When Tony Kanaan races in the 24 Hours of Le Mans this weekend, his late father and his three sons will, quite literally, be at the top of his mind. The Brazillian racer and 2013 Indy 500 champion’s helmet is a unique homage to his family: Its blue tiger-striped design was created by his late father and printed on the back are the tiny handprints, each belonging to his three sons. He’s worn the lid for the entirety of his 30-year career, beginning at the go-kart track where he first learned the fine art of cornering as a boy. Safety, for Kanaan, is family.
Creative helmet designs are a competition unto themselves in the sports that allow it – in particular, racing and hockey. It’s a chance to express personality, show allegiances, and send messages, subtle and otherwise. Kannan has made his lid a living memorial and reminder of the things he loves, eschewing prime ad placement for
Part of Kanaan’s devotion to his helmet’s personal design is that his father, for whom he is named, died of cancer when he was 13. “I always have my dad in my heart and in my head when I race, but to have an actual tribute to his input in my racing career with me every time I get in the car is really special,” Kanaan told Fatherly via email from France where he’s preparing for his first time in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. “It keeps me close to him and reminds me why I started doing this in the first place.”
Kanaan was just 8-years-old when his dad, sensing in his son a passion and skill for motorsports, started sneaking him to the go-kart track. It began as a secret from Kanaan’s mom, who didn’t want her son racing so young. Soon, the secret was out, and Kanaan needed a helmet – and a design.
“My friend Caio, who I’m still very close with, always had this long, blonde hair that the girls loved while we were growing up,” Kanaan said. Kanaan hated his own wiry hair but admired Caio’s, which seemed the height of cool.
“I thought it’d be really cool if instead of my terrible hair that grows out instead of down, I could recreate Caio’s hair on my helmet,” he says. “I told my dad what I wanted and he helped me design these strands of hair that came back behind my ear on my helmet.”
Kanaan’s helmet, then, is all about roots. And he stayed true to them — and the memory of his dad — through his professional career, which, to date, includes 17 race wins, 15 Indy Series pole-positions and a 2004 Indy Series Championship and an Indianapolis 500 win in 2015. When he became a father, Kanaan, who is now 42, and saw his first son’s ink handprints at the hospital, he knew they belonged on his helmet as well.
“I loved the idea of having my son pushing me to go faster every time I got in the car,” he said. “Then [his next son] Deco was born and I decided to put his footprint on the back of my helmet. After [his youngest son] Max was born, we decided to go back to handprints so that all three of my boys could give me a little extra push when I’m out on track.”
As Kanaan races at Le Mans on Father’s Day, adding the iconic French endurance race to his lengthy resume, he and his helmet will once again carry the body, memory, and spirits of five Kanaans, past and present. And that’s probably enough metaphysical weight for one racecar. Asked if there might be room for more tiny prints on his helmet, Kanaan wasn’t so sure.
“I think three little hands is enough push for me,” he said.