Tracy Heads To Indy Looking For “Second” Victory
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Paul Tracy has returned to Indianapolis Motor Speedway with every intention of winning his second Indianapolis 500.
True enough, the Official Box Score from May 26, 2002, shows that Helio Castroneves won the 86th edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” under caution over runner-up Tracy. While the finish has been fully sanitized in the “2009 Indianapolis 500 Official Media Guide,” it never has been that neat-and-tidy with PT.
“I have that feeling of winning there, which I think is more important than having a piece of…you know, a trophy on your shelf,” Tracy said during a recent teleconference. “After a while, you never look at it (a trophy) anymore and it just gets tarnished.”
Tarnished is a fitting adjective. Castroneves’ second consecutive victory at IMS was not confirmed until July 2, 2002, following a protest filed on behalf of Tracy by Team Green, a denial by lndy Racing League officials, a testosterone-filled appeals hearing and an 18-page decision delivered by IRL founder Tony George.
The victory of Castroneves and Team Penske, full-time members of the IndyCar Series, was upheld over CART interlopers Tracy and Team Green. For conspiracy theorists, this was perhaps the last political salvo fired in the IRL-CART feud that had raged since the 1996 season.
Tracy vowed after the ’02 race to never again set foot inside the Speedway. Asked in September 2003 if he would consider an IRL ride for 2004, he famously replied: “I’m not driving one of those crapwagons.” But time has a way of mending wounded egos. Tracy turned a wheel at IMS for the first time since the controversy on Tuesday, posting a top speed of 223.069 mph during a refresher session for veterans as part of the Rookie Orientation Program. Driving for former CART champion Jimmy Vasser and partner Kevin Kalkhoven, Tracy will attempt to qualify for the race’s 93rd edition on Saturday.
Tracy said he is doing so without fear of the ghosts of 2002.
“I’m not haunted by it,” said Tracy, driver of the No. 15 GEICO/KV Racing Technology Dallara/Honda. “I guess I don’t have the material things that show that I won the race. I don’t have the trophy. I didn’t get the money that comes along with it.”
True enough, on Lap 199 of the scheduled 200, Tracy attempted to pass Castroneves for the lead in Turn 3 of the 2.5-mile oval. Simultaneously, a crash involving rookie Laurent Redon and 1996 Indy 500 champion Buddy Lazier in Turn 2 brought out the day’s fifth and final caution flag. IRL officials ruled the yellow came out before Tracy completed the pass, making Castroneves the winner. Tracy claimed the opposite. The protest, appeals hearing and drawn-out decision left Tracy as first loser everywhere but in his own mind.
“It’s one of those things where I’ve seen the data and I’ve seen the television footage and I’ve seen where our cars were positioned on the track,” said Tracy, a 39-year-old native of Canada now living in Las Vegas. “They can measure these cars. I watched a show on Versus a couple weeks ago, the closest finish in IndyCar Series history…they can measure these things by millimeters, the differences of thousandths of a second. The video of my car 16 feet ahead of Helio with the green light on…”
The other side of his seven-year itch, Tracy said, has been reduced to child’s play.
“I have that feeling that you long for when you’re a kid in your driveway playing hockey and you’re counting down five seconds left and you score the winning goal,” Tracy said. “We were coming down to the closing stages of the race and I made an outside pass for the win. That’s what every kid dreams about, whether you’re shooting baskets and there’s one second left on the clock and you make the basket when you’re a kid dreaming about stuff like that. That’s in my soul now.”
It’s also documented on PaulTracy.com. Seven lines down under Career Highlights is this listing: “2002 Indy 500 Runner Up (yeah right).” That’s the perfect example of the bad-boy attitude that has seen Tracy squabble with rival drivers, teammates, series officials and even his bosses during an 18-year career.
“I’m confident that Paul, with the support of GEICO and the KV Racing team, is going to provide a competitive, exciting and fascinating – if you know any of his history – entry into the Indianapolis 500,” Kalkhoven said during a news conference announcing this one-off deal at Long Beach, Calif.
“This is a great thing not only for KV but for IndyCar racing,” said Vasser, aware the series always could use an infusion of personality. “To get PT back out there, I think, is going to be phenomenal for the Month of May.”
Tracy’s 18-year career is capped by the 2003 Champ Car driver’s title. He has posted 31 Champ Car victories (sixth-all time), 25 poles (eighth) and 4,231 laps-led (sixth). He has 75 career podium (top-three) finishes, 102 top-fives and 141 top-10s in 263 starts covering 261 in Champ Car and two in IndyCar.
Ironically, Tracy’s second and most recent IndyCar start was for team-owner George and Vision Racing last summer. Tracy qualified 15th and finished fourth at Edmonton City Centre Airport, in the year of reunification between IndyCar and Champ Car.
