Can Kanaan Claim The Triple Crown?

2013 Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan will look to repeat his Indy 500 win last year with a new team, Chip Ganassi Racing. (IndyCar Photo)
Tony Kanaan celebrates in victory lane after winning the 97th Indianapolis 500. (IndyCar Photo)

LONG POND, Pa. – Much of IndyCar racing’s history and heritage has deep roots at Pocono Raceway.

From the time it opened in 1971 some of the greatest names in IndyCar history have won at the unique triangle-shaped 2.5-mile superspeedway nestled in the lush Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Names such as Mark Donohue, who won the first 500-mile race at Pocono on July 3, 1971, Joe Leonard, A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser, Tom Sneva, Bobby Unser, Rick Mears, Teo Fabi, Danny Sullivan, Mario Andretti and Bobby Rahal, have driven to victory at Pocono.

The driver currently fifth in the IZOD IndyCar Series standings has special reason to win at Pocono. By winning the 97th Indianapolis 500 for the first time in his career, Tony Kanaan is the only driver that can win the Fuzzy’s Vodka Triple Crown Award. With the return of Pocono Raceway to the schedule in 2013 IndyCar has revived the famed Triple Crown, which also includes the season-ending 500-mile race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

If Kanaan sweeps the Triple Crown he wins a $1 million bonus from Fuzzy’s Vodka. If he wins two of the three races in the Triple Crown he will collect $250,000.

Kanaan is attempting to become the second Triple Crown winner in IndyCar history. Al Unser was the only driver to achieve that feat when he won the Indianapolis 500, the Pocono 500 and the Ontario 500 in 1978 when Ontario Motor Speedway was in existence. Bobby Unser (1980) and Gordon Johncock (1982) won two of the three legs of the Triple Crown.

Unser, the only driver to win the IndyCar “Triple Crown,” believes Indy 500 champion Tony Kanaan has a chance to capture the $1 million “Fuzzy’s Triple Crown,” the three-race series that includes the Indy 500, Pocono Indy 400 and the MAVTV 500 at Fontana. He is also happy that IndyCar revived the Triple Crown.

“I give IndyCar credit for bringing back the Triple Crown. You know it used to be three 500-mile races and over the years the tracks and track distances changed. In the beginning it was three two-and-a-half mile tracks, then we lost Ontario and raced at Michigan that was 2 miles so we had to run 250 laps. I am glad it’s back and maybe in the future they can make Pocono 500 miles to keep it all 500-mile races across the board. This is a start, a positive start though.”

Unser did not attend this year’s Indianapolis 500 but watched the race on television back in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was impressed with Kanaan’s drive that day and believes Pocono will produce a similar style of racing which should mean Kanaan is a factor to win again on Sunday.

“I think Tony’s a good racer, a real good racer,” Unser said. “He keeps learning how to win races. I thought the Indianapolis 500 was a pretty good show, I really did. For Tony to win after all his tries it was really good for him. I am an old-timer, I thought he was going to be another Lloyd Ruby and just keep racing and racing at Indy and never get to drink milk or get his photo with the Borg-Warner trophy in Victory Lane. When you come down to the end of the race and run like he did, and want to win, that showed his spirit, he knew the Speedway didn’t owe him anything like that announcers said it did. He won based on his talent, hard racing skills and the team’s hard work.”

Unser’s Triple Crown season came when he was driving for Jim Hall, the famed Sports Car Racer and innovator from Midland, Texas. Unser believes all the pieces were in place that year which made the Unser/Hall combination tough to beat. But this “Dream Team” almost didn’t happen.

“You search out who wants to go racing and win – and when Parnelli (Jones) ended his Indy car operation at the end of the 1977 season I talked to Jim Hall who wanted to get into Indy car racing,” Unser recalled. “Jim came to Albuquerque and we sat down and had a long talk about all parts of the future operation – engines, chassis, sponsors, personnel… Jim’s first proposal was way off and I said ‘we’re not going to make it’ so Jim left and then he called me back two weeks later and we met again, this time he had everything in line, it all came together – the right dollar figures, team members, sponsors, the engine department and we were good to go racing.

“Jim got Huey (Absalom) and Franz (Weis) they were key people in the success of our program. Jim wanted to win, he really wanted to win and made it happen. I felt that’s what drew me over to race with the team. In 1978 we raced the Lola. The Lola was a disgrace and that car tried to kill me. We had Chaparral the next year and THAT car was way, way beautiful to drive. The Chaparral and Lola couldn’t have been more different.

“I won the Triple Crown in 1978, all three of them but what other race did I win? I didn’t even finish second or third in the others. You’d think if you had enough to win the 500 milers you’d be able to at least run third or second in other races. No, but not in that Lola – we were always chasing ourselves and playing catch-up with that car, seemed like we were every weekend.”

