Tony Kanaan is a respected Brazilian-born IndyCar champion, who’s managed to win the hearts of American racing fans like few drivers of his generation. Kanaan, who began racing at the age of 8, has won the 2013 Indianapolis 500 and the 2004 Verizon IndyCar Series championship.
I met Kanaan at our local gym a few years ago, where we hit it off right away. What I admired about him from the start is the fact that he approaches every aspect of his life with the same drive and determination. Whether its working with his trainer Sergio to prepare for an Iron Man, preparing for an IndyCar race or being a father to his two sons, Tony gives everything his all.
Tony was gracious enough to invite me into his home recently where we spoke on camera for over an hour. You can read part one (click here for part two & part three) of our Man to Man with Tony Kanaan interview, or watch it below.
Let’s begin with your childhood in Brazil. What do you recall? What was your childhood like?
I grew up in a typical Brazilian family. When I was five years old I started watching Formula one races on TV. with my father. Every Sunday morning, we would wake up and sit down and watch racing. Its kind of like in America that people watch football. Racing there, apart from soccer, is the second biggest sport. So by the time I was eight, growing up watching races I was kind of wanting to do it. I remember one day watching one race with dad and Senna had won that race. I was all pumped and I said, “Dad, do you think I can have a go-kart one day?” That day, I got my go-kart so I think he was waiting for me to pop the question.
That was his thing.
I think in a way, like every parent, his biggest worry was to guide his kid and keep him from going down the wrong path. Right? First of all, obviously you got to emphasize how important it is to go to school and get the right education but I think dad also had a vision of sports. He loved sports. He played soccer in school for a long time but he loved racing. Racing was his specialty. I remember dad having cars. Like street cars. They were always the hottest cars. He probably found a way to first of all, do a father and son thing with me over the weekend, but also to teach me that if you want something you are going to have to dedicate yourself. You’ll have to stay away from drugs, partying, drinking and all that stuff. So I think that was his vision. But at first, I think he was looking for something the two of us could do together. I have a young sister and my mom but he really wanted to find something that just the two boys would do by themselves.
Your dad bought the cart the very same day you asked for it, but I understand it was a well-kept secret for a while.
Well, we go to the store, the go-kart factory, and we get this go-kart. We were completely unprepared. I mean dad had a normal car, so the go-kart didn’t fit and we didn’t have a truck. So we put it on top of the car and tied it up. As we were about to drive home, we realized we had two problems on our hands. One was we couldn’t tell my mom, the car with the go-kart on top would not fit into the garage. So dad says, “Well lets find a race shop around here so we can leave the go-kart.” So we asked the guy at the go-kart factory if he knew a mechanic that could actually keep the kart there so we could come over the weekends and just drive. So we go and we drop the kart off at this race shop a couple miles away from the race track. Then we went back home pretending that nothing had happened. The following weekend, we wake up on Saturday morning and dad says, “Hey, I’m going go for a ride with Tony. It’s a boys thing.” Mom didn’t make a big deal of it, “Yea. Sure. Whatever.” So we were gone all day. We did that for six, seven, eight weekends in a row. Then mom started getting extremely suspicious, but in a different way. She didn’t think he was doing something wrong with me. She thought I was probably his alibi. Mom, a typical Brazilian woman, extremely jealous, thought Dad was fooling around and taking the kid as an alibi, so we had to tell her. I think that when you have bad news to tell, if you say something worse when you tell the truth it doesn’t sound that awful. Mom was definitely not happy to see her eight year old racing go-karts.
But compared to her husband cheating, this wasn’t such bad news.
It was way better! So she was ok with it.
You were telling me that you sort of took to it very naturally.
Yea, the first few months it was just like it was cool. You know you go to school and you tell your friends that you drive go-karts. What boy doesn’t like to talk about cars? Right? These kids were like, “I play soccer.” and I was like, “Nah, I drive cars.” It was just cool. So I felt like I was the coolest kid in school. Then it became something that I realized that I really wanted to do for a living. Its amazing and I feel extremely lucky that at nine years old you can decide that. But obviously I’ve seen people that when nine years old you wanted to be a cop. You wanted to be a firefighter but then you grew up and became a lawyer. But at the time I was certain that it was what I wanted to do and dad saw my determination. First of all, I started to win. You can’t buy talent. You can learn everything else. So I guess I was gifted for some reason. I had a pretty good talent for that. Dad saw that and he motivated me, but he also put me on a schedule. As a kid, I don’t remember doing anything else apart from going to school and going straight to the go-kart track. Having to, I can’t call it diet because kids don’t diet, but having a healthy way of living. Eating healthy foods because you can’t gain weight. I couldn’t really go to the gym at ten years old but I had to be a little stronger for the go-karts so the best way was to drive the go-karts. You have to go to bed early. There were no parties for me. So I had to give up a lot of things and that was the deal that he made with me. “That’s what you want to do? You see those guys on TV? They all sacrifice a lot. If you want to be a top athlete, that doesn’t come easy.” So I started sacrificing. As far as I can remember, since I was ten years old.
Did you ever wonder if the sacrifice was just too much?
