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Rookie Leist eager to learn from Kanaan, continue Brazil's INDYCAR legacy

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Tony Kanaan sounds like a proud papa when sizing up Matheus Leist, his new Brazilian teammate at AJ Foyt Racing.

The understudy known as “Matt” is just 19, which means it wasn’t that long ago when he was growing up in Brazil idolizing Kanaan and fellow INDYCAR mainstay Helio Castroneves.

“We’re in the car this morning and I asked him, ‘Hey, how old is your dad?’” Kanaan said of a recent conversation. “His dad is like 44, only one year older than me.”

Kanaan, who made his debut in Indy car racing at the age of 23 in 1998, is set to begin his 21st year after signing a multiyear deal in the offseason with Foyt. The 2004 Verizon IndyCar Series champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner takes tremendous pride in being a mentor to Leist.

“For many reasons, I’m excited,” Kanaan said. “Brazil always produces really talented race car drivers. Lately for years, it was just me and Helio that was left. We didn’t have any continuity. We lost Felipe Massa to Formula 1. We were going through a phase in Brazil where it was actually going down, as far as the number of drivers. We needed new talent.

“It’s nice to see a young talent. I hope he can do well and start a new chapter for the Brazilian drivers.”

Matheus "Matt" LeistLeist smiles and shakes his head about the opportunity to be Kanaan’s teammate as driver of the No. 4 ABC Supply Chevrolet. The 2016 British Formula 3 champion is still pinching himself, even as he headed to his first test with the team and new Indy car earlier this week at Sebring International Raceway.

“I’m pretty excited,” Leist said, grinning ear to ear. “I have a lot to learn inside and outside the track. I’m excited for the challenge and hopefully we can be there as soon as possible.

“I’m much more excited than nervous at this point. I can’t wait to sit in the car and develop the car. I can see the day when Tony and I are going to work together as a team. It’s going to be a fantastic year for me. I’ve never been in a position like this.”

He and Kanaan met last year during a go-kart race in Brazil. As a 2017 driver for Carlin in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires, Leist won three races and finished fourth in points to prepare for making the jump to the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“There were a lot of new things for me,” Leist said. “It was a challenging year for me. It was my first year here in America, new car, new team, new tracks. Everything new. But it was pretty exciting. I think I had a very great year. I was one of the guys who won the most races. I won (at Indianapolis Motor Speedway) in the Freedom 100. I had a great season for all the challenges I had.”

Whereas he once dreamed of racing in Formula 1, Leist realized from racing in Europe that landing a ride in that international series typically requires more than just skill. Since coming to the U.S., he’s loved everything about this country and sees it as the land of opportunity.

“Here in America, this is where things are much more easier for the drivers,” he said. “The drivers have the opportunity to be there. In Europe, it’s all about the money. You can have the talent, but if you don’t have the money, if you don’t know the right people, you won’t make it. Here in America, it’s much different.

“I love this place. The country is as beautiful as Brazil, but it’s more safe. The people are nicer. This is kind of a perfect place for me to live. To be in this place, I think I’m kind of living the dream. And I’m living in Florida, and the weather is very nice.”

Much like his fellow countrymen, he enjoys the Sunshine State. Leist resides in Ventura, Florida, while Kanaan has a home in Key Biscayne and Castroneves is in Fort Lauderdale. Castroneves is driving sports cars for Team Penske this year, but will be back at the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in May in search of a fourth victory in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Leist is still trying to accept the reality that he will soon be racing in the Indy 500, too.

“This is crazy, you know?” he said. “The Indy 500 is the biggest race in the world. I’ve been dreaming about that since I started in this career. I’m speechless, to be honest. I can’t figure out that I’m going to be racing in the Indy 500 in May. This is like crazy for me, but I’m so excited.

“The first oval that I did last year (in Indy Lights) was Indy, that was my first-ever experience on an oval and I won the race. Now the Indy 500, the cars, it’s so different, a lot of big names, big drivers. I grew up watching them and finally I’m going to be driving with them. This is going to be fun. This is the race where everyone is expecting the most. It’s going to be crazy for me.”

Until then, he’ll do what he can to learn as quickly as possible. And he’ll be coached by one of the best in Kanaan.

“Experience is something I have,” Kanaan said. “But he has plenty of talent, so I’m not too concerned about that. For sure, whatever I can do to help him.”

The first piece of advice has already been passed on. Whenever legendary 83-year-old A.J. Foyt speaks, always nod in acknowledgement at the four-time Indy 500 winner and all-time Indy car race wins leader (67).

“Exactly,” Kanaan said. “I told him that right away.”

The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series begins with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11 (12:30 p.m. ET, ABC and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).

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