The Racing Capital
of the World
May 26, 2013 | By Paul Kelly
THE MODERATOR: Tony, welcome. I couldn't help but think of the fact, going back to the 1950s, there was a popular driver named Sam Hanks, and in his 13th start was able to win. You have led nine races or so in a row. You have been in position to win. I think all of us could imagine the feeling that this time it's really going to happen. Take us through it.
TONY KANAAN: I don't know how to start. But we had a great car. I knew that from the get-go. We had a great plan. I mean, it's one of those days, man. Everything was so smooth.
Jimmy was calm. I was calm. Nobody yelling, anything. I felt it was everything under control.
But I had 11 times that I've been here the same thing. So when it was six laps to go, went yellow, I wasn't in the lead, I said, This might be the day, today might be the day, because I was in Ryan's position plenty of times.
I knew I had to get the lead on the restart because it could be a yellow, which happened to me plenty of times here, and it did. How life is funny. The yellow was my best friend.
People are saying he did it on purpose. Obviously not. I can see him mad out of the car. When he saw I was in the lead, he was shaking his head, like waving at me. It was special, very special.
I never had a doubt I could win this thing. I talked about it many times that I could do it or not, but this place is still going to be special. Today it worked.
It was a lot of numerology. If we talk about Jenna Fryer, Jimmy, Zanardi, I don't know, man. The 11 and 12 haunt us the entire month. I think we're going to be 1112 is going to be my number next year (laughter).
Every time I got married, I won a championship or a race. I'm OK, honey, I don't want to win anything anymore. I'm good (laughter).
THE MODERATOR: Jimmy, I don't think anything can possibly replace the thrill of winning as a racer, which you have done, but you have to have your sense in part of putting together a team with this guy who has been so close. It has to be a wonderful feeling.
JIMMY VASSER: Absolutely. I never won it as a driver. In fact, I couldn't win it as a driver, so I had to hire the right guy to do it, get a Baby Borg on my shelf.
Tony is the consummate professional. We set out as a team at the end of last year to focus on Indy. Instead of the whole series, the whole season, we took a chassis, in the old school name, called it a special, put it aside, worked on it. All credit to the boys. A lot of hard work over the winter, keeping things together. It's not an easy thing these days from a commercial standpoint.
I'd like to thank (indiscernible), bringing Simona, some of their group, to help finish out a two-car team, carry us through the winter.
Tony was right. The stars started lining up for us. We didn't hit race setup until about two hours to go. Most of you know Tony, but two hours to go on Sunday before the week was over, the worst car he had ever driven, ready to quit, hang up his boots. In a matter of 45 minutes, we hit on something, and it was the best car he ever had around here.
We knew at that point we had the right guy and the car was good enough, we'd have a great shot at it today.
THE MODERATOR: We'll open it up to questions.
Q: Tony, you were holding some medals. We couldn't hear the sound. What is the story behind the medals?
TONY KANAAN: I didn't have enough pockets for all the things my fans gave me to bring me luck. I probably have to bring a truck with me behind the car.
There was two things. Zanardi is here, as you know. He brought his Olympic gold medal. Right before the race, he gave it to Jimmy, Jimmy brought it to the bus. I was laying in bed. It was an hour before. Jim as I said, Zanardi asked you to rub it. I actually cuddled with the thing. Still in my bus.
Nine years ago, I went to make a visit in a hospital here in Indy. When I walked in, there was this girl. 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, but...
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. 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, 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.
So here it is. I think I'll retire that thing now.
Q: The old gang at Andretti Green Racing, you and Dario and Dan and Jimmy, you've all won now. Do you have a thought on that?
TONY KANAAN: I'm sorry?
Q: The old gang at Andretti Green.
TONY KANAAN: Bryan.
Q: You've all won now.
TONY KANAAN: Yeah, I guess Michael used to hire good drivers. Not 'used to,' he still does. Look at the result there.
But, no, we came from a generation, including Jimmy on that, our generation was really tough. At the time I was the youngest. They were the old dogs, the guys that set the example. Now actually here we are. I think Dario proved the old guys can still drive fast. I'm right next to it two years after him.
It's awesome. I think we showed it's so nice to make history like that, have good friends, have friends that really are winners.
I remember one day I was hanging with a team owner, I don't want to elaborate on it, but he said he only hang with winners because if you hang with losers, you become one. I guess it's pretty good.
Q: So you talked about the reception you got out there from other teams. You got the long hug from Dario. You have this crowd of fans out there that mobbed you as you came through. I know it's hard to put that all in perspective and talk about it, but this is a really popular win. What does that mean to be so well-regarded by everybody?
TONY KANAAN: Well, you know, first I think we can prove that theory that says that nice guys don't win. I guess we proved them wrong.
Second, the 11 number never won here, so we made another history. Somebody told me that this morning. I didn't know if it was a negative or positive.
I mean, this place, I've always said it, it's been special to me, and I meant that when I said that. I didn't have to win here. I said that out there. The fans, they actually spoiled me a little bit on my win. When I finished 11th here, starting dead last, I got out of the car and it was exactly the same.
