It's no surprise Tony Kanaan said he felt like Christmas came early this year, considering the proximity of the big holiday and Monday's announcement that the 2004 champion would drive the No. 2 car for de Ferran Dragon Racing during the 2011 Izod IndyCar Series season.
"I can't call Gil (de Ferran) Santa Claus, though, not much white hair or a big belly," said Kanaan with a laugh during the announcement press conference. "As a father, though, I told my kids this year I was going to ask Santa for a gift as well."
My lack of in-depth series knowledge is well documented (Ed: Mostly by you in these posts), but to me the fans of IndyCar racing are the recipients of the gift. Not having the popular Brazilian driver on the track in 2011, flat out and carving his way to the front on the outside, would have been more than unfortunate.
Here's a little background from the IndyCar.com story by Dave Lewandowski:
"Kanaan made his first start in the series in the 2002 Indianapolis 500. He joined Andretti Green Racing for the full 2003 season, providing the team its first pole start and victory in its second race. In 2004, Kanaan set an unrivaled record by became the first driver in major auto racing history to complete every lap of every race for an entire season on his way to winning the series title.
Kanaan has finished in the top six of the championship standings in each of his eight full seasons in the IZOD IndyCar Series. This past season, he recorded seven top-five finishes (including his 14th series victory, at Iowa Speedway) and 13 top 10s in 17 races."
Details of Kanaan's sponsorship package will be announced later, said de Ferran, who added that he aggressively pursued the free-agent driver when he heard Kanaan was released by Andretti Autosport after the 2010 season.
"From my standpoint Tony brings many things to the team," said de Ferran, a two-time CART champion and winner of the 2003 Indianapolis 500. "We are very young and developing, but with big ambitions. Tony has a lot of experience and we can benefit from that ... he is a champion."
Kanaan agreed that developing the team, which will be in just its third season in IndyCar, and creating a winning attitude will be an important part of his role, but the ultimate goal is "always to win races." The driver added he would not have signed with de Ferran Dragon if he didn't believe it had the capability to win with him behind the wheel.
Even so, there will be a bit of culture shock for Kanaan, leaving Andretti Autosport, which at times raced five cars in 2010, for a one-car team. Although Kanaan joked that he would enjoy having "all the attention for myself," he added that during a mid-November test session with the team at Sebring International, he looked around and asked de Ferran: "Where are all the guys? He said ‘This is it.' I was like, 'Oh, OK.'"
Making things even more challenging, de Ferran said, would be the introduction of the next generation car in 2012. The team co-owner (with Steve Luczo and Jay Penske) said they would have to operate next season with one eye on 2012 and make decisions on research and development spending accordingly.
Asked about the chance for Davey Hamilton to return to the team for a stint in 2011, de Ferran said he enjoyed working with the driver last season and hoped the team could secure sponsorship and make "more announcements going forward" that would include him.
Both Kanaan and de Ferran spoke of the current upswing in momentum that the Izod IndyCar Series has enjoyed this offseason, with new teams emerging and engine and aero kit makes coming in for 2012. Driver and co-owner admitted the competition on track will only get tougher - but neither shied away from the challenge.
"Success comes from preparation. The earlier and more intense your preparations the better you'll be," said de Ferran, who added the team had "checked the box for a driver in 2011" and was now ready to move on to the next challenges.
When asked about the recent unexpected death of John "Ando" Anderson, who led Andretti Autosport to championships in 2005 and 2007, Kanaan spoke movingly of their friendship: "You hear the term ‘people person' and I think that term was created for John."
The conference ended on a more upbeat note, as Kanaan repeated his happiness at once again having a seat reserved for the 2011 IndyCar season: "I'm enjoying my Christmas much more than I thought I would have."
So are we, Tony, so are we.
Note: You can read the full transcript of Monday's press conference at pressdog.com.