Tony Kanaan may have a career that few could fathom – the champion IndyCar driver makes his living blazing around a track at 200-plus mph – but he fits right in with his Key Biscayne neighbors.
When he isn’t racing, Kanaan has the laidback, relaxed Key Biscayne lifestyle down to a science.
“We live in paradise,” said Kanaan, who lives on the island with his wife and two children, ages 2 and 9 months; he has a 9-year-old son from a previous marriage who visits regularly. “We’re very active on the island. We go to the beach a lot; we love the Village Green. Between exercise and kids’ programs, we might as well live at the Community Center. I ride my bike and run on the Key every day – you’ll see me patrolling the island every morning.
“In Key Biscayne, you know everybody; everybody knows you. The other day I was on a bike ride and I was starving and I didn’t have any money on me, and I stopped at L’ Boulangerie, and they said, ‘Don’t worry about it, pay us later.’ Between races, I can spend a whole week here never even driving a car. I take my son to school in a golf cart every day. The other day it was raining, and we were in the car, and my son was like, ‘Why are we in a car?’
“Sometimes you don’t think about how good you have it, and then you realize it’s true.”
For a parent of young kids, Key Biscayne’s safe, family-friendly community is perfect – despite having his family in Brazil and his wife’s in Indianapolis, Kanaan noted, “We choose to live by ourselves in Key Biscayne, because we believe for our kids, it’s the best environment – but Kanaan was in on the secret even before he technically “settled down.”
He actually moved to the Key way back in 2000, a time when he was young, single and already a famous race car driver – descriptions he readily admits might have seemed more fitting for a South Beach lifestyle. But friend and fellow Brazilian race car driver Emerson Fittipaldi lived on the Key at the time with his family, and Kanaan visited and walked away impressed.
“I thought, ‘This is so cool.’ I bought a house by myself, and my friends thought I was completely crazy. They thought I was going to live in an oceanfront apartment on Miami Beach and go out every day and drive a Ferrari on Ocean Drive,” he laughed. “People were like, ‘South Beach, let’s go party.’ But I was never that type of guy. I said, ‘Where is it quiet? Where will I not get in trouble?’ Because Miami Beach is trouble. I need to go to sleep early and exercise.”
It’s an attitude that comes from Kanaan’s upbringing: early on, he had to learn to be responsible, and it stuck with him.
He started driving at just 8 years old, transfixed by the sheer joy and thrill of going fast.
“I started really early back in Brazil. My dad was a huge race fan, and I remember between 5 and 8 years old I used to watch all the Formula One and Indy races on TV with him. It was just a Sunday thing between a father and a son.”
Eventually, Kanaan asked his dad to help him get a go-cart.
“He jumped right in,” Kanaan recalled. “I think he’d been waiting for that question, and then it became a father/son thing on the entire weekend.”
Kanaan met with quick success, winning championships in Brazil and improving his skills. But when he was 10, his dad was diagnosed with cancer.
“When I was 13, he passed away,” Kanaan said. “He had tried to prepare me for the worst in a way, although at the time I don’t think I really realized it.”
He’d continued to race during his father’s illness, because that’s what his dad wanted. “When he passed away, it was between a Thursday and a Friday, in the middle of the night,” Kanaan said. “I had a race on Sunday, and, thinking about my dad the whole time, I went out and won. It’s what he would have wanted – before he passed away, he made me promise I would never give up my dream of racing, and that one day I would win the Indy 500 for him.”
That promise helped discipline Kanaan as a young man. He worked to help his mom support him and his little sister, and he kept his focus on the goal he and his father shared.
“The sport kept me on track. I could have been completely lost and turned the wrong direction at times; when you’re a little kid and you don’t have your dad’s guidance,” he said. “But it gave me a lot of responsibility. Thanks to the sport, I had a goal and a promise I made to my dad. I never went to night clubs. I never drank – I still don’t. I had a goal to achieve.”
At age 16, Kanaan moved to Italy to race and train. It wasn’t easy or glamourous: “I lived in a race shop for three years. I had a little mattress on the floor of the office,” he said. “I lived there and worked on my cars, and I was able to survive like that.”
In the end, he was rewarded: in late 1995, he got an invitation to race Indy Lights in the United States, which is just one class below IndyCar. A sponsor brought him to America, and he started to not only learn about his new race division, but his new country.
“The biggest challenge was I spoke zero English,” Kanaan said. “The only things I knew were hello and goodbye. I needed to learn the language quickly.”
He lived in Columbus, Ohio to begin with, improving both his language and racing skills. Soon enough, he was ready to relocate: “In 1997, I said, ‘I can’t stand the winters,’ so like a typical Brazilian, I moved to Miami,” he laughed.
Shortly thereafter, he won the Indy Light championship, allowing him to make the jump over to IndyCar and start his pursuit of the coveted Indy 500 championship – and the fulfillment of his promise to his father.
“It took me 12 years to win that race – something would always happen, and I’d never win it,” he said. “I led eight out of 10 times, and something would happen. One time it was a mechanical failure. One year, I was leading, but it started to rain and they stopped the race. They waited for three hours and dried the track. We started again and did 10 or 15 more laps, and I dropped back to second. It was like, “Man, I can’t get a break.’”
But in 2013, Kanaan’s year had come. “I finally made my dad’s dream come true,” he said. “I don’t even know if I can put it into words to describe. It’s what every IndyCar driver wants to achieve, and I’d made this promise when I was 13 years old.”
In the photos of Kanaan crossing the finish line in first place, rather than pumping his fists in the air, he’s pointing to the heavens. “I was telling him, ‘I did it,’” he said.
Winning the Indy 500 never dimmed Kanaan’s desire to improve, but he does acknowledge that in his 20th season, he’s nearing the end of his career.
“Over the years, there has always been that passion to be better every time; to surpass yourself and do better, because there is always room for improvement. In any professional sport, you can never settle. There is always someone better than you who comes along, and you have to raise your game,” he said. “But I’m toward the end of my Indy career. I have a couple more years left. It gets to a point where you have to jeopardize a lot of things doing this professionally, and you start thinking about your kids and your family and the risks.”
Kanaan doesn’t have a set plan for what he’ll do with the rest of his life – as a neighbor to Mayor Mayra Pena Lindsay and friend of former Vice Mayor Mike Davey, he joked about throwing his hat into the ring for public office on the Key – as he’d rather focus on the here and now. “The next couple years I will do what I do and do what I love,” he said. “I don’t want to get distracted by other things. I’m concentrating on these next couple years, and then we’ll see.”
But one thing that is certain is he’ll continue to appreciate life in paradise with his family and friends. “It’s pretty hard to take me out of the island – not to eat, not to go shopping, not to exercise. As soon as I get close to the toll, I get paralyzed,” Kanaan laughed.
He’ll continue to frequent his local favorites – 7-Eleven, which happens to be a sponsor; Tutto Pizza and Pasta, which is owned by chef and good friend Juca Oliveira; La Boulangerie, where he loves the croissants and omelets; Novecento when he’s in the mood for a steak; Kazumi for sushi; the UltraBikeX bike shop that keeps his gear in tip-top shape to compete in triathlons.
And, of course, he’ll keep putting a premium on family time on the Key. He likes to keep his kids active and involved so they follow the path he did – not specifically as a race car driver or athlete, but simply as a person who has found a passion that keeps them away from negative influences – and sees little reason to look beyond the Island Paradise for peace and happiness.
“When people say, ‘Why don’t you guys go somewhere for vacation?’ I think, ‘I don’t have to – people come here on vacation,’” Kanaan said. “This is my home. It’s my safe place; it’s my safe haven. We really do live in paradise.”