I already had felt a little bit, I hadn't drinked the milk, kissed the bricks, but it means a lot to me, because so many people I can feel they wanted me to win. It's such a selfish thing to do because what are they getting from it? I'm the one that gets the trophy. If you can bring some joy to them, and I think the best thing was try to put an exciting race for them.
I said it before the race: I believed that this win was more for people out there than for me. 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. Then I started coming back here.
From day one, it catches me by surprise, I can't walk out there, I couldn't before, I don't know now, maybe it's going to get worse, the parade, everywhere, it's just unbelievable.
It's nice. I think wins are important, trophies are really nice, but what I'm going to take forever, it's definitely this.
Q: Tony, you're a student of the sport. I don't know if you had a chance to meet Lloyd Ruby or not. You had been linked with him as far as best drivers to never win the Indianapolis 500. To finally be rid of that title, talk about how well and relieved you feel.
TONY KANAAN: It wasn't a pressure. Robin Miller tried to hammer that every year that I was here (laughter).
Again, it's so hard to win a race. It's even harder to pick a race to win. I'm glad I put myself out of that group and put myself in the other group.
Before the race, it was very special. Parnelli came to me and said, “I want you to win.” I'm like, “Whoa, all right.” I've always admired the legends of this place. Rick Mears, A.J., Mario, Parnelli. It starts to get into you. Then to have these people telling you they want you to win, it's awesome.
I'm glad I'm on the other side and I can put my big nose on that trophy (smiling).
Q: Did you ever think the bad luck bug might get you as the laps were winding down? When Earnhardt won Daytona, that was such a popular victory. Does it almost feel like that, someone finally got something they've been longing for?
TONY KANAAN: The first question, I never thought about it until one lap to go. I started to check everything in my car. Do we have enough fuel, have four wheels (laughter)? You kind of go crazy. The Pace Car guy, whoever was on the side, this guy is actually celebrating. I'm like, Go, can you go quicker? It's going to be a long lap if you keep doing that.
Up until it went yellow, I didn't. Obviously, we're racing, trying to concentrate on that.
Your second question, I don't know, man. I was already in America when he did that. I thought it was so cool. 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's a great feeling.
Q: Tony, enough bad luck had come to you before. The first caution, when Graham brought out the caution, were you worried you wouldn't get a chance? When they did restart it, did you think, I'm going to have to go right now in case another caution comes out?
TONY KANAAN: I knew there was going to be time. You can tell the way they conduct the things, the Pace Car got really slow. We were going to finish the race under green. On top of that, I knew a yellow flag with six, seven, eight laps to go, it's a big potential for another yellow right away.
I didn't want to be in the lead because I knew I was going to get caught on the restart. Again, it fell through. I was in the perfect place, exactly where I want to be, right behind the leader, with three to go because I knew a potential yellow could happen. It happened. I guess it was right.
Q: Did you have to set that up at all or did you just go?
TONY KANAAN: You can't predict a yellow. I was second. When it went green, I went. I said, I'm going for the lead. I was going to try to lead the last three laps. I said, I want to be first, because if something happens, I know because I've been back there. Anytime it goes yellow 15 laps to go on, people just turn crazy. I've got caught on that at times. Then it's time to race.
Before you could see it, Please, Ryan, you go. Marco, you go. It's your turn. Rubens said that to me last year. Twenty laps to go, people turn mad. I said, No, then we start racing. I knew there was a big potential, that's why I did what I did.
Q: Jimmy, what makes Tony so special with all his rivals?
TONY KANAAN: I have plenty stories of you, too, Jimmy (laughter). Remember Italy?
JIMMY VASSER: Well, yes. Enough, enough (laughter).
He's been a leader of the drivers since he was younger, back in the days of Dario, Greg. Just a lot of camaraderie. He's always out there to help younger drivers coming up with different information. He's just a great leader of the drivers. That's why it's such a popular victory.
It's not just the drivers. I was blown away driving around in the pace car. Virtually everybody was still in the stands chanting, TK.
Q: Were you making love to the bricks or what?
TONY KANAAN: My wife was kissing the yard more than she was kissing me the entire freaking weekend. We have to see what's up with that (laughter). No, I don't know what I was doing. People ask me if I ever, like, thought how I was going to celebrate. I never wanted to think about it. I just went there and did whatever I wanted to do.
Q: When you finished 11th, was that the first time you knew the fans here at Indy had a lot of love for you or was there an earlier time?
TONY KANAAN: No, I think it started when I had a crash. I'm not going to recall the year. I had a suspension failure on the back straightaway. I was sitting in third place. I had led a bunch of laps. I ended up hitting the wall in Turn 3.
I got out of the car, the entire place was crazy. I think it was 2008. Ever since then, every year it kept growing and growing. Every year that went by that I didn't win, we kept growing the fan base. More people felt sorry. More people felt that I deserved to win.
I don't know. Got out of control actually. It's awesome. Now people probably aren't going to cheer for me anymore. Whatever, next (laughter).
Q: You were talking about numerology. You're going to be the 100th face etched on the Borg-Warner Trophy. Talk about what it's going to be like. How big of a critic are you going to be?
