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In Chicago, Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan talks sacrifice, 'Jerseylicious' and fame

(Riley Blevins )
June 14, 2013|By Riley Blevins @Riley_Blevins | RedEye

Rolling down victory lane, Tony Kanaan lifted his visor. He wiped away a steady flow of long-overdue tears. The heartbreak was over.

After 12 tries, after leading 221 laps, Kanaan finally found victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 26. He was the Indy 500 champion. It hit him. And hit him hard.

He emerged from his car, throwing both fists to the sky. He gave his wife, Lauren, a long kiss. He took a shower in the winner’s milk.

“Sometimes it still doesn’t feel real,” said Kanaan, seated at a Chicago restaurant Thursday, reliving the dream.

It was a fairytale ending for Kanaan. The celebration was on. He just won the Super Bowl of his sport. The Masters of racing. The crème de la crème. It’s every driver’s dream. There’s not a bigger trophy on the planet than the Borg-Warner. And it was all his.

The problem? IndyCar racing’s biggest event falls near the beginning of the season. Eleven more races come after the Indy 500.

Kanaan heads into this weekend’s race at the Milwaukee Mile sitting fourth in the championship standings. The 38-year-old Brazilian hasn’t won a title since 2004.

But how can Kanaan possibly focus on chasing a title amidst appearances on David Letterman and Craig Ferguson, on top of the throng of media obligations, and hanging out with celebrities like his identical twin Vin Diesel?

Well, Kanaan would tell you it’s not really that hard. He actually thinks focusing and race-prep is easier post-Indy 500.

For example, the week after the 500, Kanaan raced at the Raceway At Belle Isle Park in Detroit. He struggled, finishing 12th.

Frustrated, he approached his wife after the race.

“I was like, ‘Wow, what a tough weekend.’ And she looks at me and she picked up the phone and shows me this picture,” Kanaan said, holding up a shot of him kissing his wife after the Indy 500. It’s the background on both of their cell phones. “She shows me and goes, ‘Well, that’s not bad.’ I was like, ‘You got a point. It’s a really good point.’ ”

After pausing to laugh, he added, “I mean, it’s tough, obviously, with all the stuff going on, but if the race goes well, you just add to the victory. If it goes bad, you just keep looking at the picture.”

This is how Kanaan operates. In a word, he’s a jokester.

He doesn’t take himself too seriously. He makes himself the subject of jokes--his bulky nose, his age. He greets questions with smiles.

When asked why he’s developed a reputation as a fan-favorite, he instantly fired back, “I think everyone feels so bad for me that I haven’t won in so long. They’re like, you know what, let’s cheer for this poor, old Brazilian guy.”

Sitting at the lunch table in Chicago, he looked more like an average Joe-- a muscular one at that--than a world-famous driver.

He ordered lemonade. His face is covered in 5 o’clock stubble. He teased his wife, Lauren, as yet another Twitter marriage proposal came in saying, “This is a good thing. See, do not dump me. I have options. I do not want any, but I do.”

You’d never know of his fame or fortunes.

“I don’t care. I’ll give it to Lauren,” he said of the near $2.5 million in winnings from the Indy 500. “She can decide. It’s never been about the money.”

You’d never know his struggles. How his father died when he was 11. How he slept on the floor of garages to support his sister and mother by racing.

And you’d think the guy who flies around a track at an adrenaline-pumping 225 mph for a living would spend his rare off days thrill-seeking or showcasing himself at high-end parties, not lounging around the house.

“I love movies. I can watch any kind, apart from scary movies, otherwise I won’t sleep at night. And I don’t like that,” he said. “I love TV shows. They have this new channel they call Discovery ID. It’s all investigation, crime stuff, I love that. As a kid, I wanted to be an FBI agent. So I watch that a lot. I like the reality stuff. Sometimes I have to watch ‘Jerseylicious’ with my wife. But that’s part of our agreement. It’s on the DVR. So that way we don’t fight.”

But don’t let the jokes fool you. He’s serious about one thing--driving.

For Kanaan, there isn’t much left to accomplish in IndyCar. He’s pocketed 16 victories and racked up $16 million.

But his playful gaze turns sullen when discussing strategy for this weekend’s race.

If he never wins another race, he’ll still go down as one of the most successful and respected racers in the sport. Even at 38, even after all this time, he still gets goose bumps and butterflies before a race.

Kanaan will have time to be sentimental later. His victory at the Indy 500 only provides him with more motivation to continue. More motivation to race. More motivation to win.

“You have to jeopardize so much--not just for racing, for anything you want bad enough --you have to live away from your home, family and friends,” Kanaan said. “I have a son that lives in Brazil. It’s a huge sacrifice. Sometimes on an off weekend, you question yourself ‘Is it really worth it?’ Then when something like [the Indy 500] happens it’s like, ‘OK, I’m glad I didn’t give up.’ And I’m not going to give up anytime soon.”

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