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TONY KANAAN LOVES YOU RIGHT BACK

Posted: May 24, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS -- Just in case the most touching, feel-good Indy 500 win in memory is repeated Sunday, know this:

Tony Kanaan loves you back. More than you know. Even if you think he loves you personally, and a lot of people do. And he does.

Nobody, short of maybe Bruce Springsteen, embraces and connects with his audience more completely than the long-time leader of the Boys from Brazil contingent here.

Remember how last year, Kanaan's cruise to victory under caution became an impromptu ticker-tape parade without confetti? (There would have been showers of that, too, except that race fans aren't allowed to throw things onto the track.)

It seemed like all the occupants of every seat, all around the most massive grandstands on the face of the earth, were standing, whooping, waving at their war hero coming home -- this veteran of 12 previous heartbreaking battles at this place.

He couldn't hear them yet, with his helmet on, his engine running. But he could see.

"When we took the white flag [under caution, soon after he'd seized the lead with one of his patented aggressive restarts], if you watch the footage, you can see that on the back straightaway I actually had to open my visor and wipe my eyes because I was crying so hard," Kanaan said Thursday.

"When I went into Turn 3, then I saw -- obviously we don't have the luxury to hear the crowd -- but I could see the motion, the hand motions, and everybody was standing. People had their hats up, spinning [swirling] T-shirts.

"Yes. That I caught."

But it was about to get enormously better, on "my victory lap, after I got out of the car and drank the milk, I hopped in the pace car [for a helmetless ride around the track].

"And everybody stayed."

And as he described that part Thursday, his enormous heart opened up in detail.

"I never knew that [staying] wasn't a common thing to do, because I never really stayed to watch whoever had won the 500 do their victory lap -- just because you are sad that you didn't win.

"A lot of people told me that [normally] people just get up and leave. And everybody stayed.

"And being that close to the fans, and getting all that energy, and seeing so many people happy for me. Because I won. ... They were not benefitting from it. I was. And that's something I will never forget ...

"I was overwhelmed how I made so many people happy on a day that was the best day of my life. I was touched by it. Nothing will top that ... that feeling of seeing 300,000 people genuinely happy for me."

He is 39. Even before he got here, he spent five years as one of those CART drivers robbed of his Indy youth by the Indy car civil war that began in 1996.

And then he came here in 2002 and labored with love, soaring spirits and a comedic personality that endeared him to everyone, and for 11 years he left heartbroken, every time.

Then last year, in what he feared would be his last 500 because his KV Racing team was running out of sponsorship money ...

"I always said this place was gonna pick the winner," he said. "I was glad it picked me that day, but I think Indianapolis, this race track, had a plan for me ...

"And it was so much more special. Somebody asked me the other day, 'Do you think it would have been as special as it was, if you had won earlier in your career?' And my answer would be no.

"For me it was a long time coming. I'd tried for so many years and had so many disappointments."

Reminded that he has made a lot of people happy here for a long time as the most colorful, comical and genuinely warm figure on the grid on an annual basis -- and that 2013 just gave them all a reason to celebrate -- he lowered his eyes and said, with a humble sort of satisfaction, "You got a good point."

Which leads us to two other points: First his chances of repeating, and then the fact that the man who has made "TK" the most beloved initials here, other than "AJ," just can't stay serious for long.

He'll start 16th, but, "I started 12th last year ... so it's really like one row behind. So I don't think it's a big deal."

And he pointed out that Dario Franchitti, the close friend he replaced on the Target-Ganassi team after Franchitti suffered career-ending injuries last fall, started 16th in 2012, and won.

Regarding the absence of three-time Indy winner Franchitti from this field, Kanaan said, "We'll miss him. But I won't take it as a sad day. Because for what I saw when I first got to the hospital after his accident, I'm so glad that he's 100 percent that to me, that overcomes anything.

"So we'll try to make him proud. I'm driving his car, so hopefully we'll put that in Victory Lane for him."

The Vegas oddsmakers don't see it.

"I saw the odds today that somebody had put me at 16 to 1. I like that. I told all my friends to bet on me because we're gonna win a lot of money."

But here's his worst nightmare -- rather, here goes TK's tongue deep into his cheek again.

It's a what-if, first raised by his 6-year-old son, Leonardo.

"It would be funny, or interesting, to see when we get to [pre-race] drivers' intro again, to see if all these people are gonna cheer for me. Or whether they just felt sorry for me for 12 years. Now that they're happy that I won, are they gonna move to somebody else? That has not been the feeling that I've got so far ... "

But, Leonardo's notion "actually haunted me for a couple of nights. You're getting ready ... and drivers' intro ... and the place is quiet when they say my name.

"Which is completely the opposite of what I'm used to."

Even Vegas oddsmakers, who just aren't particularly good on motor racing, would rate the chances of silence for TK on Sunday at zero. Nil.

Because Tony Kanaan is such a genuinely happy person, all the time, even in his most disappointing moments, he is more than a fan favorite, more than their racing hero, more than their war hero.

He is a walking, talking lesson in how to live life.
Source: ESPN