deals, including 7-Eleven. For the first time in several years, it also appears the team will have fewer than four drivers, and it won't be the same seeing Kanaan working with a different team in Gasoline Alley.
But that's an image Kanaan and de Ferran will cherish.
"I'm going to have all the attention for myself. It feels good," Kanaan said. "It has been eight, almost nine years with a big team, so it took me a little time to get used to, but in a way I think it's great. I'm enjoying every moment of it. Everything's downsized for me. I'm just trying to get used to it."
De Ferran did not say whether Hamilton would be back part-time in 2011 or whether he would add a second full-time driver though he has said previously that he would prefer a two-car team.
"I think the rest of our plans will be known in due course," de Ferran said. "Hopefully, we'll make more announcements in the near future. It was great working Davey last year, and if we could do that again next year, we'd do it."