Published November 20, 2014
It was almost unthinkable. Surely, it couldn't happen. Not to him.
But with roughly a half-hour remaining in the final day of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500, the surreal thought had nearly turned into complete reality. Tony Kanaan, a former IZOD IndyCar Series champion and one of the sport's most well-liked stars, was on the verge of missing the greatest race in the world.
As he pulled into the qualifying line at 5:24 p.m. ET -- in a car that had been damaged just hours before in a practice crash and cobbled back together with parts from one of teammate Ryan Hunter Reay's cars -- the trials that had brought Kanaan to this point in time came into focus.
On Saturday he wrecked the primary car after spinning out of Turn 1 and smashing into the SAFER Barrier at Turn 2. And Sunday morning before Bump Day activity, he lost control of his backup "T" car in nearly the same spot and tagged the short chute wall before coming to rest against the Turn 2 barrier once more.
His Andretti Autosport team had thrashed throughout the day to get the No. 11T 7-Eleven car into shape and had desperately tried to get some sort of balance in the car for their squad's leader. To miss the Indianapolis 500 would've been the ultimate insult delivered by a track that has given Kanaan major grief -- from missed chances at victory in the 500 to brutal wrecks like last year's double wall-banger that left him with three broken ribs.
It couldn't happen. Perhaps that was why IRL president of competition Brian Barnhart ended his pre-qualifying pep talk to Kanaan with a plea: "We need you."
The hearts that were in people's throats over Kanaan's fate finally returned to their rightful places when he posted a four-lap average of 224.072 mph -- enough to make the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. He wound up settling into the middle of Row 11 when the 6 p.m. gun went off and at last, the Brazilian could turn his attention to next Sunday's main event.
At least, not before he reflected on what had just occurred to him and the emotions that were involved.
"It was a very emotional day," Kanaan said. "I don't cry very easy... But it was a tough day for me and every time I came out, it was very emotional.
"I think you have an idea sometimes of how much the fans like you and then I hear from [the media] because you guys are out there and saying I'm the fan favorite. I never really paid a lot of attention. I always treat my fans really nice. But every time I came out here, the crowd cheered and that made me very emotional."
But as well-aware of the stakes as Kanaan was, he still tried his best to maintain his cool as the proverbial heat was on. As he explained, it is one thing to recognize consequences, but it's another to let your mind go and throw away a chance to win at Indianapolis.
"I'm 35 years old and I've been around a lot, and I think you learn from your experiences," he said. "Obviously, I'm not going to say, 'Oh yeah, I was totally cool, just sitting in the garage and waiting until five o'clock [to qualify]. No, of course not. Because there's a difference of being calm and being aware that you might not make it than actually losing your composure and going out and crashing again.
"In the heat of the day, we made five [practice] attempts with five new sets of tires and I couldn't make a single lap. I couldn't make the corners. The car was horrible and I was going to crash and I came back in. I think I held up pretty good."
The Brickyard gods would eventually find another star to smite. Paul Tracy, the runner-up (or winner, depending on the point of view) of the 2002 Indy 500, had a speed (223.892 mph) that was good enough to make the field. But the former Champ Car World Series champion and his KV Racing Technology squad decided to withdraw that speed and try to better what had been a 32nd-place position.
The decision backfired. On what would be his final attempt, Tracy went two laps under his withdrawn speed (a 223.7 and a 223.0) before he came back to the pits. He would be stuck in line as rookie Jay Howard became the final qualifier and promptly did the same thing -- withdraw his speed that was good enough, try to better it, and fail in the process.
Nineteen-year-old bubble boy Sebastian Saavedra had crashed his only car just one hour previous. But through the mayhem of the final minutes, he still came out as the 33rd qualifier and Tracy was left to ponder his cruel twist of fate.
"I've had a lot of wins in my career where we've made calls that were the right calls, and we've made calls that were bad calls," he said. "I just feel really frustrated for all the sponsors that were on board -- this is not a cheap endeavor. We put a lot of work into this and we came up short as a team."
But Kanaan and Andretti Autosport did not. For Kanaan to be in the show is truly a feather in the cap of that team's crews. All of them rose to the challenge. Now it's time to focus on the task of coming from the back of the field to contend for a place on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
"I probably lost five days of my life today," Kanaan said. "But I'm happy to be here."
He's not the only one.