Winning the Indianapolis 500 changes you. For life.
There's no reason to underplay the massive personal value of adding one's name to the rostrum of triumph at Monaco, Daytona Beach and Le Mans, and there's also no mistaking how standing in Victory Lane at our oldest and holiest cathedral of speed is a transformational event unlike any other event in motor racing. On Sunday, for the 107th time in its rich history, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will do it again, forever altering whomever climbs from their Indy car in Victory Lane.
"It's weird to talk about yourself this way, but I had this feeling that I was popular prior to 2013 because I was one of the best to never win around this place," says 2004 IndyCar champion Tony Kanaan, whose eruptive 2013 Indy 500 win nearly incited a riot. "When I won, everything exploded."
The Brazilian racer moved to Ohio when his open-wheel career was rerouted from Europe, spent years afterward in Miami when he joined the CART IndyCar circuit in the late 1990s, and eventually settled in Indianapolis. With his victory at the 500, Kanaan -- nearing 40 at the time -- was adopted as the state's favorite son, and the sentiment has radiated throughout the Midwest and everywhere else the IndyCar Series performs.
Following his crowning achievement on May 26, 2013, Kanaan hasn't spent a single day in the past decade without posing for dozens of pictures and signing photos, napkins, hats, receipts, shirts and whatever else starstruck fans can find when he stops at a gas station or pops into a market to buy groceries.
"It changes your life in so many ways," he says. "I mean, it changed my career. That was probably the most crucial year for me because our team was running out of money; we were not going to continue at the end of the year, and 10 years later, I'm still here, and it's because of that win. Without that win, I'm not here talking to you anymore."
Where Kanaan reached American racing's mountaintop on his 12th try, his countryman Helio Castroneves was propelled from relative anonymity to international stardom after delivering a remarkable win on his Speedway debut.
For Kanaan, Indy was the only crown missing from a long career loaded with numerous wins and championship titles. For Castroneves, who had become known as "Spiderman" after scaling the fence and celebrating his 2001 Indy win with hundreds of thousands of fans, it was the fifth win of any kind in his nascent IndyCar career.
"Prior to Indy in 2001, I went to several places for sponsor appearance the week of the race," says the yarn-spinning Castroneves, one of only four drivers to earn four wins at the 500. "The Indianapolis track did this with all the drivers, sending them to all different places in the country after qualifying to talk to the media and make a lot of interest in the race that was upcoming.
"So I went to New York, the biggest market, right? And I was feeling pretty good about myself; I think I qualified like 11th or something for my first Indy 500. And I remember they were trying to find interviews for me with TV and magazines, newspapers, and they came back and said, 'OK, we're sorry, but we don't have any interest.' I mean, nobody wanted to talk to me at all, man. It was kind of embarrassing, to be frank.
"And a year later, after winning the Indy 500, we went to the same places, the same media companies that we went before, and it was, 'Helio! Our friend! It's great to have you here!' Everything was different. That win opened the doors so clearly. That day, I realized how big the Indy 500 was. It wasn't about me being the winner. It was about what winning the Indy 500 made you in the people's eyes."
The acclaim that comes with an Indy 500 win also travels. In the case of 2008 winner Scott Dixon, it took a trip home to the tiny 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 sink in, to be honest," says the six-time IndyCar champion. "I'm just a little guy coming from New Zealand, a very small country, but it was it was front page news everywhere in New Zealand. I didn't really understand it, how much of an achievement it was to be the only Kiwi that's ever done it. You got loads and loads of perks with winning the 500, too."
"Lamb for life!" Dixon adds. "At first I thought it was 'land' for life, but then I learned it was 'lamb,' with a 'B,' for the rest of my life."
And how does that work?
"They gave me a number to call and you order up, man, and they just ship it," he continues. "But I actually think it's beef now, instead of lamb. I stopped eating red meat, though, so I haven't tried the number in a while."
Lamb shanks and ribeye cutlets notwithstanding, there's another perk -- an almighty one -- that comes with winning the race, which held its inaugural running in 1911.
"That introduction of, 'Scott Dixon, Indy 500 winner,' forever after is like nothing else, man," he says. "And you're on such a small list now of 70-something people that have achieved this in the world. So to be a part of such a large event as one of its winners, but also to actually be on the shortlist of people, so many of them are legends, really, that have 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've been trying the last 15 years to get another one."
Kanaan is in the same department. With 21 Indy 500 runs to his credit, Kanaan has determined No. 22 will serve as his final participation at "The Greatest Spectacle In Racing." He'll strap into the No. 66 Chevy this weekend in a bid to become a two-timer at the event where he receives the loudest cheers -- more so than homegrown drivers and even his old pal Castroneves.
And while winning Indy permanently changed Kanaan, the 48-year-old unknowingly had the same effect on America's defining auto race. As former IndyCar communications VP Brian Simpson recalls, being in charge of Victory Lane in 2013 was like trying to manage behavior in a mosh pit.
"I got hit in the face!" he says with a laugh. "People were throwing things. Photographers were hurling 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 being like a fight broke out with a hundred people in it, and it was all because Tony Kanaan finally won the race after trying forever and always coming up short. He was the guy all the fans rooted for each year, and it got bigger and bigger every year for him when it didn't happen.
"So then he goes and wins and I've never seen anything like it. I've been coming to this race my whole life, and that was the craziest reaction to a win I've experienced. Because of that day and how insane it was with everybody fighting to get in on it, we permanently changed Victory Lane procedures. Because of Kanaan, the next year, we had like five 6-foot-5 state troopers surrounding the car and the winner to maintain 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 capturing his first Speedway victory in 2007. Follow-up wins in 2010 and 2012 took the Scottish driver's preexisting fame and launched it into the stratosphere, but as with Dixon, it's not a currency that holds much value.
"I think it changed me more from the inside with my own self-belief than anything else," he says. "It was more a sort of an internal change than an external change. There's all this stuff where you get introduced to everyone as the Indy 500 winner, which is cool, but the coolest things are joining in that club of winners and getting your face on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
"To me, being on that trophy with these drivers who are just legends, that was incredible. Maybe the best part, because it's sometimes surreal, was being properly introduced to these living legends of the Indy 500. [The late IndyCar reporter] Robin Miller would put on these private dinners every May and invite me, often without telling me who all would be there.
"And you turn up and it's A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Uncle Bobby [Bobby Unser], some of the main guys who made the race what it is. I'd sit there just listening to these heroes tell stories and give each other s---. I got to know them because of Miller. That meant the world to me, more than almost anything else because you couldn't buy it, it couldn't be gifted to you. You have to earn your way into membership in that club."