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Tracy Going For First/Second Victory At Indy

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 23 2009
Paul Tracy and his team owner, Jimmy Vasser have a lot to race for on Sunday.

Paul Tracy and his team owner, Jimmy Vasser have a lot to race for on Sunday.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Indianapolis – Paul Tracy has been promised a trip to West Allis, Wis., next weekend, and another open-wheel race start, if he can win Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.

Which begs this carrot question…if PT does win the 93rd edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” will he hold up one finger or two in Victory Circle at Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

“I’m not going to answer that until it happens,” said Tracy, momentarily skirting the issue of his controversial runner-up finish to Helio Castroneves here in 2002. “I don’t want to jinx myself. If that happens, we’ll see. But I do like milk.”

While Tracy remains steadfast that he won the 86th edition of the Indy 500 on May 26, 2002, the Canadian has not been whacking people over the head with it during his return to IMS after a seven-year hiatus. After qualifying 13th in the 33-car field on May 10, Tracy has run a limited and quiet Month of May in the No. 15 GEICO/KV Racing Technology Dallara/Honda co-owned by Jimmy Vasser and Kevin Kalkhoven. Tracy said Vasser, the 1996 CART champion, made the offer this week to drive in Round 5 of the IndyCar Series at The Milwaukee Mile on May 31.

“Jimmy told me if I win here, he’ll run me at Milwaukee,” said Tracy, whose sponsorship deal with insurance giant GEICO is for Indy only. “So, that’s the only promise I have. That’s what he says. He shook my hand on it, and his word is good. I think if I win here, it’d be pretty hard to keep me out of the series for sure. I’d be pretty surprised if that happened.”

Tracy tuned-up for his sixth Indy 500 – and first start of the 2009 schedule – during Friday’s Carburetion Day practice with a trouble-free, one-hour session.

“For sure, we’re ready,” said Tracy, who has yet to lead any of the 618 race-day laps he has completed around the 2.5-mile IMS oval. “The GEICO car is handling great. We did some pit stop practice and everything’s good, so we’ve just got another day to wait. We did a few setup changes during practice. I wasn’t too happy with it to start out, but we got it better at the end.

“I’ve been racing a long time, so (returning to the track) is like getting on a bicycle. (Indy) is big speed, big crowds and a lot of drama during the race. This is a once-in-a lifetime race and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Tracy’s fifth Indy 500 start ended with a broken heart in ‘02. Racing on Lap 199 of the scheduled 200, Tracy attempted to pass Castroneves for the lead in Turn 3. 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. Indy Racing League officials ruled the yellow came out before Tracy completed the pass, making Castroneves the winner. Tracy claimed the opposite.

Team Green dutifully filed a protest on Tracy’s behalf with IRL officials. Castroneves’ second consecutive victory at IMS was not confirmed until July 2, 2002, following the protest, a denial by IRL officials, an appeals hearing and an 18-page decision delivered by IRL founder Tony George.

The victory of Castroneves and Team Penske, fulltime members of the IndyCar Series, over CART interlopers Tracy and Team Green was perhaps the last political salvo fired in the IRL-CART feud that had raged since the 1996 season.

Tracy, who vowed after the 2002 decision never to return to IMS, landed this ride last month. And he has been fast at IMS since the opening day of practice with the rookie class on May 5.

I haven’t raced here at the Speedway in seven years, and the car was so good I got up to speed very quickly,” Tracy said. “I ran 220 on like my fourth lap of practice. The car’s been very good, very consistent.”

Among those who have taken note is Dario Franchitti, one of Tracy’s Team Green teammates here in 2002. Franchitti, the 2007 Indy 500 winner and series champion with Andretti Green Racing, is among the pre-race favorites starting on the outside of the three-car front row in his new ride with Target Chip Ganassi Racing. But the Scotsman likes what he has seen out of his old running mate.

“Oh, let’s be honest,” Franchitti said. “You don’t ever count Paul Tracy out, do you? I would say PT, don’t count him out. Paul, him and I were chatting (Wednesday night) outside the bus (motorhome), and he’s definitely mellowed with age out of the car. He definitely has. He was showing me pictures of him and his wife’s little dogs and stuff and I’m like, ‘Damn!’

“But I know. I watched him the first day of whatever they call the ‘refresher practice’ for him, and he went out and he stood on it. That was…wow. First laps and he was right up to speed. He hasn’t been here for seven years, and he’ll treat the race the same way. He just…he will not give up.”

In addition to Vasser’s promise, Tracy learned this week that KVRT will field a car for him at the two Canadian races on the series schedule this summer.Tracy will compete at the Honda Indy Toronto on July 12 and the Rexall Edmonton Indy on July 26.

“We have a sponsor (for Canada) but we’re not going to announce it yet,” Tracy said. “The sponsor wants to wait a couple of weeks until all the news settles down from this weekend to make their announcement. “

Tracy said he is cool with that, although he continues to struggle with the reality that the merger of IndyCar and the Champ Car World Series last year left him without a fulltime ride. During a span of 18 seasons, Tracy has posted 31 victories, 102 top-five finishes and 25 poles. In his only start of the 2008 season, Tracy finished fourth at Edmonton while driving for Vision Racing – the team owned by the IRL’s George.

“It bothers me sometimes but you have to look at the whole picture,” said Tracy, the 2003 Champ Car Champion. “These cars don’t run without dollars behind them. The top teams – Ganassi and Penske and Newman/Haas and Andretti Green – they’re set, the drivers, with long-term contracts. To get into one of those cars, you have to wait for a contract to open up. And with the way the economy is, everything fell apart over the winter financially for a lot of people…people’s investments went bad…I know my portfolio is down 20 percent of what it was.

“When you’re looking at a guy trying to make ends meet with his team and you can take a guy – you know, I don’t drive for free – and there’s a lot of drivers out here who will do it for nothing, or pay you to do it. That’s the way racing has always been. There’s not a lot of sponsors out here with the economy.”

Tracy, 40, said he has been heartened to hear that many of his peers believe he has a solid shot at winning this event. “I think the veterans that are out here – guys like Dario, (Scott) Dixon and (Tony) Kanaan and Helio – they’ve raced against me in the past and they’ve seen me win races with cars that are not the fastest car on the track. I think they know our cars are fast – the KV Racing cars are fast. And they know I’ve got enough experience that when I’ve got a fast car, I can be a threat to win.”

Furthermore, Tracy said he truly is at peace with being back at IMS.

“Yeah, I want to race and this is the only place to race,” Tracy said. “For me, I would love to race NASCAR if I was in my 20s or 30s again. But that’s a hard lifestyle and I’m at the age now where I’ve gotten so used to 16 or 18 races a year. And I specialize in these kinds of cars, and I’m not in my 20s anymore. I realize I’m not going to race forever. I’d like to do a couple more years, run as long as I’m competitive and hopefully that opportunity will open up.”

Asked what he thought Tracy ought to do if he win this Indy 500, Franchitti paused and said, “I would say he should hold up two (fingers)…I would say I think he will. You know PT. Yeah.”

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 23 2009
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