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An unlikely yet inspiring friendship: Ayrton Senna and Tony Kanaan

May 10, 2014, 9:41 PM EDT

Ayrton Senna (left) and then 16-year-old Tony Kanaan after the latter won a go-kart race at Senna's farm in Brazil. (Photo courtesy Tony Kanaan) Ayrton Senna (left) and then 16-year-old Tony Kanaan after the latter won a go-kart race at Senna's farm in Brazil. (Photo courtesy Tony Kanaan)

Formula One great Ayrton Senna died 20 years ago on May 4, 1994.

Tony Kanaan is the defending Indianapolis 500 winner.

Other than being two very competitive open-wheel race cars, and both being from Brazil, you’d think there would be very little between the two drivers.

But in a very touching story by Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Lawrence, Senna was one of the most significant influences in Kanaan’s development.

The two first met in 1991, three years before Senna was killed in a crash in the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy. The setting was on the Senna family farm near Sao Paulo and the event was an impromptu go-kart race between Senna, then 31, fellow drivers and friends and the then-16 year old Kanaan, who was invited because of his status as an up-and-coming kart racer in their native country.

As fate would have it, Kanaan earned the pole for the race. But Senna invoked “my house, my rules,” much to Kanaan’s dismay.

“Right before the start, (Senna) inverted the grid,” Kanaan told Lawrence. “(Senna) put me dead last and started right beside me. We drove through the field, and I won the race.

“He’s like, ‘Man, you’re really talented.'”

Senna would become both mentor and friend to his young fellow countryman.

“Good luck,” Senna once told Kanaan. “And if you ever need anything from me, apart from money, let me know.”

To which Kanaan recalled to Lawrence, “First of all, it’s the biggest thing in life for any kid, right? Meeting your hero. But for me, it was overwhelming. He not only wants to help me out, he gives me his (phone) number!”

At a race in 1994, just months before Senna’s tragic death, Kanaan was in the midst of a four-race tryout with a team that he was hoping would eventually turn into a full-time ride.

Without prompting and completely unexpectedly, Senna went to visit Kanaan in his trailer. Needless to say, Kanaan’s team was stunned that the F1 god would grace them with his presence.

“Senna introduces himself around, like he needed an introduction,” Kanaan recalled to Lawrence. “Everybody’s really nervous because he’s ‘The Guy.’ Eventually (Senna) turns to the owner and he says, ‘You know this kid?’ and he pointed at me? ‘He’s better than me. He beat me in a go-kart race, at my track.’ And then he left. After that, I got a full time job with the team.”

Senna was at Imola on the day Senna crashed and accompanied the body back to their native Brazil.

“I was really fortunate to have the time that I had with him,” Kanaan said.

Whether or not you’re a Senna or Kanaan fan, you owe it to yourself to read Lawrence’s excellent story.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

  1. worknman24hours - May 10, 2014 at 9:57 PM

    A story I have never read until now.

    Tony racing with and beating Ayrton Senna ( in go carts) but more importantly forming a great respectful friendship until Ayrton’s untimely end.

    Thank you for posting this story.

    Salute Tony and Ayrton.

  2. testover6370 - May 11, 2014 at 11:25 AM

    Racing through the field from the back is the Kanaan we all know and love. What a great story.

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