Well, luckily or not, from nine to thirteen Dad was my sponsor, my dad, the guy that was with me the entire time and unfortunately he got diagnosed with cancer when I was actually eleven years old. Between nine and eleven we didn’t know what was wrong but the real diagnosis came when I was eleven and he lasted a couple more years. Unfortunately, he passed away when I was thirteen. During the years that he was ill he actually started to, with out me realizing it, prepare me for life. We had some nice talks as father and son. He always said, ” You always have to take care of your mom and sister. Look at what you are doing. You are racing. You are really good at it.” I never made a big deal about it. Until a Thursday. We use to race on the weekends. On a Thursday afternoon, I come back from school and my mom says, “Hey, your dad wants to see you.” He was in the hospital. Which was extremely normal. So I go up and I sit on his side of the bed and we just started talking. He asked, “How was school? How was your day? You have a race this weekend. Concentrate.” He was always trying to tell me stuff. “Don’t do silly things.” Blah blah blah. So then he says, “Look, you realize that if something ever happens to me you are going to have a big responsibility right?” I was like, “Yea yea I know dad. You have told me that a million times.” You know like a little kid. Yea dad alright, alright. He says, ” Look, I’m serious. I think there are two things that I want you to do for me if something happens to me.” I said, “Sure.” He said, “Take care of your mom and sister and never stop racing because I think you are really good at it. Will you promise me that?” So I said, “Sure”. So I went home and went to bed. Next morning I woke up and got ready to go to school and Mom was home. It was really weird because Mom used to stay with Dad in the hospital. So I asked, “Whats going on?” She sat me down and said, “Your father passed last night.” I was like, “What do you mean?”. I just talked to the guy like we are talking right now. I think he was ready to go or he knew something that I didn’t. So I said, “Alright, so is everything set for the funeral and the services?” She said, “Yea your uncles and myself we are taking care of everything.” I said, “Alright, well I’m going to go to school and then I’m going to the go-kart track after that because that is a promise that I made him. Are you OK with that?” She was like, “Sure”. Keep in mind that us Latinos, our funeral services don’t last a week like here. Its a day. You invite everybody and the next day you bury the person. I remember going to the go-kart track and that weekend I started on the poll. I actually slept in my mechanic’s house that weekend because I couldn’t go back home with all the action going on and the stuff that we had. I won the race on Sunday. That trophy actually still sits in my mom’s house on my dad’s bedside until this day. Back to what you were saying. No I think I was lucky enough that with that promise I had to keep it. That’s why I’m still here. I have no choice.
Do you find that racing keeps you connected to the memory of your father?
Oh yea. If you think about it, your childhood, I was thirteen when I lost him, but up until five or six years old you don’t remember much about your parents or anything. You are just a kid right? So I really connected to my dad from seven until thirteen especially because all he did was go race with me and watch races with me. So yea. I don’t know how different… I get that question asked all the time in my entire career. “What if he was alive?” Well, so many things could have been different. I don’t know. But yea it keeps me connected. It keeps his memory alive. Every race that I win, I didn’t realize it until someone pointed it out, but you know when you win a race or when you win something people actually celebrate with their fist up. I’m always pointing up and I didn’t realize that really. Someone pointed it out the other day and I was like that’s true. Every time I will just go (points up) so its like, I’m doing it. I’m keeping my promise. So yea that’s probably the best way I can describe how connected I am with my dad.
That’s beautiful. Now as the father of two sons, what lesson did you take from your father that you are looking forward to passing on to them?
Well, I think lesson number one is to spend time with them because life is too short. Dad was forty years old when he died. Which is actually my age right now. I can’t imagine leaving my kids right now. Its almost exactly the same age my oldest son. Well four years apart. So lesson number one is to enjoy your kids. Especially with what I do. It is a very selfish sport. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of myself. People think you can just go race on the weekends and then you just go home. But you have work outs to do. You have interviews. You have so many other things that require 100% commitment. And then every time you jump into a race car you don’t know what is going to happen to you so you have to be extremely hard in the head. So lesson number one is to enjoy them as much as you can. Lesson number two I would say is to try to keep them on a path. Whatever that is. I don’t know if I want my children to race. That is a very selfish decision. Of course if they decide to do that I am going to have to support them. Trying to have them focus on the good things. Especially now a days. We come from a generation where a lot of today’s temptations weren’t there. Today you don’t have to leave the house to communicate with the entire world or get in trouble. So that’s my biggest challenge. How am I going to raise my kids kind of old-school, with the way that we grew up? You know? Valuing the family and valuing to stay. Now a days you see kids that just can’t wait to leave their parents’ home. We didn’t do that. Us Latinos we only leave the house when we get married. That is definitely what I envision. Having my children close to me and focused on achieving a goal. Whatever that is. I don’t mind whatever profession they want to be. If they don’t want to be anywhere near or involved in sports I wouldn’t mind as long as they’re happy.
That’s great. Lets get into your immigrant experience a little bit. When did it become apparent that you were leaving Brazil and coming to live in the U.S.?
Actually, I’m going to go back before I came to the U.S. I went to Europe to race in Italy. That was probably one of the hardest or perhaps biggest shock I’ve ever had as far as feeling that you don’t belong. I remember landing there in 1993. I lived in a race shop for three years. I didn’t have money. I couldn’t afford to rent a house. So the team that I was racing offered me to just stay there. I remember that my room was my boss’s office. After 6:00 pm it was my bedroom and at 7:00 am I had to get out. I had a mattress on the floor with a TV. So I started winning a lot of races. In 1994, I entered a championship that if you won the championship you earned a hundred thousand dollars in prize money and you could move up the ladder to a bigger Formula 3 Series. Which is a nice car and really close to Formula 1. I won the first race and I won the second race. I was the only immigrant in the series. It was 23 drivers. It was 22 Italians and myself. I remember I was 17 years old and at the end of the second race they approached me and said, “Look we have a big problem. They want to ban you from racing here.” I said, “What did I do?” They said, “Well all the dads made a movement and collected signatures saying that it is not fair that a Brazilian guy is coming here and stealing the money from the future Italians.” So of course that didn’t go very well with me but it didn’t happen. I won 11 out of the 15 races and I took their money anyway. The bloody Brazilian took their money and left!