INDIANAPOLIS — It had been nearly three years since Tony Kanaan’s last victory, a drought so long his young son had no memory of ever seeing his father win a race.
It was a sticky subject with young Leo, who just last week reminded Kanaan of the winless stretch during a phone call from Brazil.
“I was having a conversation with him about losing the other day — I was trying to teach him you don’t win every time,” Kanaan said Monday. “He said, ‘Yeah, Dad, because as long as I remember, I haven’t seen you win.’ That was harsh.”
Harsh, but unfortunately true for a driver trapped in a never-ending search for sponsorship that had turned the last few years into an overwhelming struggle to ensure he could race.
It’s what made his breakthrough victory Sunday in the Indianapolis 500 so sweet, so special. It was a victory for the old guard, one Leo would always remember, and proved good guys sometimes do finish first.
More important, it relieved the financial burden KV Racing Technology has faced this season, a year in which Kanaan’s car lost its longtime primary sponsor and had been piecing together corporate support since right before the season opener when the team announced Hydroxycut had signed on for nine races. It left five unsponsored, and Kanaan revealed Monday that team co-owners Kevin Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser went into Indianapolis unsure if they’d finish the season.
“The past three years I’ve been working extremely hard, probably even harder than driving the car, to find the sponsorship to keep surviving,” Kanaan said. “I hope this win helps me a little bit more, makes it easier to either find a sponsorship or maybe get back on a team that is well-funded. I’m not saying we’re going to make the same money we used to make, because these are different times.
“But I would like to have a little bit less pressure on my side, to just really concentrate on driving.”
He’s in the final year of his contract with KV, a team that snapped him up before shortly before the 2011 season opener when sponsorship materialized. Kanaan was out of a job at the time because his sponsorship at Andretti Autosport had gone away, and a plan to drive for a new team started by fellow Brazilian Gil de Ferran fell apart because of a lack of funding. The deal to drive for de Ferran was announced in December 2010 and evaporated two months later.
So he’s grateful to KV Racing, which has worked hard to compete on the race track and in the sponsorship game the last three years. Kanaan would like to continue driving for the team, but has grown weary of the fight.
“I’m happy where I’m at, I’m confident that with this we can build something solid for the following year,” he said. “We were so sketchy up until this race, we didn’t even know if we were going to do the entire year. Now I’m pretty sure we will. But I would love to work a little bit less on that side.”
It seems strange that a driver as popular as Kanaan has such struggles. The crowd clearly adores the longtime IndyCar stalwart, evidenced by the roar of the crowd when he surged past Ryan Hunter-Reay on the final restart Sunday. The applause was thunderous moments later when a caution essentially ended the race, and Kanaan circled the track under yellow for two final laps.
They were still standing and cheering 45 minutes later when he took his victory lap, showering him with chants of “TK! TK! TK” as he passed by in a convertible.
“It gave me goose bumps, it was crazy,” Vasser said.
The entire day was filled with tears of happiness as losing driver after losing driver saluted Kanaan, who shared an emotional long embrace with Alex Zanardi, the beloved former champion who lost both his legs in a 2001 accident. Zanardi had come from Italy to watch the 500 and had Kanaan rub one of his gold medals from the 2012 London Paralympics for luck before the race. Even Hunter-Reay, who dropped from first to third on the final restart, found solace in losing to Kanaan.
“It hurts to come so close to winning, and it’s hard to say anything positive, but I guess the only consolation is that Tony finally got what he deserved,” Hunter-Reay said.
Kanaan was feted by three-time winner Dario Franchitti, who stood next to his crumpled car after bringing out the final caution to give his old friend two thumbs up as he passed under yellow, and Mario Andretti and Parnelli Jones. Best friend Rubens Barrichello called from Paris, sobbing so hard into the phone Kanaan couldn’t even tell who the voicemail was from.
It had taken him 12 years to win the big race, and he’d become something of a hard-luck tale while ranking third on the list of most laps led among drivers who had failed to win Indy.
“I was watching the race from the Pagoda and the fans were sure happy to see Tony win, they cheered like hell and you could really hear them above the sounds of the engines when he was leading,” said Jones, the 1963 winner. “For a while there I was afraid Tony was going to be the next Lloyd Ruby and never make it to Victory Lane at Indy. Tony will represent Indianapolis Motor Speedway well. I welcome him the club.”
It’s fitting, too, that Kanaan’s likeness will go on the Borg-Warner trophy after the late Dan Wheldon and Franchitti, two of his closest friends. He made several self-deprecating mentions of “his ugly face” and “big nose” finally making it onto the trophy. The timing was perfect, even though Kanaan found a way to make fun of his place in history.
“The trophy is really going to be ugly now,” he said. “You’ve got the biggest teeth with Dan next to the biggest eyebrows with Dario and now the biggest nose with me. I love it.”