By Steve Keating
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - In a sport defined by hair-raising speed, it is no surprise how quickly things can change in IndyCar.
A year ago, Tony Kanaan arrived at the Brickyard driving for a small team and given little hope of ending 12 frustrating years of Indianapolis 500 heartbreak.
The Brazilian returns this year as one of the biggest names in IndyCar, the defending champion and racing for a glamour team in a seat left vacant by his best friend Dario Franchitti, who was forced into retirement by a life-threatening accident.
"I've been around a long time and I have seen a lot of things happen," said Kanaan. "When I lost my dad at 13, I realized you have to live day by day and that's the way I have approached life since then.
"If you told me last year I would be replacing my best friend who was still a very good race car driver, I would say you are crazy.
"There are things you can't predict. You have to be prepared for anything good or bad.
"Life will bring you whatever needs to happen."
Kanaan has always believed that it is the race that decides the winner and for over a decade it seemed the Brickyard and fate had conspired against him.
Coming into last year's 500, Kanaan had led 221 laps at the Brickyard, more than any other non-winner besides Michael Andretti and Rex Mays.
Kanaan had known nothing but bad luck on the sprawling 2.5 mile oval having come close but never quite able to find his way to the winner's circle posting five top-five finishes, including a second in 2004 and third in 2003 and 2012.
But last year, proving no good deed goes unrewarded, Kanaan was paid back in full by a young fan and an old friend using their good luck charms to help end his 500 drought.
Before the race, former IndyCar champion Alex Zanardi, who lost both his legs in a horrific crash, handed his good friend his Paralympic gold medal for inspiration while Andrea Brown returned a good luck charm the Brazilian had given her years earlier as she awaited brain surgery.
The circumstances that brought Kanaan a 500 win still bring him chills today.
"My best friend, my team mate gives me this gold medal, it is the biggest achievement a human being can ... I cannot even compare it to my 500 win," recalled Kanaan. "He tells me, rub this it brings you luck trust me.
"And Andrea, the good luck charm I gave her years ago when she was almost dead in the hospital and she survives and sends me a letter three days before the race and gave me the luck charm back.
"It was going to be a special day regardless if none of that have happened but it did and you can't take that away.
"It was meant to be."
And just maybe, the Indianapolis 500 is meant to have its first back-to-back champion since Helio Castroneves accomplished the feat in 2001 and 2002.
On Sunday, Kanaan's hopes will be riding on No. 10 - the car driven by three of his closest friends Zanardi, and Indy 500 winners Franchitti and Dan Wheldon, who died in a crash in the 2011 season finale in Las Vegas.
The move from KV Racing Technology's modest operation to IndyCar powerhouse Ganassi has brought both inspiration and pressure but the 37-year-old Brazilian signaled he is prepared for both and ready to defend his crown when he posted the fastest lap in final practise for Sunday's race.
"My biggest motivation this year is I am driving a car that has won this race a few times," said Kanaan. "It adds a lot of pressure, it's a big car, it is a car that has a name by winning so much for that team. You add me coming from a very successful season.
"We know we are good, we know what to do, we have the tools we just have to nail it.
"As a team we are struggling. I have not had the start to the season I wanted to have but as I experienced last season when you win this thing, things change really quick."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)