To understand what matters to Tony Kanaan, all a person has to do is look at his right arm. He sat for 12 hours as a tattoo artist printed the intricate black-ink design into his skin, stretching from his shoulder down to just above his elbow.
The tattoo includes the Borg-Warner Trophy and iconic yard of bricks, symbols of the Indianapolis 500 he won in 2013. It also includes a tribute to his three children Leonardo, Deco and Max—their handprints, footprints and birth dates—and to his wife Lauren—their anniversary date and her initials.
The tattoo is a perfect summary of the 42-year-old Indy Car driver’s priorities. Racing and family; that’s all that matters.
But before there was a tattoo, there was a helmet. Its creation began years ago, on Sunday mornings with a little boy and his dad.
Kanaan’s love for racing ignited at age five when his father Antoine introduced him to the sport through televised races. Because of the time difference between Brazil, where Kanaan was born, and the United States, the races were broadcast in the morning. Kanaan was instantly hooked on the sport, and three years later he asked his father for a GoKart.
“At that age I loved the competition and I thought it was so cool to drive fast,” Kanaan said. “That’s why I started it. When you’re a kid you don’t care about money or being famous.”
Kanaan has kept that love of racing for 34 years. He’s also kept the same helmet design throughout his career, because like most things he embarked on as a young racer, he did it with his dad.
When the design process started, Kanaan had a clear picture of what his helmet would look like. At 8 years old, he was self-conscious about his curly black hair, wishing it looked more like the covetable blond locks of his best friend, Caio.
“When I told [my dad] that was how I wanted my helmet designed at first he laughed, but he understood and he didn’t oppose to it,” Kanaan said.
Now the moment is a fond memory for Kanaan. He makes a point to remember it because, he says, as humans we have a tendency to forget the good things and hold on to the bad.
His worst memory came when he was 13, and his father died after battling cancer. Kanaan spoke to him in the hospital the night before, and his father had two requests: “Take care of your mother and sister, and don’t give up racing.”
“I kept my promise,” Kanaan said.
He also promised someday he would win the Indy 500, his dad’s favorite race, and in 2013 he did.
When Kanaan races he wants to keep the people he loves close to him. That’s why he’s kept the same helmet design for so many years, and that’s why when his first son, Leonardo, was born in 2007 he decided it was time to make an addition.
Kanaan saw the delivery room nurse put the newborn’s tiny footprint on a piece of paper, and he knew he needed something similar on his helmet.
Now, 10 years and two more kids later, Kanaan has three handprints on the back of his helmet, so when things get tough, Leonardo, Deco and Max can push him forward.
His children have varying levels of interest when it comes to racing. His oldest couldn't care less about the sport and Max, the youngest, is less than a year old, so his opinions on the subject have yet to develop.
But Deco, Kanaan’s two-year-old, is a wild child. The kind of kid who will grow up to jump out of planes, Kanaan says. He’s also positive Deco will want to race someday. When that happens Kanaan will explain to his son how difficult the sport is.
Then he will sit down and ask Deco what he wants his helmet to look like.