Finally, after 11 years of frustration, Tony Kanaan will now forever be known as an Indianapolis 500 winner and champion.
For 11 years, if you didn't know any better, you might have thought that maybe Tony Kanaan was lactose intolerant.
Every time he started the Indianapolis 500, Kanaan ultimately wound up short of Victory Lane and the traditional winner's ceremonial drink of milk.
But Sunday, the friendly Brazilian didn't just sip the bovine champagne, he poured it all over himself—twice in fact—as he celebrated the biggest win of his career, in the biggest race in the world and at the most prestigious race track on the planet.
"Very good; very, very good! I can’t believe that we did it," he said in his post-race interview on ABC. "We finally did it. And it’s been a long shot, but it’s ours."
Unfortunately, because the race finished under caution, some might look at Kanaan's win as being somewhat tainted, or that an asterisk should be placed next to his name, much like Roger Maris' 61 homers.
While I can understand the concern and sentiment, Kanaan did nothing wrong Sunday. He simply was in the right place at the right time and won the race fair and square—and by IMS's and the IndyCar Series rules.
On the final green flag restart of a race that had a record 68 lead changes among 14 different drivers—essentially a different leader every three laps of the 200-lap event—Kanaan burst past race leader Ryan Hunter-Reay and never looked back, just four laps separating him from the field and the checkered flag.
Even when defending 500 champ Dario Franchitti crashed two laps later, Kanaan had pulled away from the field and was practically in the next ZIP code when the final caution flag fell.
"I couldn’t believe it," Kanaan told ABC in Victory Lane. "I’m like, man, how many laps to go? It was two to go. I said, 'That’s it.' I’m going to have to say that last lap was the longest lap of my life. I wanted the pace car to hurry up so bad."
If ever there was a sentimental favorite to win Sunday's 97th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, it was Kanaan. Sure, much was made coming into the race about how Helio Castroneves and Franchitti were looking to join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the only four-time winners at Indy.
Kanaan is close friends with Castroneves and Franchitti, but they've had their turn at Victory Lane in Indy—three times each. He wasn't trying to be greedy—he just wanted his first win at Indy.
In a race that had a record 68 lead changes among 14 different drivers—essentially a different leader every three laps of the 200-lap event—finally, at the age of 38, when other athletes are on the downward spiral of their careers, Kanaan beat the best of the best on the world's greatest racing stage on Sunday.
Kanaan, who finished third in last year and fourth the year before, came into Sunday's race twice having victory snatched away from him at Indy. And, in an odd coincidence, both times were also under caution, just like Sunday's finish.
In 2004, he finished second to Buddy Rice after the race was called 20 laps from its scheduled 200-lap distance due to severe thunderstorms that blanketed the area surrounding the track.
In 2007, Kanaan was leading the race after 113 laps when it was stopped, again due to a heavy rain. The rain stopped and the race eventually resumed, but after a crash between Dan Wheldon and Marco Andretti on Lap 162, the yellow caution flag flew for just four laps before the race was officially called on Lap 166 (again due to rain), 34 laps from the scheduled finish. Franchitti won the race, while Kanaan faded to a disappointing 12th-place finish. Victory had once again been so close, only to be ripped from his hands yet again.
But finally, after 11 close tries, the third time under caution at the end of the 500 proved to be the charm for Kanaan and team owner Jimmy Vasser, himself a former open-wheel driver who never finished higher than fourth in the 500.
"We were known for not winning (the 500)," Kanaan said on ABC. "Now, we are known for winning. Man, I don’t know what to say."
Perhaps, the greatest part of Sunday's win wasn't Kanaan taking the checkered flag or the Victory Lane celebration. It truly was a mark of the man and how he's perceived in the series when virtually every member of the 32 other race teams came out to applaud and congratulate Kanaan on pit road.
The only other time I can remember something like that was when hundreds of opposing drivers, crew chiefs, crew members and team owners strode onto pit road to congratulate the late Dale Earnhardt for winning the 1998 Daytona 500 after 19 other attempts came up short at capturing NASCAR's biggest race.
"I have never seen so many people, even from the other teams," Kanaan said. "This is it, I made it. Finally, I’m going to put my ugly face on that trophy."
It's ironic that Kanaan would win Sunday, the debut weekend of the movie Fast & Furious 6, because the Brazilian driver is the spitting image of the movie's star Vin Diesel.
But where Diesel portrays a tough-guy image, Kanaan is anything but. I've interviewed him several times over the years and found him friendly almost to a fault. He was the kind of guy where, after just a couple of minutes of talking to him, you'd swear you've known him all your life.
He's funny, likes to tell jokes and can be mischievous at times. But Kanaan is also very sensitive (did you see how he was wiping away the tears of joy while doing his victory lap?).
He's also very intelligent—a thinking man's driver, for sure. And with both the threat of rain and the checkered flag coming on fast in the final laps Sunday, victory was his no matter what, and he wasn't going to be denied.
Kanaan is also a deeply religious man, a believer in fate and fortune. That's why his story is all the more compelling, because he won with two unique good luck charms in his firesuit pocket.
One was a gold medal from the 2012 Paralympic Games, given to him by longtime friend Alex Zanardi, who lost his legs in a tragic racing accident in 2001.
The other medal was one Kanaan had originally given for good luck to an ill fan who was facing an extremely serious brain operation nearly a decade ago. Miraculously, that fan regained her health and sent Kanaan an overnight package that he received on Saturday with both that medal and a brief but powerful message attached: "Here's your good luck charm back. You take it and win the Indianapolis 500."
And that's just what Kanaan did.
Finally, on his 12th try, Tony Kanaan, race car driver, will now and forever be known as Tony Kanaan, Indianapolis 500 champion.
There's a word in Kanaan's native Portuguese language that roughly translates to "winner," that being "conquistador."
On Sunday, Kanaan came, he saw and he conquered. Ole' and bravo to Indy's newest conquistador!
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