Being a fan favorite in the sports world often incites as much scrutiny and criticism as it does love and adoration. It can also result in vehement hatred.
Athletes who win the biggest games on the biggest stages almost always draw disparagement from someone, somewhere, who thinks the results should have been different.
Unless, perhaps, that athlete is Tony Kanaan.
The Salvador, Brazil native has been a fan favorite in the IZOD IndyCar Series for years. He’s a fierce competitor who isn’t afraid to speak his mind and also isn’t afraid to show emotion. A 12-year IndyCar veteran, Kanaan has earned the respect of fans and competitors alike with his on-track success, including a series championship in 2004, and his amiable personality.
But one win—the biggest victory in all of motorsports—had always eluded him.
I have been to many races over the years, both NASCAR and IndyCar, and I have rarely seen an entire crowd get behind a driver the way race fans did for Kanaan at Indianapolis.
Kanaan had often run well at Indy. Prior to this year, he had six top-ten finishes in 11 starts, including fourth and third place finishes in 2011 and 2012, respectively. He also had his share of bad results, but many fans felt that Kanaan was overdue for a win.
For much of the last 15 laps of Sunday’s race, Kanaan and defending IndyCar Champion Ryan Hunter-Reay passed and re-passed each other for the lead. Every time Kanaan took the top spot, the crowd roared.
After Graham Rahal crashed with less than 10 to go, Hunter-Reay and Kanaan lined up 1-2 for the restart. When the green flag waved with three laps to go, Kanaan jumped out in front of the reigning champ.
Just seconds later, three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti crashed in turn one. The yellow flag flew, and the race was over. With just a few laps remaining, there wasn’t enough time for officials to clean up the track and restart the race.
No one enjoys watching any race end under caution, and when it’s the Indianapolis 500, it’s even more disappointing.
But as the pace car brought Kanaan and the rest of the field down the frontstretch to take the white flag, and then the checkers, the fans cheered in unbridled elation as they watched Tony Kanaan finally win the Indianapolis 500.
There are only two other times I have seen such passion for a race winner: Tony Stewart’s Brickyard 400 victories in 2005 and 2007.
Stewart is an Indiana native, and among all of his championships and victories in multiple racing series, he considers winning at Indianapolis to be the biggest accomplishment of his career.
Kanaan will likely feel the same way.
Yet even as the 38-year-old celebrated in victory lane, drinking the milk and holding the winner’s wreath, he never stopped thinking about the fans who so fervently cheered him on.
“It means a lot to me because so many people, I can feel they wanted me to win,” Kanaan said in Sunday’s post-race press conference.
“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, I think the best thing was try to put [on] an exciting race for them.”
Kanaan has always been a champion to the fans. Winning the Indy 500 will just further solidify his well-earned reputation.
“I think we can [disprove] that theory that says that nice guys don’t win,” said Kanaan. “We proved them wrong.”