The newest Indianapolis 500 champion wears his emotions on his sleeve. The newest Indianapolis champion is a fierce competitor with a self-deprecating humor. The newest Indianapolis 500 champion isn’t too proud to be a mentor for younger drivers and a sounding board for fellow veterans.
The newest Indianapolis 500 champion is Antoine Rizkallah Kanaan Filho (Tony Kanaan), and on a brisk morning after his scintillating triumph in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” it’s still difficult for the 38-year-old from Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, to swallow the distinction.
“The day that I see Dan Wheldon, Dario Franchitti and my face together on that trophy, that’s when it’s going to hit me,” said Kanaan, whose bas relief image will be the 100th added to the Borg-Warner Trophy. “Dan will have the biggest teeth, Dario the biggest eyebrows and me the biggest nose. It’s a dream come true for me and I fought so hard for many years.”
Click it: How Kanaan won the '500' || Highlights
Kanaan, the 2004 IZOD IndyCar Series champion who was making his 201st consecutive Indy car start, triumphed in his 12th Indianapolis 500 start. The victory completed a “500” straight flush – he had finished second through fifth – and was the 16th of his career (his last victory was almost two years ago at Iowa Speedway).
Maybe it was destiny -- team co-owner Jimmy Vasser drove the No. 12 in his Indy car career, it was Kanaan's 12th start, he was starting 12th and had the 12th pit box – and even some luck was with the team.
Longtime friend, two-time CART champion Alex Zanardi, brought the gold medal he earned in the Paralympic Games in London last year and gave it to Vasser to rub over the Chevrolet-powered No. 11 Hydroxycut KV Racing Technology/SH Racing car because “it has special powers.”
“Jimmy brought it to the bus about an hour before the race,” Kanaan said. “I was lying in bed and Jimmy said, ‘Zanardi asked you to rub it.’ I actually cuddled with the thing.”
Then, in the Winner’s Circle at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Kanaan pulled a medallion on a black nylon cord from the pocket of his firesuit during an ABC interview. It was the “good luck charm” that nine years earlier he had given to 14-year-old Andrea Braun of Decatur, Ind., who lay comatose in an Indianapolis hospital because of a brain hemorrhage and faced life-threatening surgery the next day.
Kanaan had worn the medallion – a gift from his mother – the previous five years in Indy car competition, but wanted Braun to have it to give her strength.
“It was a necklace to protect me, not to give me luck, because you know the way moms are. She had been telling me to race slow,” Kanaan said. “So 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 always protect me. My mother gave it to me. I want to give it to you.’
“I gave it to her. She survived. She is doing really well. We kept in touch in the past years. 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.
“I think I'll retire that thing now.”
Kanaan isn’t ready to retire. With good fortune, he’ll surpass Vasser’s record for consecutive Indy car starts at Baltimore in September and challenge for more victories.
“I think we can prove that theory that says that nice guys don't win,” Kanaan said after kissing the bricks that comprise the start-finish line on the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway.