A difficult year for Brazilian Kanaan takes a downright frightening turn
Brazilian Tony Kanaan was set ablaze during Sunday's race in Edmonton
During a pit stop, Kanaan felt his driver's suit get soaked with ethanol
Kanaan suffered bruised ribs and severe contusions at Indianapolis 500 in May
EDMONTON, Alberta -- Dario Franchitti had tears in his eyes when he saw his friend and racing rival Tony Kanaan, his hands heavily bandaged and a burn on his chin -- the grim reminders of a horrifying fire on pit lane during Sunday's Rexall Edmonton Indy.
Franchitti had just finished fifth in a race won by Will Power of Australia and was talking to a reporter when he saw Kanaan in a golf-kart.
Franchitti stopped the interview and gave Kanaan a hug, whispering in his ear that "it's over," referring to a streak of bad luck that has plagued Kanaan in the IndyCar Series this season. "It comes in threes," Franchitti said, referring to the bad luck. "I'm just so happy to see you. But you can't lift a finger with those hands."
Franchitti, his eyes moist with emotion, blew kisses at Kanaan, showing how strong the friendship is between the Scotsman and the Brazilian.
On May 24, Kanaan suffered one of the hardest crashes in his life in the 93rd Indianapolis 500. He suffered bruised ribs and severe contusions to his right thigh, all of which took him a few weeks to overcome.
What has followed has been a litany of bad luck on the track and slow race cars that have added up to the most miserable of seasons for the 2004 IndyCar Series champion.
On Sunday, during a pit stop on lap 34, Kanaan felt his driver's suit get soaked with the cold liquid known as ethanol -- a sugar-based fuel made in Brazil. The IndyCar Series uses 100 percent fuel grade ethanol, which actually contains 2 percent gasoline to make it legal by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Without the gasoline added to the ethanol, it could be consumed as high-octane liquor. (Remember those "Hairy Buffalo" parties in college? The high-grade alcohol was actually ethanol.)
But there is another benefit to the gasoline additive -- in the case of a pit fire; one can actually see orange flames. In the days when IndyCars ran methanol, the flames were practically invisible.
Once Kanaan felt the fuel soak his uniform, he knew he was about to ignite, so he pulled away from his pit crew to keep them out of harm's way. True to his instincts, the fuel erupted and Kanaan was engulfed in flames. In-car cameras on the VERSUS telecast showed the horrific image of a man on fire trying to unstrap himself and climb out of a race car.
His Andretti Green pit crew jumped into action, dousing buckets of water on the driver to put out the flames. Crew members from other teams, including Team Penske and Panther Racing, also came to Kanaan's aide, dumping more water on the flames and helping to pull him out of the cockpit.
IndyCar drivers are among the bravest of all professional athletes. They strap themselves into open-wheel, open-cockpit race cars that go far faster than a NASCAR stock car. The fuel tank is located behind the driver's seat and in front of the engine, which is in the rear of the race car.
When these brave men -- along with Danica Patrick -- take the green flag, they try to put fear out of their minds because they understand and accept the risk of being a race driver. But the one thing they fear the most is fire and the helpless feeling that comes with it.
"You can't see the burns on my face yet because they say it will take a few days, so I guess I'm going to be uglier than I already am right now," Kanaan said. "It was a scary moment. I have to thank all the other teams -- Penske and the Panther boys. They all came to rescue me. It's pretty remarkable.
"It shows the IndyCar family as it is. We are competitors over the weekend, but when somebody needs help, I got it. I'm glad I'm OK. The Penske guys saved my life today."
The fuel probe stuck open on the fuel hose during Kanaan's pit stop, so when the fueler pulled out the hose, ethanol still spewed out, which doused the driver and the car. Once that fuel touched the hot exhaust of the race car, it ignited.
"As soon as he pulled [the fuel hose], I saw the shower that I got and I knew that's not water," Kanaan recalled. "I knew it was going to be ugly, so I pulled out of the pits to save the guys on my crew. I pulled further down to get out of the car.
"This could have been a lot worse. I was on fire for 45 seconds, so I don't know how much worse it could be. I have to thank all the people who make the safety and the firesuits. To be on fire for 45 seconds and have my hands burned and face burned is not a lot.
"It seems like we can't get it right this year. It makes you think twice about what you want to do from now on. I have to think about what I want to do from now on."
Kanaan vows that he will compete in the IndyCar race at Kentucky Speedway next Saturday night, but also indicated he does not know how much pain his hands will feel in the coming days.
"I've done it all -- I almost killed myself at Indy with a 200-mile-an-hour crash," Kanaan said. "Let's talk about good things. I keep fighting and I'm resisting, so let's move forward.
"I'm not going to retire. Talking about next week, let's see how I feel on Wednesday. I'm not giving up. My eyelashes are burned, so I look pretty scary right now."
Kanaan entered Sunday's 96-lap street course race that winds around the runways of Edmonton's City Centre Airport eighth in IndyCar points, but realistically out of it in terms of contending for this year's championship. He was the points leader heading into the Indianapolis 500 in May. After his hard crash into the third turn wall on the 97th lap of the race, he finished 27th. The following week, he was 19th at Milwaukee. At Iowa, he was 14th, and two weeks ago at Toronto, he finished 17th.
He came to Edmonton hoping to "light a fire" to his season but this is certainly not what he had in mind.
The pit fire was the end of his race. He finished 29th, dropping to ninth in points.
"It could have been much worse," Kanaan said. "It is what it is. It was a tough day for us. I've raced with broken wrists and broken arms and a lot worse than that. Right now, I'm not planning on stepping out of the car. This has never happened to me before, so it was not a pretty sight.
"I'm in pain but I've been in pain before. I'm not trying to say I'm a tough guy but it is what it is.
"I don't think about `What's next?' I think about 'What's next can only get better.' It can get any worse than this. I've been racing for 27 years. I know the risks. It's been happening to us a lot, so we need to fix a few things. Like my boss said, this is why I get paid the big bucks because we have to go through some things that are bad. It can't any worse than this.
"It would really be bad if I were at home watching these guys race on TV so I'm happy that I'm here."
Kanaan has been broken and burned so he thinks the worst is over.
"Why not go for a win?" he asked.
Spoken like a true racer.