There are certain athletes whose popularity transcends long-standing rivalries, petty jealousy and pure ego. When they finally win a major title after years of trying, the celebration seems to be shared not only by their family, friends and fans, but with their fellow competitors as well.
It happened when Hakeem Olajuwon won his first NBA title in 1994, when Phil Mickelson won his first Masters in 2004, when Peyton Manning won his first Super Bowl after the 2006 season. There was mostly universal joy after their career-defining victories.
The same can be said about Tony Kanaan's win at the 2013 Indianapolis 500.
The 38-year-old Brazilian, who grew up idolizing countrymen Emerson Fittipaldi and Nelson Piquet, brushed aside more than a decade of frustration this May to celebrate with his new wife, Lauren Bohlander, as well as more than 250,000 fans in attendance.
As the scene unfolded after Kanaan's No. 11 Chevy crossed the finish line at the Brickyard, team owner Jimmy Vasser began to fully understand the level of his driver's popularity.
"Normally after the race [the fans are] headed for the parking lot to avoid the traffic," said Vasser, a former IndyCar champion who now is the co-owner of Kanaan's KV Technology racing team. "They stayed for his victory lap sitting on the back of the car. They were chanting, 'TK, TK, TK.' The track announcer said that he has never seen that before."
And what did Vasser see from Kanaan?
"I think what he felt was relief," Vasser said.
'A lot of time to think'
Kanaan concedes that the hardest part came when Dario Franchitti crashed on Lap 197. Kanaan had overtaken Ryan Hunter-Reay shortly after another restart a couple of laps earlier and now just had to keep his car moving forward toward the finish line. As he drove the final two laps, the 11 years of falling short at the Indy 500 finally hit him.
"I knew I was going to win it, but I hadn't won anything yet," Kanaan recalled. "The race is still on, and I still had to finish. Anything could happen to that car at that time. I was like, 'Let's go, let's go, let's go.' All the emotion drained out of me inside the car. I tried to cry as much as I could inside the helmet so I wouldn't cry when I got out of the car. It was awesome."
Kanaan said that winning a race under a green flag might have been easier.
"You don't have time to think like that, you just have to focus where you need to go," he said. "I had a lot of time to think [this year]. To me, it was worse."
While the casual racing fan might have felt it anticlimatic to watch open-wheel racing's biggest event end under a yellow caution flag — sort of like Game 7 of the World Series ending on a bases-loaded walk or a major tennis championship on a double fault — it was anything but that for Kanaan.
The first driver in history to hold a lead in his first seven Indianapolis 500s, Kanaan had watched others celebrate with the trademark milky shower for more than a decade. He had finished second twice and third once, and had six overall top 10s.
"A win is a win. Those are the rules," Kanaan said. "I lost 11 races prior to that, probably four or five of them under the same circumstances that I won. It's just racing. It is what it is. That's part of the rules, so I'll take it."
Kanaan doesn't believe it was the racing gods repaying a debt for what they had done to him over the years at the Indianapolis 500 — "I don't know if it was the racing gods; I always say that the track picks the winner and she picked me that day," he said — but Kanaan acknowledges that years of falling just short started to get to him.
"It was a pressure on me," Kanaan said. "People said, 'Maybe you're going to do like Michael Andretti, you're never going to win it.' Even Jimmy himself [didn't win it]. Maybe you're going to be one more guy who's been so successful but never won it. There's a relief that I proved everybody wrong. For me it was something that I really want, and sometimes you don't get everything that you want."
Hunter-Reay was upset with the way things ended, but even he felt good for Kanaan.
"He's great for the sport," Hunter-Reay said. "He's a great athlete, a great sportsman. He races you hard, but clean. He's a guy everyone respects."