TONY KANAAN: He can't make me look as bad as I look already. I'm pretty sure it's going to be fine.
Q: But as far as the honor, the hundredth face.
TONY KANAAN: Again, it's just a number. Just to have my face there, it's a big deal. Jimmy would probably prefer if it's 112. I don't think I'll make it up to 112.
It's an honor just to be there, for sure.
Q: Tony, if the crash hadn't have happened, you had this 21-year-old kid that hadn't seen the speedway till two weeks ago, he was right on your tail ready to take over.
TONY KANAAN: It was good. He was going to learn a lot in the last two laps, I can tell you that (laughter). He was going to love this place, but he was going to have to come back.
He's a good kid. We go go-karting together in Miami. It's funny because Carb Day, he made a pass on me on the short chute. We don't do that very often. I didn't talk to him. I thought, ‘This kid is good.’ If he manages to finish the race, he's going to finish well.
It was funny because in the race he got a hiccup in Turn 1. I put the same pass on him. Here you go, kid. With three to go, when I saw him behind me, I said, “All right, man, let's start the lessons here.” But it went yellow, so...
Q: Professional sports, there always seems to be one figure who finally gets a championship. Do you already feel like there's that weight lifted after the 11 years?
TONY KANAAN: I don't know what to think. I mean, I don't know what to expect, what's coming. I'm going to enjoy it a lot. It's been a while that I haven't won a race actually. Usually you take it for granted sometimes. When you win very often, it's one more, you're thinking about the next one.
Obviously, this one is the biggest one I've ever have. Now I have a championship and an Indy 500. It's a huge, remarkable achievement for me. I mean, that proves that I can still race for a few more years. Our contract is up this year, so hopefully we'll find something. I don't want to go anywhere. I told Jimmy that before we had won anything. I have the people that I want to have.
I'm going to enjoy it, enjoy my life, enjoy my kid, that he hammered on me last week. He said, Dad, I'm 5 years old and I don't recall seeing you win a race. That was harsh. I told him to go to his grandma's house and look at all the trophies that I have won. It didn't go well with him. I can show him this one.
Q: Tony, this was a record-breaking 500 in many ways. Talk about the perspective from a driver's standpoint with so much uncertainty at the top with the lead changing almost every lap.
TONY KANAAN: It was a chess game. It's funny enough because I don't know how to play chess. I guess you play around.
It was just a good day for me. I mean, I was extremely confident. I never lost my focus. Jimmy was funny. Coming up to Lap 100, I was running second, he says, Next lap is 100. If you want to lead it, just letting you know. I was going to ask if there was any money for that.
JIMMY VASSER: There was.
TONY KANAAN: Allmendinger was a nose away from me, which is hard to do, but he did it (laughter).
It was just a good day. I was extremely confident. But I think with the past 11 years, I've been through everything here, I had none expectations. I said, you know what, we do what we can, put ourselves in a good position. I got yelled by Jimmy, Dude, I know you're showing off, but get back there because we need to save some fuel. I got to the front anytime I wanted to. That proved to me, if I put myself in the right position, everything else fell through, I was going to win. That's what happened.
Q: As a driver, do you like this style of racing? Are you a little bit frustrated, if you have a good car, leading you can't get away?
TONY KANAAN: I'm always a big fan of the best car wins the race, but that doesn't happen very often. I think the race for the fans, it was unbelievable. Obviously for me, we had a very few yellows. By the time we said, OK, this is the last stop. It was like: “Already? It wasn't like a long day.”
It was a lot of action going on, a lot of people that didn't want to lead. People had a lot of experience here didn't want to lead. The rookies, I want to do this.
No, I wouldn't change anything. I think the competition has been extremely tough. I hate fuel-mileage races. This is a 500-mile race. There's no way you're not going to play that strategy anyway. If you say all our races are going to be like that, I totally disapprove. I know for a fact they're not. Here, it's three, four hours, so anything can happen.
Q: Can you take us through a sense from the last two years of what it takes to get here at Indy, almost not having a ride?
TONY KANAAN: It's a big reward. If it wasn't for Kevin, Jimmy, (indiscernible) putting this sponsorship together, I wouldn't be here. We got a call seven days before St. Pete three years ago. We kept insisting, we knew we could do this. These are hard times for everybody. I've always asked myself, Why do I deserve better than somebody else?
My career, it's pretty successful. I raced for a big team, prime time. I had four awesome teammates that we enjoyed a lot. I won a lot of races. I was grateful for that. So I never felt sorry for myself.
It was just a situation. This is life. It's plenty of ups and downs. You've got to go for it. You take the opportunities. If you're fortunate enough, I believe if you're a good person, good things will come to you.
We've been surviving. We have our struggles. We fight. We're going to fight for the pace car now, who is going to have it, all that stuff.
JIMMY VASSER: Chip didn't give me the Pace Car.
TONY KANAAN: He gave Zanardi a car.
So, yeah, it's rewarding. It shows that if you never give up, many good things might happen for you.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Congratulations.
TONY KANAAN: Thank you.