The unknown champion

Updated: October 22, 2004, 4:02 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Gotta love that Tony Kanaan! Of course, you'd have to know who he was in order to do so.

There could be a story in there somewhere.

Here's a tip of ye olde crash helmet to the best racer you've never heard of. Tony Kanaan has completed an Indy Racing League season that was the rough equivalent of the 1998 Yankees, and outside of the IRL's hardcore following there was nary a celebratory note sounded.

Michael Andretti and Tony Kanaan
Michael Andretti, left, and Tony Kanaan had a lot to smile about en route to the IRL title.
Kanaan made 16 starts. He won three times. He didn't finish out of the top 10 once. Heck, he ran fifth or better in every race after the first week of the season. He won the IRL points championship going away.

He ran every lap of every race, a feat almost incomprehensible considering the thousands of things that can go wrong with a car, a driver, a track, a field, a sponsor and everything else connected to the sport.

Or, as Andretti Green Racing's Michael Andretti noted recently, "I've never seen that, ever. It's never happened to me in my career, not even close."

Kanaan in 2004 was Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls in the '90s, the unquestioned leader of undeniable championship teams. Actually, Kanaan was closer to Vijay Singh in '04, a guy whose sheer consistency was the source of the marvel moreso than his ability to blow away competition.

Racing, as golf, just isn't set up to be dominated. Even the best drivers don't win 'em all; you can be named Michael Schumacher and still finish second (though this year that was a rarity, but part of that's a Ferrari thing, too). This is an endeavor designed to reward those who keep coming back, week after week, and finding a way to compete.

And nobody does that better than Kanaan. This is not breaking news for close fans of the IRL; the Brazilian-born Kanaan nearly won the points title a year ago, and his placement on the Andretti team is a sign of his quality as a driver.

Still, it's surprising that anyone can be this good at anything in the sports world and escape national notice almost completely. Any guesses how that happens?

Here are a couple: (1) It's racing, not the NBA; (2) Even within the racing community, the IRL is neither NASCAR nor Formula One, and outside of the Indy 500 it just doesn't maintain a high profile; and (3) It's racing, not the NBA.

But that's merely life in the celebrity foodchain. It takes away nothing from the scope of Kanaan's achievement that relatively few Americans can even pronounce his last name (it's kuh-NON), but it says just enough about the state of the IRL that so few would even try.

Kanaan is a great story. Moving his residence from Brazil to Miami, the driver has made some transformational changes over the past few years to become the driver he is, at age 30. Just barely a year ago, he made the move to Andretti in an effort to get himself to another level of performance, a decision that has paid off in such handsome fashion.

Indeed, after locking up the points title a few weeks ago in Fontana, Calif., Kanaan quickly said, "I don't think I won. I think we won," a testament to how much in racing comes down to having the right engine, the right crew, the right financial backing and the right sponsor.

But, significantly, Kanaan won the IRL championship because he drives to win, almost always, regardless of the circumstance. Needing to finish fourth or better at the California Speedway in Fontana, Kanaan fought for the victory the entire race -- he passed six cars on the first lap alone around the two-mile oval -- before settling for second place and the overall title.

"I was thinking, 'If you win the race, you win the championship,' " Kanaan said later. "I didn't want to start making (place) counts, because I didn't know where Dan (second-place points finisher and Andretti teammate Dan Wheldon) was at the time. The best way to win a championship is winning races."

Kanaan did that, all season -- but more importantly, he ran just close enough to race-winning form all year to make the points championship his. In the basic language of consistency, Tony Kanaan set the gold standard in 2004.

He basically led for most of the year, yet refused to take his foot off his opponents' collective neck even when it became apparent that the victory would be his. Kanaan saw it all the way through. You'd call that a very American approach to sports, if any Americans really even knew who the guy was.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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