INDIANAPOLIS – When he arrived for this year’s Indianapolis 500, Tony Kanaan was asked if the Brickyard owed him one.
The popular Brazilian many call “T.K.” had tried to win the famous race 11 times and, despite several close calls, failed 11 times.
That made him a sentimental favorite, but Kanaan, a 38-year-old former IndyCar series champion, would have none of it.
“I don’t feel this place owes me anything,” he said. “I have had great times here.”
But none as great as Sunday.
Kanaan finally won his first Indy 500 with a perfectly timed pass for the lead at the end of a historically fast and frenetic race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I’m speechless,” an emotional Kanaan said after dousing his face with the traditional milk in Victory Lane. “This is it, man. I made it.”
Kanaan’s winning pass of Ryan Hunter-Reay came on a restart with three laps left in the 200-lap race.
Moments later, Dario Franchitti – a three-time Indy 500 winner and one of Kanaan’s friends – lost control of his ill-handling car and crashed.
That brought out the yellow flag that froze the field and, without enough laps left to clean the track and restart the race again, it secured Kanaan’s victory.
As he drove slowly behind the pace car under gray skies, Kanaan raised a fist in triumph as he crossed the finish line. Spectators in the grandstands along the front straightaway stood and roared.
Despite that late caution, Kanaan’s average speed of 187.433 mph for the whole race made this the fastest Indy 500 in the event’s 97-year history, breaking the record set in 1990 by Arie Luyendyk.
“We had a great car, I knew that from the get-go,” Kanaan said.
The crowd of more than 200,000 also saw 68 lead changes, double the Indy record number set a year ago, and a record 14 different leaders, all the result of a new car that the Izod IndyCar Series introduced last year.
“I think the race for the fans, it was unbelievable,” said Kanaan, who drives for the KV Racing Technology team. It also was the first time a car with the number 11 won the race.
Colombian rookie Carlos Munoz finished second, where he started the race. Hunter-Reay, the reigning IndyCar champion, was third and Marco Andretti finished fourth.
It was Kanaan’s first victory in any IndyCar series race since mid-2010. And his long-sought Indy 500 win drew plaudits even from the disappointed drivers finishing behind him.
“It was well-deserved,” said Helio Castroneves, a three-time Indy 500 winner and fellow Brazilian who finished sixth. “Congrats to Tony. He did a great job.”
Kanaan, Hunter-Reay, Andretti, pole-sitter Ed Carpenter and others repeatedly swapped the lead throughout the race, with the top several cars frequently nose to tail.
“You had to be aggressive,” Hunter-Reay said. “I had a blast in the car.”
Most of the race was run under green-flag conditions – nearly all the accidents involved a single car – and it appeared the final few laps would feature a cavalry charge around the 2.5-mile Brickyard.
“It was a chess game” with all the passing, Kanaan said.
But with six laps remaining, Graham Rahal spun and crashed coming out of Turn 2. That brought out a caution, slowed the field and set the stage for Kanaan’s pass on the restart.
“I knew I had to get the lead on the restart because there could be (another) yellow,” Kanaan said. “How life is funny, the yellow was my best friend.”
Kanaan had something else in his favor. In his driver’s suit he had a necklace originally given to him by his mother, but which Kanaan had given to a sick teenage girl while visiting a hospital nine years ago.
The girl recovered and, four days ago, she returned the necklace to Kanaan.
“She wanted to give it back to me,” Kanaan said, “to bring me luck.”