Presented by Racemaker Press

"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Paul Tracy's odyssey

by Gordon Kirby
They don't make them like Paul Tracy anymore. Tracy is a throwback to a less politically correct time. He's a rarity in IndyCar today, a driver who speaks his mind, wears his emotions on his sleeve and, at 43, still drives with the same aggressive verve that made people love him or hate him over twenty-one years racing Indy cars.

When Tracy made his Indy car debut in Dale Coyne's car at Long Beach in '91 he was as unlikey a racing driver as you might find. Pudgy, bespectacled and shy he may not have looked like an Indy car driver but he could hustle a car with the best of them. Paul had shown what he could do in karts, Formula Fords, Can-Am cars and Indy Lights and looked right at home in his first laps in Coyne's Indy car.

I watched the opening practice session at Long Beach that year with Bobby Unser. It's gone now, but in those days there was a chicane that passed beneath the Hyatt Hotel's parking garage so we were able to watch from above and look down into the cockpits as the drivers worked their way through the chicane. It provided a great view of braking, turning, gear-shifting, power-down, and Tracy looked as good, if not better than anyone.

© Paul Webb
"Goddamn!" Unser grinned. "That boy can drive, can't he!"

We watched, fascinated, for most of the session before Bobby turned to walk away.

"I'm going to tell Roger he better hire that kid, and quick!"

Bobby took off headed for the pitlane in search of Penske who had already taken note of Tracy's lap times and was intrigued to hear his former driver's enthusiastic assessment.

Pudgy kid or not, Paul soon was a Penske driver. He was hired as a third-string back-up driver beside Penske's regular superstars Rick Mears and Emerson Fittipaldi and earned a full-time ride at the end of 1992 when Mears decided to retire.

In 1993, his first full year, Tracy battled unsuccessfully for the CART title with Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell--both F1 world champions. Tracy and Mansell each won five races that year, two more than Fittipaldi, but Paul couldn't match the consistency or finishing records of his more experienced rivals and wound up third in points.

Al Unser Jr. joined Penske in 1994 in a full-bore three-car team and Unser, Fittipaldi and Tracy swept CART's championship, sharing twelve wins and finishing one-two-three in points. But Tracy and Unser didn't get along and Paul was farmed out to Newman/Haas in 1995 where he won three races and enjoyed a happy year partnered with Michael Andretti. Tracy says his year with Newman/Haas was one of the healthiest of his career because the team allowed him to be himself rather than wanting him to become a corporate cypher.

Penske took Tracy back for 1996, this time farming-out Fittipaldi to Carl Hogan's team. Emerson's career came to an end that summer when he crashed heavily on the opening lap of the Michigan 500. Meanwhile Tracy and Unser continued as barely-teammates during trying times as the Reynard-Honda-Firestone combination hit its stride with Chip Ganassi's team.

For the first time in twenty years Penske failed to win a race in '96. The following year Tracy was able to score the last three wins for a Penske Indy car before a three-year drought followed for Penske. By the time Penske was back in victory circle in 2000 he had given up building his own cars and was running Reynard-Hondas on Firestone tires. The days of Penske Indy cars was over.

Meanwhile Tracy joined Barry Green's team in 1998 and drove for Green through 2002 teamed with Dario Franchitti. During this time he won six races and finished third behind Juan Pablo Montoya and Franchitti in CART's 1999 championship. After a six-year absence amid the CART/IRL split Paul returned to the Indy 500 in 2002 and scored a disputed win after passing Helio Castroneves on lap 199 moments before the yellow light blinked on. But Tracy was relegated to second after Barry Green's protest was rejected by Tony George and the IRL as unappealable.

Before and after the '02 Indy 500 Tracy remained an unabashed supporter of CART and Champ Car. When Green departed CART for the IRL in '03 Tracy enthusiastically joined Jerry Forsythe's team and drove for Forsythe from 2003-'07. Tracy won the Champ Car title in '03 and battled with Sebastien Bourdais and Newman/Haas in succeeding years.

For most of that time Tracy was Champ Car's biggest draw but the unification of Champ Car and the IRL was a disaster for Tracy. On completion of the deal Forsythe pulled out leaving Tracy without a ride. He ran only two races in 2008--Champ Car's last hurrah at Long Beach and the Edmonton IRL race. Since then Tracy has bounced around from team to team driving for KV Racing, Dreyer & Reinbold, A.J. Foyt, Jay Penske and others. He started six races in '09, five in '10 and six last year.

Dan Weldon's death at Las Vegas last October made Tracy think briefly about retiring but his love affair with racing continues and he believes he can still do the job with the right team and support. As everyone knows, he's hoping to pull together a team with Mike Shank who has bought a car and wants to make it happen. Shank was disappointed to hear last week that, like Bryan Herta's Indy 500-winning team and Rahal Letterman Lanigan's revived IndyCar team, his operation will not be part of IndyCar's Leader's Circle program.

© Paul Webb
"I told Mike to not count on the Leader's Circle money," Tracy said last week. "But he was pretty disappointed and he gave Randy Bernard a piece of his mind. He's pretty unhappy about the lack of communication from IndyCar.

"I'm waiting on Shank to see if he's going to throw the dice or not. I've got some sponsorship and there's a contract ready to be signed if he decides to dive into the pool headfirst."

Tracy is impressed by Shank's desire to pull together a new IndyCar team in tough economic times.

"He's not jumping in to make a bunch of money. He's doing it because he wants to do it. I've said to him, 'Mike, are you sure this is what you want to do?' I've told him it's not the best situation to sell sponsorship and he recognizes that. But he says it's always been his dream to own an Indy car team and race at Indianapolis. He says if he doesn't do it now he'll never get another chance to do it.

"Mike is the best guy out there by far to try to do this deal with. He won't just take your money. He'll put his heart into doing it right."

If Tracy and Shank can make it happen they'll start the year with little or no testing. With a new car and new engines it will be an uphill struggle.

"We're in the ass end of the starting gate," Tracy admits. "We'll have a hell of a lot of work to do. It ain't gonna be easy."

Tracy drove Kevin Doran's Dallara-Ford in this years Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona with Brian and Burt Friselle, Jim Lowe and Billy Johnson. The combination brought Doran's car home in seventh place and Tracy is likely to drive for Doran this year in a few more Grand-Am races.

"After Daytona, Kevin asked me if I'd like to drive three or four more races for him," Tracy said. "They're going to run at Indianapolis, Montreal and the Glen. So at least I've got that as a fallback."

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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