Although A.J. Foyt remains the “Grand Champion” of IndyCar racing with his 67 career victories and was the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, Unser was also a master at the 500-mile contests on the schedule and joined Foyt as the second four-time Indy 500 winner in 1987.

He believes Pocono presented a challenge unlike any other track where he raced.

“The Lola was a funny race car, take Pocono, that car scared the s**t outta me,” Unser continued. “If people could see what it was like to drive that car it would amaze them. If we had an on-board camera back then people would see how that car darted and bounced around on that track – it was very rough. I kinda had to just hang on and let the car do want it wanted and it was never the same – a constant handful, it had its own head. But I’d hang on, drive and let them (competitors) come back to me – I’d be driving around and one by one I’d catch-up to them and soon enough I’d be leading the race.

“Pocono was the trickiest track because Indianapolis and Ontario were smooth and the corners were all kinda alike. At Pocono it was rough and each corner was so different – turn one was like Trenton, turn two reminded me of Indianapolis and turn three was flat like Milwaukee. But it was important to try to get the last turn right for a good lap, that’s one thing for sure. Indy was easier in the Lola than Pocono – the track was real smooth – it had all just been completely repaved a couple of years before and the car didn’t dart around and bounce as much. I’d try to drive steady and smooth and it just seemed like they kept coming back to me and soon enough my pit board had a “1” on it and I was leading.”

Unser, whose family (with his brother Bobby and son Al Jr.) has captured an amazing 107 IndyCar Series races from 1965 to 1995, actually won four 500-mile races in a row with an Ontario victory in 1977 and wins in 1978 at Indy, Pocono and Ontario. Unser drove for Parnelli Jones in 1977 and Jim Hall in 1978.

“I remember the Pocono race in 1978 and we gambled by not changing tires,” Unser explained. “We took a big chance and it paid off. You never know for sure until that dang checkered flag falls who’s going to win. I got a ring that said I was the Triple Crown winner and USAC gave the team $10,000, I think… you’d have to check. But I know for sure we didn’t get a million dollars. I am positive about that!”

Unser is happy that Kanaan took the Indy 500 checkered flag this year after so many close calls.

“I think Tony’s a good racer, a real good racer,” Unser said. “I’m an old-timer and I thought he was going to be another Lloyd Ruby and just keep racing and racing at Indy and never get to drink the milk or get his photo with the Borg-Warner trophy in Victory Lane. He knew the Speedway didn’t owe him anything like the announcers said it did. He won based on his talent, his racing skills and the team’s hard work.”

Kanaan is now set in his quest for another Triple Crown win in his No. 11 Sunoco “Turbo” Chevrolet when the green flag waves this Sunday (July 7) at 12:15 p.m. EDT. The 160-lap Pocono 400 will be televised live on ABC-TV.

The previous “Triple Crown” included 500-mile races at Indianapolis, Pocono and Ontario, Calif., from 1971- 1980 and from 1981-1989 at Indy, Pocono and Michigan.

“Winning them all was a great gift,” Unser said of his Triple Crown year. “We thought we accomplished the world when we won all three. We really did, Jim Hall was really happy and the whole team was too. In each one of those races I didn’t think I had a chance of winning, we figured we few had a chance of competing up front. You know, winning, oh man. We were not happy with that Lola. Then all of all of a sudden, like at Indy, I looked up at the board, and we were in the race, these guys backed up right to us. Ontario was the same way – I didn’t think we’d be all that competitive even though we won Indy and Pocono. And we pulled it off – between Jim (Hall), Huey (Absalom), Franz (Weis) and the whole team we pulled it off man.”

Sullivan was the last driver to win an IndyCar race at this track in 1989 when he started seventh and beat Rick Mears to the checkered flag. The sanctioning body at that time, CART, decided to leave the track over a variety of issues including the old “Boiler-plate” walls that have been replaced a long time ago. It was another example of the sport moving away from its oval heritage and becoming more of a street and road course series.

But after a long hiatus IndyCars are back at the unique triangle at Pocono and Sunday’s 400-mile race should be spectacular. And if Kanaan is able to take the checkered flag, he will be one step closer to joining Al Unser as the only Triple Crown winners in IndyCar history.

“Tony is one of the very best talents out there,” Bobby Unser said. “He’s always had talent and won the Championship in the 7-Eleven car by driving well all season. At Indy he finally got a little racing luck to go with his racing talents. It doesn’t matter if he won under yellow or not. When it rained in 1975 and they red flagged it I still was the winner, I was leading – not Rutherford or Foyt– that’s what matters. My name is in the record books.

“Tony won and he has talent, he was leading when he had to be and he is in the record books now forever.”