The Inside Line: Kanaan basking in Indy 500 glory
By Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Tony Kanaan's first Indianapolis 500 victory in his 12th attempt came with a couple good luck charms.
Kanaan finally put to rest years of frustration at Indianapolis Motor Speedway by winning what was perhaps the greatest IndyCar Series race of all time. Sunday's Indy 500 featured an astonishing record 68 lead changes among 14 drivers and moved at very fast pace of 187.433 mph, a record as well.
After 2 hours, 40 minutes and 3 seconds from when the green flag waved to start the 97th running of this prestigious race, Kanaan crossed the finish line first, with the checkered and yellow flags waving at the same time.
The 38-year-old Brazilian pulled ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay, the reigning IndyCar champion, for the lead right after a restart with just three laps to go. Seconds later, Dario Franchitti, who won the Indy 500 for the third time last year, crashed into the wall in turn 1, which would end the race under caution.
As he swigged from the traditional Indy 500-winning bottle of milk and was draped with a floral wreath, Kanaan said in the winner's circle that he got a "little bit of luck today."
His luck actually came well before the start of the race.
Kanaan had two medals in his possession that he used for good fortune.
Hours before the race began, Kanaan received Alex Zanardi's para-cycling gold medal from the 2012 London Paralympic Games. Zanardi, a former Formula One and CART/Champ Car Series competitor, lost both of his legs in a horrifying crash that nearly ended his life during the 2001 CART race in Germany. Zanardi, along with his fellow Italian compatriot, Max Papis, a notable race car driver as well, attended the Indy 500.
"Right before the race, (Zanardi) gave it to (KV Racing Technology co-owner) Jimmy (Vasser), and Jimmy brought it to the bus," Kanaan recalled. "I was laying in bed. It was an hour before. Jim said, 'Zanardi asked you to rub it.' I actually cuddled with the thing."
Kanaan had his first medal come to him last week when he received a package with a necklace inside it from a long-time friend.
"Nine years ago, I went to make a visit in a hospital here in Indy," he said. "When I walked in, there was this girl (Andrea Braun of Decatur, Ind.). She was 14 years old. She 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. So I took it out, and I said to her mother that I don't know if you believe in these things, but I had this for a while. It always protects me. My mother gave it to me. I want to give it to you. She was like a life risk.
"I gave it to her. She survived. She is doing really well. We kept in touch in the past years. This year, 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."
In his previous 11 Indy 500 starts, Kanaan had always come up short of winning the race. He had led a total of 221 laps prior to this year's Indy 500, which was a record for most career laps led by a non-winner of this event. Kanaan finished second in 2004, the same year he captured his first IndyCar championship, and placed third in 2003 and 2012. He started on the pole for the 2005 race, but ended up finishing eighth in it.
"I never had a doubt I could win this thing," Kanaan said. "I talked about it many times that I could do it or not, but this place is still going to be special. It worked (Sunday)."
Kanaan's maiden victory in the Indy 500 might have been forever and a day, but it was a hugely popular one. His win might have been as popular with the drivers, teams and race fans around the world as the one Dale Earnhardt experienced when he won his first Daytona 500 -- NASCAR's biggest race of the season -- in 1998. It took Earnhardt 20 attempts to do it.
"I was already in America when (Earnhardt) did that," Kanaan said. "I thought it was so cool. When I came down pit lane, it was not the same, but it was close. I saw a lot of teams and people that thought I really deserved to win. It was awesome."
It was indeed an emotional day for Zanardi to see his good friend and former CART competitor, Kanaan, cross the finish line as the first driver behind the pace car.
"It's fantastic," Zanardi said. "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."
Vasser and Zanardi were teammates at Chip Ganassi Racing in CART during the mid-1990s. Kanaan competed against them during the 1998 season when he drove for the Tasman Motorsports Group.
"Alex Zanardi gave us some luck (Sunday)," Vasser said. "He gave us his gold medal from London and told us, 'Rub this all over the car.' Tony took the medal to his motor home with him for an hour."
Ultimately, Kanaan received the biggest medal of them all, the Borg-Warner Trophy, for winning the Indy 500. He'll be the 100th face etched on one of the most famous awards in all of motorsports.
"I'm glad I'm on the other side, so they can put my big nose on that trophy," he jokingly said.
Perhaps Kanaan's biggest reward is that he can finally now be called an Indianapolis 500 champion.
05/27 19:43:51 ET