Teaching young men and women to keep their promises is important to Bruce Daggy, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Wayne County in eastern Indiana.
So when 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2004 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Tony Kanaan strode into the club’s fundraiser Thursday night, despite a scheduling conflict that nearly kept him away, he was a perfect example of the life lesson.
It took a lucky combination of good timing, a chartered airplane from St. Louis and a police escort to get the fan-favorite driver to the fundraiser at Richmond High School – an appearance Kanaan agreed to last spring as a favor to a friend.
Kanaan arrived late. But the crowd of 400 was delighted to see him because they thought the conflict was going to keep him away, even though Kanaan’s photo was on almost 20 billboards advertising the event across the county and he was listed as its featured speaker.
The problem: Just days ago, Kanaan’s Verizon IndyCar Series team, Chip Ganassi Racing, announced it was returning to Honda as its engine manufacturer and that it was retaining Kanaan to drive in 2017. Next, a test day for Kanaan and other series drivers was scheduled Thursday, the day of the fundraiser, at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Ill., near St. Louis – more than 300 miles from Richmond, Ind.
Daggy received the bad news Tuesday evening that Kanaan would be unable to attend the fundraiser. He was cheered by word that two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk, who still holds the record for the fastest laps around Indianapolis Motor Speedway, had agreed to fly in from his home in Phoenix and take Kanaan’s place.
“I was pretty happy with that, but I was sad we weren’t going to have Tony here,” said Daggy. “We had invested in it.”
Kanaan knew that, too. After telling the story to teammate Scott Dixon, the 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner and four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion offered to save the day by booking Kanaan a private charter. So, when Kanaan got out of his Indy car at about 6 p.m. ET at Gateway, he rushed to the plane. When he landed in Indiana, a police escort ushered him to Richmond High School – where the fundraiser had to be moved due to the overwhelming response when Kanaan was originally announced as the featured guest.
“I hate to make commitments I can’t fulfill,” Kanaan said. “I put myself in their shoes. If I was coming to an event to see a person and they didn’t show, I would understand, but I would feel bad. So I didn’t want to let anybody down, especially in Indiana.”
That’s key. Indiana’s racing fans are the grassroots of INDYCAR’s fan base and Kanaan treasures the fan following he has built around the Indy 500. His wife, Lauren, is a Wayne County native, so he spends holidays visiting family in the area. She was unable to attend the event because she is due to give birth to their new baby any day.
“I just felt that there is always a way and we would make it happen,” said Kanaan, who arrived at the event close to its scheduled ending time. That didn’t matter; attendees stayed for a panel discussion with him, Luyendyk, motorsports broadcaster Vince Welch and INDYCAR Director of Communications Mike Kitchel. Afterward, the drivers signed autographs.
Daggy was thrilled and his event wound up with two legendary racers instead of one.
“The guy chartered a plane. That tells me he is a real man of character,” Daggy said.
It was a good night, albeit a bit long, for Kanaan, too.
“Getting me here was everybody’s effort,” he said. “I had a blast. It was worth it.”