Welcome back to part 2 of The ManGuide’s Man to Man with IndyCar Champ Tony Kanaan. During our first of three installments, Tony opened up about his life in Brazil, how his father introduced him to auto racing at a very young age and he explained how a bedside promise, made to his dying father would come to shape the very course of his life. We also learned that Tony spent time racing in Italy, before coming to the United States. Those were lean years for the future IndyCar champion, who spent a whopping three years living in his mechanic’s office. We pick up the conversation below, as Tony Kanaan arrives in the U.S. for the very first time.
American race fans have embraced you as one of their own, haven’t they?
I came here in 1995. I arrived in Phoenix, Arizona and I had a piece of paper that I had asked a Brazilian friend of mind to write down a couple translations for me. Like ‘Where am I? I’m hungry. Where is the restroom?’ Those key things you are going to need to survive. Of course with a little bit of a scare from the previous experience, I’m like, ‘They say this is the land of freedom but I want to see this for myself.’ From day one I never felt that way. I fell in love with the place and you know 20 years later I’m still here. I married an American girl. One of my kids was actually born here in America. It is completely different. I’m actually extremely thankful because one of my biggest fan base is right here. When I won the Indy 500 in 2013 I could not believe it. I had 400,000 people screaming my name. It is very rewarding. Now I know why everybody loves America!
It was a magical moment in so many ways. But I think that over the years of course people knew my story. The one I’m telling you right now. It wasn’t like I’m going to go to America and steal somebody’s job. I think competition is healthy in life. It doesn’t matter where you are from if you are better than the person then so be it. That’s what I tried to make people understand back then in Italy. Listen, if they are better than me they are going to beat me. Why do you guys want to take me out of the championship like that? If you think your son is better, put him there and let the best man win. I think here in America that way of thinking is a lot clearer. He is one of the best in what he does. Ok, he isn’t an American, but so what? He still brings excitement. He still has a nice story to tell that we can share with our kids. Look, the possibilities are out there. It doesn’t matter where you go.
Looking back on your first days here what would you say surprised you about life in America? What did you not expect that caught you by surprise?
Honestly, it was just everything. I was surprised at how well organized the country was. How polite people were.If the opportunity is there, then it is there for everybody. So to me everything works. I know a lot of people are probably going to go against what I’m saying right now because every country has their issues. I look back at my country today and we are struggling big time. So out of all the struggles I think America is a lot better off. Our economy is a lot stronger. It is coming back up. So I remember it was really a big shock like say, “Oh, that is how its supposed to work.” Like when you pay your taxes and nobody steals from it. You don’t realize that they are taking millions and nothing works. Now you understand why people are not as corrupt as other countries like Brazil and Colombia and Venezuela because you pay but then you get it back. You receive it back. There you just pay and somebody takes it. Then you become one of them as well. You say, “Why am I going to pay?”
Take me back to your Indy 500 win. If I’m not mistaken that was your 12th Indy 500.
It was my 12th try. It is once a year so it took me twelve years. It was a long journey. I think that goes back to my childhood. I remember watching that race with my dad as well. Every last weekend of May, Memorial Day weekend we watched the Indy 500 and the winner always won a million dollars so you take a picture with your race car and a pile of money and I was like, “Wos, thats cool.” You know although its cool to be a race car driver, but my nose isn’t going to be that big when I have that amount of money anymore. So it was something that I always wanted to do. The winner of that race becomes a legend. His names goes to a museum with only probably a hundred other people that have done that and names are extremely big in my sport. Your face goes on the trophy. Anyway, so I come to America but my first year there even though they had me here since 96 my first opportunity to enter that race was in 2002. From 2002, my first eight tries I’ve led every one of them. I’ve led a total of 220 laps over the course of 12 years and the race is only 200 laps. So I’ve led the entire race. Not the right lap since I had never won it. It became something that from the fans I always got asked that question. “That track was so bad for you man.” I mean I was extremely talented. The track suits my style. There was something about me and that track. I finished second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth, eleventh, twelfth and a couple DNFs. So I had finished in every position possible apart from winning. That year as you become older, your chances become less and less and less. People kept asking me, “How many more years you have? Are you ok with the fact that you may never win that race?” You know I won the championship in ’04. That was the race that was missing. I was totally ok with it. I never felt that the track owed me anything. I always felt that even with the 400,000 people every time I went there for those twelve years, they supported me. They wanted me to win. I never knew if it was because they felt sorry for me because I had never had won or because they just appreciate the appreciation I had for the race track.
I always took it every year as it was my chance. So in May 2013 against all the odds. I’ve raised for big teams back in the day, with big budgets and all these opportunities to win. Million dollar budgets and we filled the car with very little team that had never won a race with a four million dollar budget against a twelve million dollar budget from other teams and we beat everybody. I used to say I win the game at the right time. In life, if you work hard I’m sure you will succeed. I’m not trying to say you will achieve all your dreams but that day, that victory, for me was the sweetest. Not just because I had just won the Indy 500 but going back to my childhood with my dad. Then going back and thinking, what about if I had won that on my first try. Would I have valued it as much? Then what about if I had won it in a big team? Would it have the same value it has to me right now? What about if I had won five years ago when my son wasn’t even born? That he couldn’t see me win. Well he was born but he would have been two. Now he was five years old and I had promised him the trophy in a conversation that I can tell the story in a little bit. I used to tell people, ‘It didn’t take me twelve years to win. Somebody planned that that was going to be the year because of so many other things.’ Because a win is a win. You can see the trophy is right behind me. That is a piece of metal that might be forgotten one day. It is nice. I look at it every day. I feel proud of myself but at the end of the day that is just a trophy. The memories, like having my kid there. Having my kid have a little trophy like this. I made a replica for him at home. That he can tell his friends my dad won the Indy 500 like bragging about it and all the memories so if I have to wait another twelve years for something that good to happen I think its well worth it.