By Dave Kallmann Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
INDIANAPOLIS — The kaleidoscope of motion and color becomes disorienting. The cheers, rewarding but also deafening. The frenetic bustle, overwhelming.
Yet after it was over, after Tony Kanaan had poured the milk over his head, looked into the eyes of his legion of fans, after he’d done countless interviews in multiple languages, after the sun had set over the covered Indianapolis Motor Speedway grandstand, he managed a moment for introspection.
“I thanked the track that night,” said Kanaan, who will race for a repeat today in the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500.
“I was up in the Pagoda and there’s a pretty good view there. I could see the whole track, and I actually said that: ‘Thank you. Thanks for having me all these years.’
“It was such a special win I actually said, ‘If you made me wait this long to be this special, it was worth it.’”
This one was special because of the promises Kanaan had made to his dying father and to his own young son. Because of the way he had won and the state of his career. It was extraordinary because of the feeling of energy he felt from that fan base that kept growing — in size and dedication — and the lie he had managed to tell himself after each of the 11 times he lost.
Only one other Indy winner needed more starts than Kanaan to break through, Sam Hanks in 1957 in his 13th try. Now the 39-year-old Kanaan is among the favorites for today’s race with the chance to become just the sixth driver to win back-to-back.
“I think I fooled myself for a couple of years, saying that I was OK with the fact that I might not win this race in my career,” Kanaan said, “and it changed everything when I crossed that finish line.”
Almost everything. The perspective Kanaan formed in childhood remains: Live every day because life makes no promises about tomorrow.
Kanaan was 13 when his father lost a four-year battle with cancer. The man who introduced him to go-karts asked two things on his deathbed, that Tony take care of his mother and his younger sister and that he never give up his racing dreams.
Through karts and the South American and European junior formulas, Kanaan made it to the United States in 1996 and Indy cars in 1998. But that was late enough that he lost four years at Indianapolis while racing on the CART/Champ Car side of the sport’s civil war.
When he did get to race in the 500, Kanaan led his first seven starts, 2002-08 and won the pole in 2005. In 2007, he was leading when the race was stopped for rain, but it restarted and the way pit strategies played out, Kanaan’s good friend Dario Franchitti held the top spot when the rain fell again.
Michael Andretti’s team usually put Kanaan in position to contend, but sponsorship problems at the end of 2010 cost Kanaan his front-line ride. He was fortunate to keep his career alive for three years at KV Racing.
Kanaan’s son, Leo, wasn’t happy. He asked his dad last February why he hadn’t won much since he was born.
“And I said I was going to win the biggest race in the world for him and give him the trophy to put in his night stand so every time he opens his eyes he’s going to look at that thing and remember,” Kanaan said.
The upset victory with a much smaller team opened the door for Kanaan to join Chip Ganassi Racing. Ultimately he replaced Franchitti when injuries forced Franchitti to retire. And Leo, now 6, did get a miniature copy of the Borg-Warner Trophy that matched his dad’s.
“You can’t predict anything,” Kanaan said. “It takes you 11 or 12 years to win it and then all of a sudden maybe we’ll win two in a row. And then if you’d have told me last year I’d be replacing my best friend that was still a very good race-car driver, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy.’
“As long as you do your own thing and you’re OK with yourself, you’re ready for whatever. Life will bring it to you, whatever needs to happen.”
The new driver combination at Ganassi has been an adjustment for the team that has won three of the past six Indianapolis 500s. Franchitti and Scott Dixon liked a similar feel from their cars, but Kanaan seems comfortable sliding the front tires as long as the rear is stable, Dixon said.
“Even though you get a lot of track time to try a lot of setup changes, there wasn’t a lot of time; with the weather we had it was difficult,” said Dixon, the 2008 winner. “It’s just very different.
“For Dario and I because we’d been together for five years there was a pattern, things that if the (No.) 10 car liked this then the 9 car would probably like that. We don’t have that right now.”
But Dixon and Kanaan do have good equipment and a strong team. The style of car that debuted in 2012 keeps the pack together and facilitates frequent back-and-forth slingshot passes. Although Dixon will start 11th and Kanaan 16th, both have expressed nothing but confidence that they’ll be contenders.
“I’ll be sleeping just fine,” Kanaan said. “The other 15 guys ahead of me are going to have to be worried about what’s going to happen on the start. They know me too well.”
Kanaan has made a career of gaining ground on starts and restarts; that’s how he won last year, beating Ryan Hunter-Reay when the green flag flew for the last time.
“Please, I don’t want to sound cocky or (like I’m) trying to intimidate anybody,” Kanaan said. “I’m confident in what I have. Now, does that mean we’re going to win? Not by any means.”
He learned that again and again over 11 long years, and then Kanann learned how it felt to win.
The sensation, the meaning, are something only a few people can fully grasp. He understands that now. But Kanaan would like one more chance to do the best he can to share with his supporters an inkling of what it’s like.
“That was probably the most special moment of my victory,” Kanaan said of his victory lap in a convertible.
“I had plenty of them. I had a lifetime dream. I won the biggest race in the world. I became a legend, like Dario told me. I had the opportunity to dedicate that to my dad that wasn’t around. My son saw me winning the race.
“But that lap, itself, it struck me because it seemed like 300-some-thousand people happy and genuinely happy, people crying for me, I don’t know if I can describe that. The biggest reason I want to do this race every year is to enjoy that moment with them.”
And then, when they all go home, to reflect by himself.