A Win For All Generations

By Paul Dalbey

Once again, I have turned the reins of the site over to Paul Dalbey, from More Front Wing. This satisfies two objectives – it gives me a break from daily writing in May, and it scratches an itch for Paul when he gets the writing bug. More Front Wing has been dormant for a couple of years now. I keep telling him he should revive it. The IndyCar blogosphere needs as many bloggers as we can get. Anyway, today Paul tackles a subject that is near and dear to my heart, and probably the same for many of you. – GP

I have been asked on numerous occasions over the years what my favorite memory or experience has been at the Indianapolis 500. Having attended my first race in 1988 and missed not a single one since, I am fortunate to celebrate my 30th race at the Brickyard this year, and in those years, I’ve seen more wonderful moments than I could possibly count. There are some obvious ones that stand out – watching Rick Mears win his fourth "500" in 1991, the amazing finishes of 1992 and 2006, and the drama of Pole Day in 1996 when Scott Brayton and Team Menard withdrew a qualified car to make another attempt at the pole position. Those were all undoubtedly moments that are forever etched in my memory, and I don’t think anyone could fault me for choosing any of them as my favorite. But there is one memory that still, to this day, stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Tony Kanaan once again entered the Month of May in 2013 as the sentimental favorite to win but was given long odds entering his 12th "500". Though the Chevrolet engine pushing TK around the 2.5-mile oval was the favored powerplant, Kanaan had had a quiet month. Never cracking the top 3 in practice times and qualifying a respectable but not particularly inspiring 12th, it didn’t seem that he had a great chance of winning the race. In fact, I even recall eating dinner with my father the night before the race and saying, "I really hope this is Kanaan’s year, but I just don’t think he has the horses to get it done." Furthermore, his team, KV Racing Technology, led by former driver Jimmy Vasser and former Champ Car co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven, had never won a race in the unified IndyCar Series, and there was little reason to believe that streak would end at the biggest race of the year.

However, once the green flag flew, the rest of the month was disregarded, and TK quickly showed he did have the muscle to keep up. Though starting outside the fourth row, it took Kanaan just over 8 laps, 3 of which were run under yellow, to blow by polesitter Ed Carpenter and into the lead.

The first quarter of the race was a battle between Kanaan, Carpenter, and Marco Andretti, perhaps the three biggest fan favorites in the Field of 33. Laps were being clicked off at an incredible pace, and the lead was being swapped seemingly every time the leaders entered turns 1 and 3.

As always happens in a 500-mile race, strategies and fortunes shifted through the running, and by half way, several other drivers looked very strong and hungry for a victory. For a time, Will Power was unstoppable and seemed to have the race going just his way. A short while later, "500" rookie A.J. Allmendinger powered his Penske Chevrolet to the point and showed everyone why he was a force to be reckoned with in the latter years of the Champ Car World Series prior to moving on to NASCAR for several years. Unfortunately his seat belt came lose and he was forced to make an unscheduled green flag pit stop, denying him a good shot at victory and a finish stronger than his ultimate seventh place deserved.

As the laps continued to tick away, more story lines continued to unfold. Helio Castroneves was strong all day and got as high as second with 20 laps to go in his fourth attempt to join the four-time winners club. Marco Andretti ran within the top five for the entire last 100 miles (except for a lap or two during his final pitstop) and looked like he could possibly, finally, end the 44-year Andretti drought. Rookie sensation Carlos Muñoz, who was the youngest driver ever to start on the front row but was expected by many people to crash at some point in the race, was showing his qualifying effort was no fluke and running in the top four spots for the final 50 miles. And Ryan Hunter-Reay, the defending IZOD IndyCar Series champion, was strong, powering to the point with 10 laps remaining, only to have the 134-lap green flag streak came to a halt on lap 194 when Graham Rahal found the inside wall at the exit of turn 2.

The stage was finally set for a shoot out that would be fast, dicey, and dangerous. The quick clean up from the relatively slightly damaged Rahal car lasted only three laps, and the green flag flew again on lap 198. Crossing the start-finish line, the first five cars were three wide and separated by less than three car lengths. With Kanaan diving to the inside and smelling blood in the water, TK forced his way around Hunter-Reay and into the lead through turn 1. By the time the field reached the backstretch, the yellow light flashed on again as Dario Franchitti pounded the SAFER barrier on the exit of turn 1. The field slowed. TK kept his foot to the floor. Tony’s wife, Lauren, was overcome by emotion. And the roar erupted from the giant grandstands. Because as TK led the field by the next lap directly behind the pace car, he drove under the white flag as the leader. Barring a stroke of devastating cruelty that even the evilest of racing gods wouldn’t bestow upon Kanaan, he was going to finally face the twin checkered flags first and put his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy, emblematic of victory in the Indianapolis 500.

