A dad's tale, a son's motivation

Published April 1, 2007

Each morning, Tony Kanaan rolled up the mattress from the race shop floor, tucked it into a locker and steeled himself against the doubt that sometimes crept in with the sunlight.

Away from family.

Away from home.

A boy too soon asked to be a man.

In the loneliest moments, Kanaan asked his father's help, prayed to his father for strength, recalled how fiercely his father fought the disease for more than three years.

Every single day.

Antoine Rizkallah Kanaan's dying wish was for his son to be a race car driver. The father's will to live gave the boy the fortitude he would need to succeed.

"When somebody is that sick, it's about not just the disease, but how much you want to give up living," said Kanaan, now 33 and a championship driver in the Indy Racing League. "Deep inside, he knew he was going to die. We all knew, although we didn't want to believe. But you can make it shorter or longer by giving up or not."

It has been 22 years since doctors in Brazil told Kanaan's father he had cancer and had three months to live. He lived for three years and three months, until April 1988.

Long enough to buy Kanaan his first go-kart at age 8, when Kanaan was too small to compete, so small he peered through the steering wheel at the track in front of him.

Long enough to see Kanaan win the first two of his five consecutive go-kart championships.

Long enough to have talks with his young son about matters that could not wait.

"I learned a lot from him during those years," Kanaan said. "He was preparing me for the worst. We had nice talks, nice chats about everything."

One Thursday, Antoine Kanaan called his son from the hospital to tell him not to stop racing, that he had a great talent. He told the boy to take care of his mother and sister.

"That night, he passed away," Kanaan said.

Kanaan was 13.

The next morning, Kanaan told his mother he was going to the racetrack. Not wanting the lasting image of a coffin and cemetery, Kanaan did what he believed his father wanted. That Sunday, he raced and won. To this day, the trophy sits on his father's night stand.

But some things even a father cannot foresee.

Antoine Kanaan owned a successful courier business that provided him and his wife, Miriam, and children, Tony and Karen, a comfortable life. Miriam did not work. The children went to private school. They had a house and three cars, including a driver for the children. But an uncle trusted with the business left Antoine Kanaan's widow and children with nothing.

Kanaan became the man of the family.

To keep racing, he took a job at a go-kart factory. He taught children to drive. He even gave roller-blading lessons to bring money home to his mother and sister. Then one day a man from Italy came to the go-kart factory looking for test drivers. In a matter of hours, Kanaan was on a plane with no more than a carry-on bag.

He was 17.

A half-second faster than the other drivers, Kanaan was given a ride in a Formula 3 car. Unpaid, Kanaan was allowed to live at the race shop.

For four years he slept on the floor, fixed meals in the shop kitchen, watched television in the boss' office and passed the lonely evening hours taking apart cars and putting them back together again.

"Every morning I woke up and said, "I ain't going back,' " Kanaan said. "I remembered my father fighting. Giving up was not a possibility. That's how I carried on."

Kanaan's father was right. He does have a great talent. A winner in Italy, he came to the United States in 1996. He was the CART rookie of the year in 1998. In 2003, he moved to the IRL. In 2004, he won the championship with Andretti Green Racing.

More importantly, Kanaan is happy.

He is fun-loving. He smiles a lot and laughs often. His eyes sparkle. He is married and hopes soon to start a family. He has a palatial home in Miami with marble floors. The kid who used to take three buses to get to the go-kart factory now collects sports cars.

Kanaan has lived more of his life without his father than with, yet his hero is still very much alive.

"When I tell the story to people, I don't want people to feel bad," Kanaan said. "It's a great story. I enjoy talking about it. The strength and power in the head to keep persisting in something, I think I got it from watching him fight until the end. I use that in everything in my life.

"And here I am."

His father would be proud.

Joanne Korth can be reached at (727) 893-8810.