By Steve Keating
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - Proving no good deed goes unrewarded, an emotional Tony Kanaan was paid back in full by a young fan and an old friend whose talismans helped power the Brazilian to his first Indianapolis 500 victory on Sunday.
One of the most popular drivers in IndyCar Series, Kanaan's win was greeted with thundering approval across the sprawling speedway as a crowd estimated at close to 250,000 watched the 38-year-old cruise to the checkered flag under caution.
But it is likely no one was more excited than a long time fan and former IndyCar champion Alex Zanardi, who both turned over good luck charms to Kanaan with the hope it would bring him the one victory that had always been just beyond his reach.
On Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Lady Luck finally smiled on Kanaan as he won the crown jewel of North American motor racing on his 12th attempt, tying a record for the most tries before earning an Indy 500 victory.
"I never had doubt I could win this thing," Kanaan told reporters. "I think we can prove that theory that says that nice guys don't win ... I guess we proved them wrong."
A former IndyCar champion, Kanaan had led 221 laps at the famed Brickyard coming into Sunday's race, more than any other non-winner besides Michael Andretti and Rex Mays.
Kanaan had known nothing but bad luck and heartache on the 2.5 mile oval, coming close but never quite able to find his way to Victory Lane. He entered Sunday's race with five top-five finishes, including a second place in 2004 and third place in 2003 and 2012.
But Zanardi and the young fan decided it was time Kanaan's luck changed and the two rallied around the Brazilian who had once rallied around them.
Nine years ago, a 14-year-old girl was in a coma awaiting surgery at an Indianapolis hospital when Kanaan made a visit and offered her mother a good luck charm to help see her safely through the operation.
Now 24 years old and healthy, the woman returned the charm to Kanaan four days ago along with a note, telling him to go and win the one race he wanted most.
"I had this thing that my mom gave me," explained Kanaan. "It was kind of a necklace to protect me, not to bring me luck, because you know the way moms are.
"So I took it out and I said to her mother, 'I don't know if you believe in these things but I had this for a while. It always protected me. My mother gave it to me. I want to give it to you.'
"Four days ago, she showed up, gave me a letter with an envelope. I opened the letter. She said that she had enough of luck in her life. She got married, and she wanted to give it back to me to bring me luck."
When Zanardi was nearly killed in a crash during an IndyCar race in Germany and lost both his legs, Kanaan was one of the first their to support the Italian.
Zanardi decided it was time to pay back that kindness on Sunday when he showed up at the Brickyard with a gold medal he won at the 2012 London Paralympics hoping it too might give his friend an edge.
"Right before the race, he gave it to (team owner Jimmy Vasser). Jimmy brought it to the bus. I was laying in bed. Jim said, 'Zanardi asked you to rub it.'
"I actually cuddled with the thing."
While luck may have contributed to Kanaan's win, victory did not come without the experience and patience that comes with 12 years of challenging the world's most famous speedway.
It was that experience that told Kanaan that there was a good chance of a yellow caution flag coming out in the closing laps as drivers made their moves.
He was right, and when Graham Rahal struck the wall, Kanaan bounced on leader Ryan Hunter-Reay at the restart. Then, when Dario Franchitti crashed with two laps to run, bringing out another yellow, Kanaan knew he had won.
"I knew a yellow flag with six, seven, eight laps to go, it's a big potential for another yellow right away," said Kanaan. "I was in the perfect place, exactly where I wanted to be, right behind the leader, with three to go because I knew a potential yellow could happen.
"It happened. I guess it was right."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)