NASCAR & Auto Racing

IndyCar’s Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon team up for different venture: Half-Ironman triathlon

Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan will run in Sunday’s Ironman 70.3 Miami.
Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan will run in Sunday’s Ironman 70.3 Miami. El Nuevo Herald

You know how it goes when South Florida athletes try to get a peer to come down during the offseason: seductive descriptions of enjoying languid sun-hugged days, sumptuous waterside meals and ... a half Ironman triathlon.

That last part might be only if you’re Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar series champion Tony Kanaan trying to cajole Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon, also owner of those same credentials, into doing Sunday’s Ironman 70.3 Miami with you.

“I have to suffer,” Kanaan joked. “There are better things to do in Miami on a Sunday.”

Dixon, the defending IndyCar series champion, said with the busy offseason limiting his training time, “I’m just looking to finish this one.”

That didn’t sound like one of the most competitive and consistent race drivers of the last decade. A little prodding produced: “I’d like to break five hours. The last one, I broke 4:50. Typically, I like to do 16 to 18 weeks of training. All the travel this offseason (including IndyCar driver Justin Wilson’s funeral in England) means I didn’t really start training until five or six weeks ago.”

Sunday’s triathlon is half the full Ironman length in each discipline. The 1.2-mile swim precedes a 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile half marathon. Kanaan, who has done the full Ironman once, planned to do it. He almost challenged Dixon to join him as Dixon got a new bike.

“When you give him a challenge, he’s like me,” Kanaan said. “We want challenges in our life. I told him, ‘In Indianapolis [where Dixon lives], the weather is not so nice. Come to Miami, we’ll make it a fun weekend.’ ”

The casual sports fan might be surprised that the most accomplished professional sports figures in Sunday’s race come from auto racing. The IndyCar fan wouldn’t be surprised about that, but might be surprised Kanaan and Dixon have gotten on so well as teammates.

Kanaan has long been known as perhaps the IndyCar Series’ most physically fit driver. Outside of his driving suit, Kanaan’s compact, muscular upper body is as prominent as his famous nose that resembles a mid-1970s McLaren’s engine cowling.

So small and skinny as a child that his father took him to a doctor to make sure nothing was abnormal, Kanaan swam until he turned old enough to lift weights regularly.

“I can’t live without exercise a single day,” Kanaan said. “It keeps me more focused for racing.”

Dixon, a New Zealander born in Australia, ran distance when younger. Swimming’s second nature in that part of the world. Cycling “not so much,” he said.

But the benefits of triathlon training transfer to racing.

“Swimming helps with shoulder strength,” Dixon said. “Cycling helps with endurance. And the running helps with intensity. It’s not like I like continuous pain. But it is rewarding. It helps me in my day job.”

Both understand the average person’s skepticism at that remark.

Asked to compare driving the road course at Mid-Ohio with driving down Interstate 95, Kanaan chuckled, “Driving 95 can get dangerous, as you know…

“[Race car driving] is extremely physical,” he continued. “You’re going 200 mph, you hit a corner and pulling three four four Gs, upshifting and downshifting 55 times a lap. On the street, you’ve got your air conditioning, listening to your radio, automatic transmission. That’s why people don’t think of race car drivers as athletes. They just relate it to their driving their normal car.”

Dixon said he finds street courses the most intense with similar amounts of shifting, his heart rate up to 150, a heavy steering wheel (no power steering) and “your shoulders, forearms and hands are straining just trying to hold onto the steering wheel. And you do that for two hours.”

Perhaps none in IndyCar has done it as well over the past 14 season as Dixon, during which he has won four series titles with Ganassi Racing. He’s the modern Al Unser, Sr. — quiet, consistent, generating more admiration than excitement. Kanaan won the 2004 series title while being embraced by fans for his swagger with a dollop of self-deprecation.

Their respective Indianapolis 500 wins epitomize how fans view each.

Dixon qualified on the pole position and led 115 of 200 laps in the 2008 race, a nice event highlighted by Dixon’s expert drive but lacking pizzazz. Kanaan won the breathless 2013 race — a record 68 lead changes — with his trademark, a restart pass, of Fort Lauderdale’s Ryan Hunter-Reay with seven laps left.

(Second that year was Miami resident Carlos Munoz. In 2014, Hunter-Reay edged second place Helio Castroneves, formerly of Miami now a Fort Lauderdale family man. This past May, Miami resident Juan Pablo Montoya took the checkered.)

Kanaan joined Ganassi in 2014 after Dario Franchitti retired. From 2006-13, Dixon’s two main teammates at Ganassi were the late Dan Weldon and Franchitti, two of Kanaan’s closest friends in IndyCar.

“TK is obviously a very good driver,” Dixon said. “His intensity level is high. He’s also a generous, good person. He comes across as a bit of a brute, but he’s a very kind person. His wife, Lauren [Bohlander] and their new son [Kanaan’s second] I think has changed him a little. Much like Emma [Davies] has changed me.”

Kanaan said, “Obviously I knew Scott for several years. Scott’s a very quiet guy. He knows a lot of people, but he doesn’t have a lot of friends. I made clear, I’m coming into his house. I’m not there to replace him. He knew what kind of relationship I have with Dario and Dan.”

He’s so fast and determined, you would think it would take a selfishness to be that. But when you’re on the right side of him, he’ll do anything for you.”

Kanaan pointed to how Dixon and Davies have been supportive of Wilson’s family after his August death during the ABC Supply Pocono 500.

“I’m extremely proud to say among my close IndyCar friends — Dario, Dan, Rubens [Barrichello], when he came over — Scott Dixon has joined the club.”

The kind of friend you can invite for a half-Ironman.

David J. Neal: 305-376-3559, @DavidJNeal