ARLINGTON — It is such a good feeling to win the Indianapolis 500, Tony Kanaan wishes other drivers could experience it.Why?It changes the way people think about you.“The whole Tony Kanaan image became a lot bigger,” Kanaan said Tuesday at Hurricane Harbor in Arlington in an appearance that provides an example of the way things change for an Indy 500 winner. “With that, the way I take it, comes a lot more responsibility, as well as representing the series, representing as an Indy 500 champion.”It is part of joining the list of the drivers to have won the most famous race in the world, which will be contested Sunday for the 98th time. Last year, Kanaan won it for the first time in his long IndyCar career.“I don’t know how many people can say that you achieved your lifelong dream, as far as athletes,” he said. “You always have goals. You want to win the Super Bowl. You want to win an NBA championship. And for me, it changed my life.”Kanaan looks at a driver such as Ed Carpenter, who is from Indianapolis, owns his own team, runs on a small budget and yet won the pole position for the second year in a row. And he thinks about Marco Andretti, a third-generation driver who carries perhaps the most well-known name in American racing and the burden of the “Andretti curse” at Indianapolis.“Ed, a local guy, a local team. I mean, his stepdad is the owner of the speedway — what a great story,” Kanaan said. “And Marco. You know, for the history of the Andrettis. His first Indy 500 was so frustrating for him, finishing second there. Out of the first-timers, I would pick those two guys.”The thought made Kanaan smile. He spent Tuesday morning gladly talking about the race and good-naturedly riding one of the water park’s new attractions. Then he spent close to an hour talking with print and video reporters, plus cutting ads for Texas Motor Speedway and the Firestone 600, the IndyCar Series race there on June 7.It is the life of an Indy 500 champion. And the next champion has another stop in Texas next week for a promotional appearance at Joe T. Garcia’s restaurant in Fort Worth.“The Mexican place,” Kanaan said, grinning again. “That’s probably the best motivation for me to win.”Last year, Kanaan picked up the victory for tiny KV Racing Technology. He will not be an underdog this year.Kanaan is in the No. 10 Target Chevrolet of Chip Ganassi Racing. It is a top ride, most recently held by three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti. But Franchitti’s retirement last year because of race injuries opened the seat, and Kanaan, who had signed with Ganassi to run the No. 8, became a natural pick to slide over.“The transition, it was tough for the guys. The 10 car guys were Dario’s guys,” Kanaan said. “When he was forced to retire and for me to step into his house, it’s big shoes to fill. I’m trying to bond as much as I can. One thing I told them, I’m never going to be Dario. I’ll be Tony. And we’ll go win races as well. And Dario helped me with that transition big-time, as well.”Last year’s win lifted the burden for Kanaan, the 2004 series champion.“I’ve never had to prove to myself I was a good driver,” he said. “I always thought I was pretty good, and really successful. I think if people ever questioned that I could really win the Indy 500, it was probably more an answer for them. Myself, every time I went to that race, I knew I had a chance to win. But for one reason or the other, we didn’t.“But yeah, it makes you feel proud. I believed that I could, and I did.”Someone will get a chance to find out for themselves on Sunday. If not Kanaan again.
Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7407 Twitter: @calexmendez