Robin Miller is highlighting the stars of the Indianapolis 500 who never made it to racing's most famous Victory Lane. Today, he starts counting down those with most reason to feel aggrieved although, of course, today's "victim" still has a chance to eliminate himself from this list!
Tony Kanaan and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have enjoyed a fast friendship for more than a decade but he has a cloud hanging over him, literally and figuratively, in his quest to drink the milk. Weather and bad breaks have conspired to keep the popular Brazilian out of Victory Lane.
From his debut in 2002 when he owned a big lead before crashing in spilled oil to last May when he was forced to pit while out in front with six laps left, it's always been close-but-no-cigar for Kanaan. He's led seven of 11 races for a whopping 221 laps and finished second, third, fourth and fifth.
“Almost every time I've run here, I've put myself in a position to win this thing and that's all a driver can do,” says the 38-year-old veteran. “I don't feel like I'm cursed or anything. Some very good race drivers before me didn't win either, and that's just racing. I think I probably should have won it a couple times but I don't have the attitude that it owes me.”
It was tempting to omit Kanaan from consideration because six of his starts came in the watered-down IRL-spec Indy 500s but his ability was evident in CART and has remained intact with the unified IndyCar series.
“That boy might have been able to make it in our era,” A.J. Foyt once said of Kanaan. “He drives hard all the time.”
A preview of things to come surfaced early when T.K. was driving for Morris Nunn (RIGHT). Starting fifth, he'd opened up a 10-second lead by lap 89 and was pouring it on when Bruno Junqueira's engine let go and dumped oil all over Turn 3. Unfortunately, no official turned on the yellow light until Kanaan hit the oil slick and then the wall.
“I think I drove about half a lap after Bruno blew,” he laments.
In 2004 (LEFT), he was running second to Buddy Rice when the heavens opened up and the race was called with 20 laps to go.
“I'd been leading but was told to let Buddy go by because we all had pit stops coming. But that ended up being the finishing order!” he recalls. “You never know what might have happened but I had a strong car and I liked my chances.”
The polesitter in 2005, he led 54 laps that year and joined Jimmy Clark and Parnelli Jones as the only drivers to lead their first four Indy 500s but he wound up eighth. A year later, he was leading on lap 193, just seven to go, but and had to pit for fuel.
But it was 2007 (TOP) that really stung. Starting second, T.K. led early and often and was on point on lap 114 when it began raining hard. Following a three-hour delay, the race resumed and he was leading on lap 154 when he pitted. Then, a couple circuits later, the Kanaan Kurse kicked in. Jaques Lazier spun right in front of him so he spun to avoid Lazier and that dropped him back to 17th. Before he could try and mount one of his patented charges to the front, there was a big crash followed by a downpour. This time it didn't stop raining, so the race was flagged at 166 laps. His friend and Andretti Green Racing teammate Dario Franchitti walked to Victory Lane and T.K. got another gut shot.
“That hurt the most because I led so much of the race and my car was soooo good,” he says of a day on which he led 83 laps.
In 2008, he set a record for leading in seven consecutive “500s” but there was a misunderstanding with teammate Marco Andretti that sent TK drifting through the gray and into the concrete at Turn 3. In '09 there was a mechanical that again put the No. 11 into the wall, this time with a high-speed, high-G thump, and in 2010, a couple of crashes in practice left him 33rd and last on the grid…yet by race day, there he was, running second in the closing stages until a late fuel stop.
Despite all the heartache, he maintains that May remains his favorite month of the year and he's become a fan favorite.
“The fans are great, the way they treat me, and I think they treat me so nice because they know how hard I work for it and how close I've come,” he says. “I know it might sound crazy but I've had great times here and if I never win this thing I think I got the feeling from the people around here how it is to win.”
Over the past two years, now driving for KV Racing, he's come fourth and third, respectively. Who knows where that sequence may lead, but Kanaan considers it an honor to be constantly compared to Lloyd Ruby.
“From what I've been told and read, Ruby was one of the best to never win at Indianapolis,” he says philosophically, “so although I think I've still got a few good years to try and get it done, if I don't, that's pretty good company to be in.”