When the yellow flag came out with two laps to go and Kanaan was in the lead, the massive crowd knew immediately there would be no time for more green flag racing and that Kanaan was going to be the victor. The roar on the front straight was nothing short of deafening. For 12 years, TK has been on the short end of crushing luck. A mistimed rain delay in 2004, a bone-jarring suspension failure in 2009, a fuel strategy that didn’t pan out in 2011, leading the race at lap 190 in 2012, but being passed on a restart by Dario Franchitti and gang. All these heartbreaks had only served to make the Indianapolis 500 more special to Tony Kanaan and make Tony Kanaan more special to the Indianapolis 500 fans.

But the magic of the moment was not only the fulfillment of Tony Kanaan’s dream. It was the fulfillment of the dream for the last three generations of Indianapolis race fans, each of which had their “Tony Kanaan,” each of which had that driver that so assuredly deserved an Indianapolis 500 victory. Tony Kanaan’s win was for Michael Andretti, who suffered perhaps the cruelest of all defeats in 1992, a race he dominated while seeing his brother and father suffer serious feet injuries in separate crashes only to have his flawless drive halted by mechanical failure with only 11 laps to go and who has led the most laps ever by a non-winning driver in “500” history.

Tony Kanaan’s win was for Lloyd Ruby, who time and again fought for victory only to be saddled with the most unfortunate and heartbreaking luck every time victory came into view. Tony Kanaan’s win was for Ted Horn, who followed a runner up finish in 1936 with eight consecutive finishes of third or forth but was never able to crack through and put his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy, establishing in that time the greatest 10-year run of finishes in the race’s history.

It’s often said you don’t realize the magnitude of a moment until it has passed you by. I was fortunate enough to realize exactly how momentous TK’s victory was the moment he crossed under the twin checkered flags. It was an inescapable reality. In my 29 years of attending races at Indianapolis, I have never experienced the energy and universal jubilation as I did in the moments following that victory.

I distinctly remember waiting amongst other photographers at the start-finish line during the victory celebration while Tony and his cadre were being driven around the track to receive the accolades of the masses. Nobody had left their seat in the stands. Nobody wanted the moment to end. As TK moved around the track and approached the Yard of Bricks, the buzz just continued to grow. It seemed everyone wanted to soak in that moment and make it last. It had been 12 long years of waiting, and now the wait was over. Each time TK and his crew bent down to kiss the bricks, the cheer got louder. For anyone who was blessed to be there in that moment, it was a time and a celebration they will never forget.

A few years have passed since the 97th Running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and two new drivers have tasted the milk for the first time. But as breathtaking as the 2014 finish was, as exciting as the 2015 finish was, and as unpredictable as the 2016 finish was, none of those have been able to capture the elicit the response from the stands as Tony Kanaan’s 2013 victory did.

It was a record-setting win both in terms of average speed and number of passes for the lead, and it was the first win for KV Racing Technology. But even without those factors, the 2013 race will always been remembered as the year Tony Kanaan broke through. It was the year the demons of Michael Andretti, Lloyd Ruby, and Ted Horn were exorcized and the dreams of generations were finally realized.

It’s hard to imagine a victory by anyone in 2017 generating the same response and energy as TK’s 2013 win did. I suppose the only driver that might come close would be Marco Andretti, who, like TK before him, has battled at the front of the field often late in races but always had defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.

To break the long drought of the Andretti family would undoubtedly make many race fans exceedingly happy. But I don’t think Marco’s name and reputation have resonated with fans as TK’s did for so many years. Even another win by Tony himself, in my opinion, would fail to match his 2013 win. As Tony himself said in victory lane, “We were known for not winning. Now we are known for winning.” The aura of his bad luck is no more and his is forever a champion.

In future generations, there will be more drivers like Tony Kanaan, more drivers who connect with their fans on another level and who make those fans’ hope rise with every pass and come crashing down with every misfortune. But it’s hard to imagine another victory, past or future, that will ever result in the outpouring of emotion and love that Tony Kanaan’s did on May 26, 2013. It was truly a win for all generations.

3 Responses to “A Win For All Generations”

  1. SkipinSC Says:

    I’d have to place TK’s victory in a solid second place. As an A. J. Foyt fan, I’d been rained on and disappointed in 1975 and1976, both years when A. J. seemed to have the horses to get his fourth 500. And, on that day in 1977, it seemed that Gordon Johncock might deny Super Tex yet again. A couple of laps before he faltered, we saw Johncock running way high out of three, up in the marbles and yet somehow he managed to save it. When we saw that from our seats in the North chute, we thought A. J.’s day was done, another top three finish, but no cigar.

    And then we heard Tom Carnegie intone those words as only he could, “Aaaaaannnnnd Johncock is slowing on the main straightaway.” The buzz that normally goes with the last 20 or so laps of the race suddenly became a roar. Not a butt was in a seat for the next 20 some laps.

    My friends, knowing how big a fan I was, stayed to watch A. J. take his lap around the track in the Oldsmobile pace car, ironically the last ride for Tony Hulman before his passing.

    • Doug Gardner Says:

      Agree with you 100%. I remember 1977 like it happened yesterday. Especially after those disappointments in 1975 and 1976.

  2. Ron Ford Says:

    IMHO the Bettenhausen family’s futility at the 500 ranks up there with the Andretti’s. Tony Sr. earned his nickname “Tough Luck Tony”

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