In his 12th Indianapolis 500, Tony Kanaan knew it was coming down to possibly one last shot to erase more than a decade of frustration.
So on what turned out to be the final restart of the day with three laps to go, he dove low heading into Turn 1 to attack race leader Ryan Hunter-Reay. Feisty IndyCar rookie Carlos Munoz went high, making Hunter-Reay’s race car the middle of a three-wide sandwich.
As they emerged from Turn 1 at storied Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Kanaan had the lead. And when Dario Franchitti hit the wall seconds later and the yellow caution flag flew, freezing the field, Kanaan had his first victory in the 97th running of the famed 500-mile race.
It could not have been a more popular victory. Not only for fans of Kanaan, but for fans of racing everywhere—and even amongst Kanaan’s competitors. Though many were naturally frustrated by their own varied failures and near-misses in the aftermath, all seemed genuinely consoled by the fact that if they could not come away with the victory, they were glad it fell to Kanaan.
In a USA Today interview prior to the race, fellow driver Graham Rahal had said, “A guy like Kanaan winning Indy might do as much for the sport as having an American win.”
The enormously popular Kanaan had led in eight of his previous 11 Indy 500 attempts, but never at the right time. So it was no surprise when the 38-year-old Brazilian came on the radio just before the final restart and told his team, per the ESPN and ABC telecast, “Well, boys, it’s going to be all or nothing. I’m going for it.”
Then he did just that. Knowing that Turn 1 provided the most opportunistic spot on the track to make passes all day, Kanaan did not hesitate and did not lift.
Why would he?
Kanaan knew that for once he finally had luck on his side. Unlike in 2007, when he led a race-high 83 laps but finished 12th after getting caught on the wrong side of two caution flags, this time, he had employed a pair of secret weapons.
One was in the pocket of his KV Racing firesuit.
Nine years earlier, Kanaan had visited a young girl named Andrea Brown at a hospital. She was getting ready to undergo emergency surgery for a brain aneurysm and was a fan of Kanaan’s. The driver gave her a medal for good luck and was pleased to find out later that her surgery went well.
Now a young woman of 24, Brown returned the medal to Kanaan prior to Sunday’s race via overnight mail with a note that read, “Here’s your good-luck charm back. Now you take it and win the Indianapolis 500,” per the ESPN and ABC telecast.
Prior to the race, car owner Jimmy Vasser also was given an unusual good-luck charm that he ceremoniously rubbed all over the car. That one came in the form of a Paralympic gold medal won in handbiking by former racecar driver Alex Zanardi, a good friend of both Kanaan and Vasser who lost both of his legs in a 2001 racing accident.
Of course, Kanaan, the 2004 series champion, also had considerable skill and impeccable timing on his side. The years of near-misses and total frustration gave him considerable experience that emboldened him to make just the right move at precisely the right time, giving him the 16th and by far most important victory of his IndyCar career.
After completing the pass on Hunter-Reay and holding off Munoz to get into the lead and then realizing Franchitti’s wreck had brought out the yellow to freeze the field, Kanaan knew all he had to do was follow the pace car around for less than three laps and victory was his in arguably the most iconic race in all of motorsports.
“This is it, man. I made it. I’m finally going to get to put my ugly face on that trophy,” he said in Victory Lane. "The last lap was the longest lap of my life. I wanted the pace car to hurry up so much.”
He said he was going to fly home as soon as he could to share the victory with perhaps his biggest fan: son Leo.
“I promised him a trophy,” added Kanaan during the Victory Lane interview, “and it’s a good one.”
Follow Joe Menzer on Twitter @OneMenz