INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – In victory circle at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Tony Kanaan was posing for photos with anyone who could get close to him. He was performing an interminable Hat Dance – switching sponsor hats over and over again for different photo ops – index finger pointed to the heavens in the exact same way, every time.
And why not? When you've achieved your life's goal at long last – winning the Indianpolis 500 – you don't mind drawing out the celebration a bit.
For a decade, Kanaan was IndyCar's reigning Best-Never, as in "best never to have won the Indy 500." Sure, he'd won the championship in 2004, but make no mistake: in IndyCar, it's all about the race that gives the series its very name. More than the Daytona 500 to NASCAR drivers, more than The Masters to golfers, more than Wimbledon to tennis players: This is the race that defines drivers; any second-place challenger isn't even on the same lap.
But now, Kanaan leaves the company of drivers like Michael Andretti and Tony Stewart, champions who haven't brought home their sport's biggest prize. Now, Kanaan gets his own face immortalized on the Borg-Warner Trophy – "it can't possibly be any uglier than my real face,” he laughed afterward – and he finds himself in the enviable position of having achieved his life's dream through the perfect combination of hard work, persistence and right-place, right-time luck.
Sports fans relate to the guy who keeps trying, who fails, picks himself up, and tries again. Sure, we all want to be the dominant force, the Dario Franchitti or Helio Castroneves, smooth and successful. But we're all a lot more like Kanaan, a guy whose nose is too big for his face, a guy who bears a striking resemblance to Vin Diesel – a movie star with the expressive range of a lug nut.
You see a guy like Kanaan lose Indy 500s in every possible way, from wrecks to pit-road miscues to just plain bad luck. You read the statistics: He been in 12 Indy 500s, leading laps in eight of them, the most ever without a win. You see him get up off the deck and run a relentless race – he took the lead 15 times, the most ever by a winner – to capture the biggest race of his career and, well, how can you not draw some inspiration from that?
To some extent, Kanaan was at peace with his ugly streak at Indianapolis. But he knew he was carrying the hopes of thousands of race fans with him on Sunday. "I didn't have enough pockets for all the things my fans gave me to bring me luck," he said. "I [would] probably have to bring a truck with me behind the car."
But he did note a couple of those good-luck charms: first, his friend Alex Zanardi's 2012 Paralympic gold medal, which Kanaan "cuddled with" on the bus Sunday morning. And, more significantly, he received a special package from a young fan. Ten years ago, the girl, then 14 years old, had suffered a stroke and was in a coma. Kanaan gave her his mother's necklace, and earlier this week, Kanaan received the necklace back from the young lady, who'd recovered. "She said that he had enough of luck in her life," he said. "She got married, and she wanted to give it back to me to bring me luck."
And after his win, as he toured the 2½ miles of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, fans pressed up against the fences in every turn. They screamed his name and "TK" from every corner of the track. They waved flags of Brazil and beckoned for him to look in their direction. (He did, giving the thumbs-up.) They waited more than an hour for him to finish his victory circle obligations, then crowded around him five-deep as he walked to his press conference.
Kanaan even obliged a couple fans by signing outstretched programs before one of his handlers bellowed, "No autographs!" You get the impression that, left to his own devices, Kanaan would have stayed out there signing until the last fan went away satisfied.
"This win was more for people out there than for me," Kanaan said. "I wanted it all my life. But over the years, I was kind of OK with the fact that I may never have a chance to win it."
But he did – slipping past Ryan Hunter-Reay on a restart on the final green-flag start, just before a caution came out to hand him the win – and the response was not unlike the one that greeted Dale Earnhardt when he finally won the Daytona 500 in 1998 after 20 years of futility. Then, every crew member from every team lined pit road to congratulate Earnhardt. Kanaan didn't get quite the same treatment, but he did receive congratulations from dozens of crew members from other teams.
"Every year that went by that I didn't win, we kept growing the fan base," Kanaan said. "More people felt sorry. More people felt that I deserved to win. … Now probably people aren't going to cheer for me anymore. 'Whatever. Next?' " he said laughing, motioning to an unseen "Best Never.”
Chances are he's only going to grow his fan base for however much longer he decides to race. And when he hangs it up, he can do so with satisfaction at last. "I believe if you're a good person, good things will come to you," he said. "If you never give up, many good things might happen for you."
And then he was done talking, swept up in a flurry of winner's obligations and duties that will run for weeks to come. Chances are, Tony Kanaan won't mind the extra workload.