Recall that Tracy started fifth and finished 11th for Forsythe Championship Racing in the final Champ Car race on the Streets of Long Beach in the spring of ‘08. However, Tracy became an unwitting victim of the unified series when team-owner Gerry Forsythe – who as co-owner of the Champ Car World Series helped broker the merger with George _ decided he did not have the sponsorship to fund an IndyCar program. Tracy, who had signed a five-year contract with Forsythe Racing in 2006, was reduced to spectator for all but the Edmonton race.
“Obviously it’s been frustrating,” said Tracy, who logged a one-off 20th-place finish in a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event at Texas Motor Speedway at the end of October. “The only way I can really say where I’m at today is because while the merger wheels were in process, I was being told a different story by Forsythe… that there wasn’t going to be a merger, that I was going to continue to drive for them. That all didn’t go the way it was told to me. So I was under contract to Forsythe. It took me a long time legally to be in a position where I was comfortable from a legal standpoint to go and drive for another team. So by the time I was able to do that, the season was already going and there was really no opportunity to get in another car.
“With the result in Edmonton, I thought the door would be open. Nothing really happened. Nothing happened over this winter until the last three weeks. So, it has been a little bit frustrating. But I guess it’s a lot of different factors that happen, whether it be economy, sponsorship and things like that.”
Tracy said he landed this deal with GEICO with the help of industry friend Doug Barnett, who works with the insurance giant’s NASCAR program. “Sponsorship dictates whether the wheels turn on the car,” Tracy said. “I haven’t had a sponsor. Without that (GEICO) I wouldn’t be on the track. It’s really a case of if you have money, you’ll get a ride, and if you don’t, then you sit.”
Tracy has made five Indy 500 starts, with a best qualifying effort of seventh for Team Penske in 1993. Amazingly, he has yet to lead any of the 618 combined laps he has completed around IMS. And his most recent start in ’02 was a lesson in patience as teammate to Team Green’s Michael Andretti and Dario Franchitti.
“Our focus was the CART title with Dario and myself,” said Tracy, who struggled with the setup of his No. 26 Dallara/Chevrolet at IMS. Tracy then escaped serious injury when a violent crash in Turn 2 left his primary car with heavy rear and left side damage a little over one hour before the start of Pole Day qualifications.
“We made a big, drastic change in the final practice to try to get some speed in the car,” Tracy said. “I had lost the car in Turn 2 and backed into the wall, banged myself up pretty good. Almost right then, I said to (team-owner) Barry Green, ‘I’m ready to throw in the towel on this deal. I think I should go home for a couple days and just clear my head and think about this.’ Barry said to go home for a couple days. I went home, got my head clear, because Indy is the kind of place where you run so much there, and once you get kind of sideways, get going the wrong direction, it’s hard to get going back the right way again. Sometimes the best thing to do is just go and clear your head.
“I did that. I came back. We had gotten some information and some help from some different teams and some ideas, really just changed the setup and changed a few things that we had on the car that weren’t right. Then both Dario and myself and Michael, we were all quick.”
Tracy qualified his repaired primary car on Bump Day at a four-lap average of 228.006 mph, but started a career Speedway-worst 29th in the traditional 33-car field. That 2002 race marked the first time Tracy went the distance at IMS.
“Obviously I’ve got a little bit more lead time to get ready for Indianapolis,” Tracy said. “There’s a whole week of practice before the first week of qualifying. When we went to Edmonton last summer, it was really just kind of a last-minute deal. Hadn’t driven a car in four or five months. From that standpoint I’ve kind of known for the last three, four weeks that this deal was going to come together. I’ve had time to get ready for it mentally and physically. We all share the same goal, and that’s to go there and try to win the race.
“For me, the only reason I want to go there is to try to win. It’s not to go there to qualify and make the field and have a good day.”
Tracy’s teammate at Indy will be Brazilian Mario Moraes, who spent his rookie season with Dale Coyne Racing. Tracy noted KVRT’s crew lineup features several members from his 2003 championship season with Forsythe Racing, most notably engineer John Dick.
“Well, Jimmy’s guaranteed me a fast car, so I’m taking his word on it,” Tracy said. “They qualified sixth at Kansas, which is a big, fast speedway, flat-out, (and) all that preparation is where it shows. With that, they’ve told me they’ve got a good car that they feel can win at Indianapolis.”
In Long Beach, Tracy was asked if he might petition IRL officials for extra hot laps during this week’s Rookie Orientation Program on Tuesday and Wednesday to work off the rust. Or, in this celebrated case, the tarnish.
Pausing for a moment, PT replied: “I don’t think they let past winners do that there.”