2014 Indianapolis 500: No downplaying significance of winning at Indy

Robert Laberge

How special is a victory in the Indianapolis 500? Those who have done it explain.

INDIANAPOLIS -- As Tony Kanaan sailed under the dual checkered flags signifying he had won the 2013 Indianapolis 500, his thoughts immediately turned elsewhere.

The first thing the Brazilian thought about was a vow he made to his father as a teenager. At the time, his father, also named Tony, was on his deathbed succumbing to cancer. Kanaan and his father were close and it was his father who encouraged Kanaan to pursue a racing career.

It was at that moment the 13-year-old Kanaan made a vow to someday win the Indy 500.

"I think I fooled myself for a couple of years that I was OK with the fact I might not win this race in my career. But it changed when I crossed that finish line. It's overwhelming. It's really special."-Tony Kanaan

Though it may have taken longer than he liked, Kanaan finally came through on his promise. And in doing so he also fulfilled another promise to his own son.

Just months before, Kanaan's young offspring was grilling dad on why he no longer won. Mired in a two-year winless drought, Kanaan responded the best way he knew how.

"I told him I was going to win the biggest race of them all and give him the trophy so he could put it in his nightstand," Kanaan said, "so every time he opens his eyes he was going to look at that thing and remember."

That is the significance of the winning the Indianapolis 500, which carries a different meaning for all involved but with no less the importance. For some, it's validation; for others, it's that missing accomplishment in an already remarkable career.

Sunday will mark the 98th running of the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing," and of the 33 drivers in the field just six have felt the elation that comes with winning one of the most prestigious races in all of motor sports.

A sensation something Kanaan never thought he would experience.

Eleven times Kanaan had left Indianapolis Motor Speedway disenchanted in the aftermath of another near-win. In 2011 he had led 86 of 166 laps, but a late pit stop followed by a subsequent rain storm handed the victory to Dario Franchitti, a teammate at Andretti-Green Racing.

Rain also foiled a potential win in 2004, as Kanaan was second behind Buddy Rice when officials halted the race 20 laps from the finish.

As the disappointment mounted Kanaan even tried convincing himself that he didn't need a victory to complete a résumé that included a 2004 IndyCar championship. A notion Kanaan immediately knew was a fallacy the moment he pulled into Victory Lane.

"I think I fooled myself for a couple of years that I was OK with the fact I might not win this race in my career," Kanaan said Thursday. "But it changed everything when I crossed that finish line. I'm so glad I did it, it's overwhelming. It's really special."

When Scott Dixon won the Indy 500 in 2008 it wasn't in remembrance of his father or trying to show his kids that dad could still win. Dixon, then a one-time IndyCar champion, merely wanted to prove he was a great driver, and great drivers win at Indianapolis.

The now three-time and defending series champion cited Michael Andretti as an example of someone who continually came close to winning the Indy 500 but never did, going 0-for-16 while leading more laps than any other non-winner (1oth overall).

"You can come here with great teams and a lot of stats, but you may never get that opportunity," Dixon said.

If there is a driver who knows about winning at Indianapolis it is Helio Castroneves, a three-time 500 winner and the only driver in Sunday's field with multiple victories.

He remembers the feelings accompanying his triumphs differently. The first came in 2001 and occurred during a contentious civil war that fractured open-wheel racing through the mid-90s and into the 2000s. Driving for Team Penske, then competitors in the rival CART, the organization stormed into Indianapolis after a five-year absence determined to recapture past glory.

The win was Castroneves' first on an oval. It was a title he would successfully defend the following year.

"For me it was a way of proving that I made by winning on the biggest oval race you could ever possibly win," Castroneves said. "The second time it was more knowledge about what I did, the importance."

But it may have been the third victory that had the most meaning. In the spring of 2009, Castroneves was on trial for six counts of tax evasion. A guilty verdict would have all but ended his career, as each charge carried a maximum of five years in prison.

Found not guilty, Castroneves returned to Indianapolis with renewed inspiration and won his third 500.

"The third time was incredible because I didn't even know I would be here," he said. "On my way to victory circle I went through a lot of things in my mind with the court and I just looked at the sky and thought ‘This is the answer. I have finally got the answer.' I never stopped believing."

Buddy Lazier never stopped believing either, even as he was laid up in the hospital with a broken back incurred two months prior to the 1996 Indy 500. Driving with a specially-fitted seat to ease the pain of 43 fractures in his lower back, Lazier prevailed in a fierce three-way fight for the lead.

But it's not his lone Indianapolis victory that Lazier remembers the most. Instead, it's the races that got away. Twice within a three-year span he finished second.

"As a driver there is no feeling like winning this race," Lazier said. "But for me it's not the winning that I think about a lot -- it's the runner-ups that haunt me.

"I'm only nine-and-a-half seconds over three races of being a three-time Indy winner. It certainly makes realize how hard it is to position yourself to win here."

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