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Thrilled Kanaan joins the Indy greats

27 May 2013

There are few people more popular in motor sports than Tony Kanaan. Hard as nails on the track, one of the nicest guys you'll meet off it, everyone was genuinely delighted he had finally achieved a life's dream.

No matter who you were supporting in the 2013 Indianapolis 500, chances are that when the the chequered flag came out at the end of the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday you were as delighted as everyone else watching that Tony Kanaan had finally become an Indianapolis 500 champion.

"I'm speechless. This is it, man. I made it," he said after clinching a long-awaited dream victory in the race he wanted to win more than any other. "Finally they're going to put my ugly face on this trophy!"

Everyone was lining up to shake the 38-year-old Brazilian racer's hand and congratulate him on his long-sought-after success. It's taken 12 attempts to get here, and in the end he was also slightly fortunate to he helped out by a yellow caused by his old friend Dario Franchitti at just the right moment. But none of that matters now: only the win does.

"I got a little bit of luck today," he said. "It's for the fans. It's for my dad that's not here. But mainly for all of you guys. I was looking at the stands, and it was unbelievable.

"We were known for not winning, and now we are winning," he added. "I don't know what to say."

As well as his wife Lauren, his car owner Jimmy Vasser and the whole KV Racing Technology crew, Kanaan also had the backing of a sporting legend as it emerged that London Paralympics gold medalist Alex Zanardi had been in his corner on race day and even offered some golden assistance to Kanaan's Indy campaign.

"Alex Zanardi gave us some luck today," explained Vasser. "He gave us his gold medal from London and told us, 'Rub this all over the car.' Tony took the medal to his motorhome with him for an hour."

"I actually cuddled with the thing," laughed Kanaan. "Still in my bus!"

"I tell you, I'm starting to think it really works, it's profitable," quipped Zanardi. "I might put it up for sale!"

Zanardi - who'd been in Indianapolis for a special Friday presentation of his 1996 Laguna Seca race-winning car from Chip Ganassi - was delighted that he'd been on hand to see his friend achieve a lifetime's ambition on Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"It's fantastic," said the Paralympian. "It's a dream come true to see Tony win, to see Jimmy Vasser win, my dear friend. We couldn't believe it. I'm so happy. I'm so happy."

The sentiment seemed shared everywhere you went at IMS after the race. Even though he would have dearly loved to have won his fourth Indy 500 this year, compatriot Helio Castroneves couldn't have been more thrilled for Kanaan's long-overdue success.

"I'm very happy," Castroneves said. "Well-deserved for him. Well-deserved for his team. Hell of a job. I'm happy for you."

Kanaan came close to winning the Indy 500 in 2004 while driving for Andretti-Green. He was denied the chance to make a run for the win when rain caused the race to be called 20 laps early, so perhaps this year's final yellow three laps from the finish which came just after Kanaan had overtaken Ryan Hunter-Reay for the lead at a final restart was just karma's tardy repayment of an old debt it owed him.

Even though it seemed that the leader of the race had proved to be a sitting duck all day long because of the aerodynamics of the new DW12 Dallara race car, Kanaan didn't hesitate to take the lead when the green came out: he sensed that this might be the crucial moment, and that's just how it turned out.

"When it was six laps to go, went yellow, I wasn't in the lead, I said, 'This might be the day, today might be the day', because I was in Ryan's position plenty of times," Kanaan explained of why he'd jumped into the lead as soon as he had. "I knew I had to get the lead on the restart because it could be a yellow, which happened to me plenty of times here, and it did. How life is funny. The yellow was my best friend."

Of course the conspiracy theorists are never far away, and immediately to whispers started that Franchitti had purposely crashed at precisely the minute he knew Kanaan held the lead.

"People are saying he did it on purpose," said Kanaan. "Obviously not. I can see him mad out of the car. When he saw I was in the lead, he was shaking his head, like waving at me. It was special, very special.

"I never had a doubt I could win this thing. I talked about it many times that I could do it or not, but this place is still going to be special. Today it worked."

With IndyCar not using any special procedures for ensuring a racing end in the event of a late yellow along the lines of a NASCAR green-white-chequered finish, Kanaan and the rest of the field simply had to circulate around behind the pace car for three laps to make the result official. Kanaan said those three laps had taken an eternity.

"I couldn't believe it. How many laps to go? Two to go. I guess that's it. The last lap was the longest lap of my life. I wanted the pace car to hurry up. I enjoyed it. We did it."

The first person to welcome him as he got out of the #11 car in victory circle was his wife Lauren, who'd lived through the suspense of every one of those 200 miles in the hope that this year, finally, her man would get the acclamation and success he so richly deserved.

"Tony is so humble, so grateful for this day," she told the media afterwards. "It was a huge team victory."

As well as Zanardi's gold medal helping speed Kanaan to victory, the driver revealed that there had been another, very sentimental momento with him in the cockpit of his car throughout the race.

"Nine years ago, I went to make a visit in a hospital here in Indy," he explained. "When I walked in, there was this girl. She was 14 years old. She had just had a stroke. She was in a coma. She was going to get a surgery the next morning.

"I had this thing that my mom gave me. It was kind of a necklace to protect me, not to bring me luck, because - you know the way moms are. She tells me to race slow, which is kind of stupid, but...

"I took it out and I said to her mother, I don't know if you believe in these things, but I had this for a while. It has always protected me. My mother gave it to me. I want to give it to you," Kanaan continued. "I gave it to her. She survived. She is doing really well. We kept in touch.

"This year, four days ago, she showed up, gave me a letter with an envelope. I opened the letter. Here it was. She said that she had enough of luck in her life, she got married, and she wanted to give it back to me to bring me luck, so here it is.

"I think I'll retire that thing now," he said.


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