An Indy 500 win changes lives, even for IndyCar champions

Winning the Indianapolis 500 changes you. For life.

There’s no reason to underestimate the massive personal value of adding your name to the stand of triumph in Monaco, Daytona Beach and Le Mans, and there’s no doubting that to stand at Victory Lane in our oldest and most sacred cathedral of speed is a transformational event unlike any other motor racing event. On Sunday, for the 107th time in its storied history, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will do it again, forever changing anyone who gets in their Indy car at Victory Lane.

“It’s weird to talk about you like that, but I felt like I was popular before 2013 because I was one of the best never to win here,” says 2004 IndyCar champion Tony Kanaan , whose landslide victory at the 2013 Indy 500 nearly sparked a riot. “When I won, everything exploded.”

The Brazilian racer moved to Ohio when his single-seater career was diverted from Europe, spent years after in Miami when he joined the CART IndyCar circuit in the late 1990s, and finally settled in Indianapolis. With his 500m win, Kanaan — who was nearly 40 at the time — was adopted as the state’s favorite son, and the sentiment radiated throughout the Midwest and everywhere else the IndyCar series happens.

After her coronation on May 26, 2013, Kanaan hasn’t gone a single day in the past decade without posing for dozens of photos and signing photos, towels, hats, receipts, shirts and whatever else. dazzled fans can find out when he stops at a gas station or walks into a market to buy groceries.

“It changes your life in so many ways,” he says. “I mean, it changed my career. It was probably the most crucial year for me because our team was running out of money; we weren’t going to continue at the end of the year, and 10 more years late, I’m still here, and it’s because of this win. Without this win, I’m not here to talk to you anymore.”

Where Kanaan soared to the pinnacle of American racing on his 12th try, fellow countryman Helio Castroneves was rocketed from relative anonymity to international stardom after scoring a remarkable victory on his Speedway debut.

For Kanaan, Indy was the only missing crown in a long career loaded with many wins and championship titles. For Castroneves, who became known as “Spiderman” after scaling the fence and celebrating his 2001 Indy win with hundreds of thousands of fans, it was the fifth victory of any kind in his budding IndyCar career. .

“Before Indy in 2001, I went to a number of places for race week sponsor appearances,” says spinning Castroneves, one of four drivers to have four 500 wins. “The Indianapolis track did this with all the drivers, sending them to all places in the country after qualifying to talk to the media and generate a lot of interest in the upcoming race.

“So I went to New York, the biggest market, right? And I felt pretty good about myself; I think I qualified like 11th or something for my first Indy 500 And I remember they were trying to get me interviews with TV and magazines, newspapers, and they came back and said, “OK, we’re sorry, but we have no interest.” , nobody wanted to talk to me at all, man. It was kind of embarrassing, to be honest.

“And a year later, after winning the Indy 500, we went to the same places, the same media companies that we were before, and it was, ‘Helio! Our friend! It’s great to t ‘have it here!’ Everything was different. That win opened the doors for me so clearly. That day I realized how important the Indy 500 was. It wasn’t about me as the winner.

The praise that comes with winning the Indy 500 also travels. In the case of 2008 winner Scott Dixon, it took a trip home to the small island nation of New Zealand for the true gravity of the accomplishment to register.

“You know when it happens that you’ve won the biggest race in the world, but for me it took a while to figure it out, to be honest,” said the six-time IndyCar champion. “I’m just a little guy from New Zealand, a very small country, but it was headline news all over New Zealand. I didn’t really understand, what an achievement it was to be the only Kiwi who’s ever done it. You also have a lot of upside to winning the 500.”

Such as?

“Lamb for life!” Dixon adds. “At first I thought it was ‘earth’ for life, but then I learned it was ‘lamb’, with a ‘B’, for the rest of my life.”

And how does it work ?

“They gave me a number to call and you order, man, and they ship it,” he continues. “But I actually think it’s beef now, instead of lamb. I stopped eating red meat, so I haven’t tried the number in a while.”

Despite lamb shanks and ribeye cutlets, there’s another perk — an almighty one — that comes with winning the race, which held its inaugural race in 1911.

“That introduction of ‘Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon’, forever, is like nothing else, man,” he says. “And you are now part of such a small list of some 70 people who have achieved this around the world. So to be part of such an important event as one of its winners, but also to be on the list restricted of people, so many of them are legends, really, who won it, is life changing and that’s the problem, because it makes you want to win again and again, and some never do . I tried the last 15 years to take another.”

Kanaan is in the same department. With 21 Indy 500 races under his belt, Kanaan has determined that the No. 22 will serve as his final appearance at “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing.” He’ll strap himself into the No. 66 Chevy this weekend with the goal of becoming a two-stroke rider at the event where he gets the loudest cheers — more than local riders and even his old friend Castroneves.

And while winning Indy forever changed Kanaan, the 48-year-old unknowingly had the same effect on America’s defining auto race. As former IndyCar vice president of communications Brian Simpson recalls, being in charge of Victory Lane in 2013 was like trying to manage behavior in a mosh pit.

“I was hit in the face!” he said laughing. “People were throwing things. Photographers were throwing things at me and anyone they thought was in their way [of getting a shot of Kanaan]. Someone threw their keys at me. I just remember it felt like a fight broke out with a hundred people, and it was all because Tony Kanaan finally won the race after trying for ages and still failing. He was the guy that all the fans rooted for every year, and it just got bigger and bigger every year for him when that wasn’t happening.

“So he goes out there and wins and I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve come to this race all my life, and it was the craziest reaction to a win that I’ve experienced. Because of this day and how crazy it was with everyone fighting to get in we definitely changed the procedures at Victory Lane Because of Kanaan the next year we had about five soldiers from the “State of 6-foot-5 surrounding the car and the winner to keep order. All because of Tony. He broke Victory Lane at the Indy 500.”

Dixon’s dear friend, three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti was one of IndyCar’s most popular drivers before earning his first Speedway victory in 2007. The follow-up victories in 2010 and 2012 have taken the Scottish driver’s pre-existing fame and launched it into the stratosphere, but as with Dixon, it’s not much currency.

“I think it changed me more on the inside with my own self-confidence than anything else,” he says. “It was more kind of an internal change than an external change. There’s all this stuff where you’re introduced to everybody as the winner of the Indy 500, which is cool, but things the coolest thing is to join this club of winners and have your face on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

“For me to be on that trophy with those riders who are nothing but legends was amazing. Maybe the best part, because it’s sometimes surreal, was being properly introduced to those living legends of the Indy 500. [The late IndyCar reporter] Robin Miller hosted these private dinners every May and invited me, often without telling me who everyone would be there.

“And you show up and it’s AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Uncle Bobby [Bobby Unser], some of the main guys who made racing what it is. I’d be sitting there listening to these heroes tell stories and give each other s—. I knew them thanks to Miller. It meant the world to me more than almost anything else because you couldn’t buy it, it couldn’t be given to you. You have to earn your place to become a member of this club.”


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