Paul Tracy – The Good With The Bad

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Even though Paul Tracy had his first start in IndyCars for Dale Coyne at Long Beach in 1991, I must admit, I don’t remember it. My first recollection of Paul Tracy was later that summer at Michigan, when he had been signed as a test driver for Roger Penske. He appeared as a well-mannered, preppy kid with horn-rimmed glasses and a ton of potential.

His new Penske teammates, Rick Mears and Emerson Fittipaldi, started alongside each other on the front row in the traditional Marlboro livery. Tracy started eighth in a Mobil 1 car with the same Marlboro paint scheme, but in blue (seen here) instead of the familiar day-glo red. In his pre-race interview, he delivered all of the typical Penske sound bites and gave every indication that he would be the next big thing from Penske.

On Lap Three, he slammed into the outside wall on the front-stretch. What was left of his car, rolled helplessly toward the infield. His day was done within two minutes, resulting in a broken leg. He returned for the final two races; a respectable seventh place at Nazareth and a comical ouster at Laguna Seca, where he got stuck with his rear wheels spinning away while hanging over the curbing. 1991 was not a sign of things to come for PT.

When Rick Mears found himself upside-down during practice for the 1992 Indianapolis 500, it marked the beginning of the end of Mears’s career. He injured his wrist in the crash, an injury that would keep him in and out of the car throughout the 1992 CART season. He would announce his retirement at the Penske Christmas party.

Paul Tracy had been promised a handful of races for 1992. With Mears’s injury, he found himself subbing for Rick at several races and wound up running in eleven events. Suddenly, another Paul Tracy was emerging. He bounced Rick Mears’s car around like a pinball, angering many of his competitors. In his Mobil 1 car at Michigan, he drove a very aggressive race to finish an impressive second. Unfortunately, he had incurred the wrath of Little Al who yanked him out of the car and shook him like a rag-doll on national TV.

By 1993, he was in the #12 Marlboro car full-time with Rick Mears serving as his mentor. He won his first race at Long Beach, but by mid-season had developed the reputation of a brash kid with no fear that tore up equipment. 1994 saw more of the same, and by season’s end, he was odd man out as Little Al had joined the team and won the championship. When Tracy joined Newman-Haas in 1995, he didn’t try to hide his glee when his former Penske team failed to qualify at Indy, while Tracy was safely in the field.

In a strange move, Tracy returned to Penske for two more years in 1996-97. I say strange, because the PT that we know today was really beginning to take shape. That was not an image that fit into the Roger Penske mold. When you look at all the drivers that drove for The Captain over the years, they all share similar traits–reserved, team player, controlled, professional. Even his current drivers, including Will Power, fit that mold. And then, there was Tracy–brash, confrontational, highly charged and emotional. He didn’t fit in well, at the buttoned-down Marlboro Team Penske. When he went to Team Green and then to Forsythe, he was given the freedom to become what he is today.

Now on the other side of forty, he has unfortunately found himself in the curious position of being on the outside looking in. He got royally screwed by Forsythe and deserves to be in this series. As if he needed to, he proved he belonged at Edmonton last year. Fortunately, his friend Jimmy Vasser came to his rescue and placed him in a second car with KV Racing Technologies. The deal, for now, is for Indy only. I hope it will be for more.

I’ll state this up front…I have NEVER been a Paul Tracy fan. He comes across as a jerk with a massive ego, and he still tears up equipment. That being said, the man can still flat-out drive a racecar. I also think that his volatile personality is something this series needs right now, and what better place to put him on center stage than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

If the marketing gurus at 16th and Georgetown are smart (after all, they gave us “I am Indy”), they will replay the controversial finish of the 2002 race many times over to stir things up. Unlike PT, I really don’t think he won it. However, I agree with Curt Cavin. I think Tracy is being somewhat “tongue in cheek” by his insisting he won it. I think he is playing the media to get the most out of it.

Of all the one-offs lined up for Indy this year, I think he has the best chance of any of them. He is with a good team that is struggling with a second year driver. They can use the boost. Will I be pulling for him to win? No, but I certainly hope he’s competitive not only on race day, but throughout the month. It’ll make for a great show. And right now, the Indy 500 needs a great show.

George Phillips

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One Response to “Paul Tracy – The Good With The Bad”

  1. foyt14 Says:

    George, well written. Throughout his career I have gone back and forth with Mr. Paul Tracy, but I could never take my eyes off of him. As for this year’s Indianapolis 500, I am pulling for Tracy to get a top 10 and depending who is in the lead or not I just might pull for him to win. How about a Tracy/Helio showdown with 20 miles left. Maybe that would be too much to ask for.

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