Tony Kanaan finished the last lap of the 2013 Indianapolis 500 with his left hand in the air and one finger extended. His exuberation bordered on relief: Over the last 11 years, he’d logged almost 5,500 miles on the track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – roughly the distance from Indiana to the heart of his native Brazil – without much to celebrate. But Kanaan, now one of the older drivers on the circuit, hadn’t just been putting in the time on a track; he’d been training for and running Ironman races. Over a decade after arriving at Indy, he was still in winning form.
“I don’t think that triathlons are what keep me going,” Kanaan told Men’s Journal after his victory. “I am 100 percent sure that’s what is doing it.”
Kanaan has been lacing on his Asics and jumping on his Trek (both now sponsors) for going on 15 years now, despite having had some initial misgivings about the entire endeavor. “I’m competitive – I’m a race car driver you know? – and I didn’t want to lose,” he says of his reaction to his trainer’s suggestion that he try out a new sort of competition. It turned out that the will to win that held him back would also force him to take the plunge. He wanted to get a psychological edge.
“My trainer thought it would be good for me mentally,” says Kanaan. “I depend on a lot of people to win, and I always have an excuse about the car or the mechanic or whatever. With triathlons, you get what you train for.”
Not giving himself a chance to make excuses is a major theme with Kanaan, who is quick to disclose his time on the most recent Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, a far from competitive 12:32 he describes as “really bad” and “one of the worst.” The point for him wasn’t to do well in the competition, which he is keenly aware is only open to him because of his celebrity status, but to complete it with dignity.
“First and foremost, older guys who want to stay in shape have to find what they like because it is so much easier to do something you like,” Kanaan says. “Second, it is important to set goals. If you run, train for a marathon. If you lift, say ‘I’m going to put three inches on my pecs by October’ and get that done.”
Kanaan hits his goals and muscles out younger drivers thanks to his remarkable discipline.
The 169-race veteran, who has started getting into CrossFit, has triathlon trainers in Miami and Brazil as well as a shoulder and neck – muscles useful in driving – specialist that coordinates his weight training. He doesn’t drink heavily (despite what he may say in post-race interviews) and takes great pains to “eat balanced meals,” though he claims not to diet as such (he hates the word).
That is why Tony Kanaan, whose fans will watch him compete in the IZOD IndyCar Series Dual in Detroit this weekend on ABC, was the man who walked away from the 2013 Indianapolis 500 with $2.35 million. Once he determines to do something, he gets it done.
“I know one thing about Indy,” the champ says. “I want to win it again.”