Eric Cowdin and Tony Kanaan first met at “The Gong Show,” Steve and Christine Horne’s talent search for their Tasman Motorsports Indy Lights team. Held at what was then called Firebird Raceway east of Phoenix, AZ late in 1995, the duo connected quickly, despite the fact that the driver barely spoke English and his American engineer spoke no Portuguese, the native language of Kanaan’s homeland, Brazil. The Horne duo told their prospective Indy Lights talents that they had to speak English if they were hired.
Kanaan got the nod to race with Tasman Motorsports as the Marlboro Latin America team, learned English and took all the information gleaned from working with Cowdin to great success in Lights, earning the series championship in their second season together, 1997. They’ve pretty much been joined at the pit box ever since, earning the 2004 championship in what’s now the Verizon IndyCar Series by finishing every single lap of every single race (3,305) in their championship season.
After both driver and engineer left Chip Ganassi Racing following the 2017 season, to no one’s surprise Cowdin and Kanaan are reunited at A.J. Foyt Racing, working toward a renaissance for Super Tex’s squad. They’ve had some good finishes thus far in the season, but not enough to satisfy either INDYCAR’s “Ironman” Kanaan, whose consecutive starts will amount to 294 once the Indy cars take the green flag at Iowa Speedway this weekend, or his engineer.
There have been issues to overcome, as the Foyt team hasn’t tested as much as they’d like, but they’ve had the opportunity to work the simulator to acclimate themselves with the series’ new UAK18 aero kit. Two eighth place results and one seventh place finish won’t cut it for the driver or the engineer, and certainly not for team owner A.J. Foyt, winner of four Indianapolis 500 Mile races.
The series conducts its 11th – of 17 – races this weekend on the short Iowa Speedway oval, an event where Kanaan owns a single victory in 11 races held at this venue; his best start is second in 2015 and he’s led 523 laps and has five podiums (two seconds and two thirds). Although he hasn’t tested at Iowa Speedway, teammate Mattheus Leist did attend the test a couple of weeks ago. Cowdin, who also serves as technical director at A.J. Foyt Racing, is hoping the lower downforce levels of the UAK18 don’t create too much of a challenge.
“The bumps are the biggest challenge at this track,” Cowdin acknowledges. “You can tune the springs and dampers for a particular line the driver is taking, but as soon as he drives a different line, you have a whole new set of bumps to deal with. The key is to find the best compromise overall.” Kanaan did finish eighth at the only other short oval contest held in 2018 – at Phoenix’s ISM Speedway, an event held in April of this year.
“The basic short oval package will be similar,” Cowdin said. “There are changes required for the increased load in the banking and those bumps. Because of the new aero kit, we have had to refocus our efforts in different areas of development than in years past.” Both Cowdin and Kanaan are learning a new team after moving from Ganassi – and they’re back to using the Chevrolet engine they hadn’t utilized since 2013, the year Kanaan won the Indianapolis 500.
Still, Iowa Speedway “is one of my favorite tracks of the year,” Kanaan stated. “It’s a place that keeps you on your toes at all times and although it’s just under a mile long, it makes for an extremely fast and exciting race.” Because he didn’t test the new aero configuration, “I expect it to be a harder race than usual. Being a short track, we’re always running in traffic and, hopefully, we have a good balance to keep the No. 14 ABC Supply Chevrolet up front and get another trophy for the hardware collection.”
It’s often said that the relationship between a driver and an engineer is akin to a marriage. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s the pits. The long-standing relationship between Tony Kanaan and Eric Cowdin gets put to the test every time they arrive at a racetrack. They’re hoping this year’s visit to Iowa Speedway yields even more success for their marriage of friendship and work.