Does IndyCar Need Paul Tracy?
There. I said it. Many that have followed this site over the years are probably now scratching their collective heads. Most of what they’ve heard from me is that PT needs to hang it up. Well, we are now officially in the campaign season so waffling is not only accepted, it’s encouraged.
No, I’m not just coming out of a disorienting junk-food coma from New Year’s weekend. I still feel the same about Mr. Tracy as I always have. I think he is a loud-mouthed rube who has worn out his welcome and is well past his prime. But I also think he didn’t forget the fast way around a race track in the last few years.
Let’s not forget that in the nineties, Roger Penske thought enough of Tracy’s driving talents to hire him not once, but twice. He tore up a lot of cars for The Captain, but he also won a lot of races. After he left Marlboro Team Penske for good, he signed with Team Kool Green where he had more success as well as more controversy. In 1999, he had seven podium finishes including two wins en route to a third place finish in the points. Oh yeah, he also started that season on the sidelines due to a CART suspension for his boorish behavior at the end of the 1998 season, which included a pitside brawl with his car owner Barry Green in Houston.
Some scoff at his 2003 championship season because they say it was against sub-par competition in CART. But just like Eddie Cheever is an Indianapolis 500 winner – Paul Tracy is a championship-winning driver. Actually, that’s not a fair comparison because Tracy had been in the running against real competition in earlier years.
There is not much about Paul Tracy that doesn’t rub me the wrong way. I cheered for him when he made his debut with Penske in a blue Mobil-1 car painted in a livery similar to the sister Marlboro cars at Michigan in 1991. He appeared to be a mild-mannered kid with preppy horn-rimmed glasses that was eager to learn. Somewhere along the way, he became brash, controversial and very unlikable. But he was always fun to watch.
So after many posts where I said that Tracy needed to hang it up, have I had a sudden change of heart? Well, not exactly.
But in a way, I think Paul Tracy is a victim. That’s not a word I throw around much. In this day and age of self-pity, I think this world has way too many self-proclaimed victims. Very few times do I think someone is actually an innocent victim of their circumstances, but Paul Tracy actually is. With the Champ Car and IRL unification prior to the 2008 season, most of the Champ Car teams migrated over to the IRL, except for Forsythe Racing – Paul Tracy’s team. Gerry Forsythe wanted nothing to do with Tony George’s league and chose to pout, take his ball and go home. Unfortunately, he had Paul Tracy under contract and refused to release him until the season was well underway and all the rides had been taken. Tracy ended up driving in only one race that season – at Edmonton in a third car for Tony George’s Vision Racing, which he promptly drove to a fourth place finish.
For 2009, Tracy could only muster up a five-race deal with his then-buddy Jimmy Vasser and KV Racing Technology with GEICO sponsorship and an embarrassingly disastrous one-race deal with Foyt at Milwaukee. The best he could do with KV in 2009 was seventh at Mid-Ohio. His 2010 season consisted of a three-race deal at KV and then fill-in duty for three races at Dreyer & Reinbold, substituting for the injured Mike Conway. His KV ride at Indianapolis failed to make the starting grid.
For 2011, the GEICO sponsorship at KV went to a full-season deal for Tony Kanaan. Tracy claims that he was the one that found that sponsorship and was none too happy. He attacked KV and Jimmy Vasser on Twitter and I’m not sure if they ever patched things up. Tracy signed with Dreyer & Reinbold for a one-race deal at Indianapolis and then signed a separate five race deal with Jay Penske’s struggling Dragon Racing. The best result was a twelfth place finish in the first race at Texas.
It’s been painful to watch an aging champion who was filled with so much bravado reduced to part-time rides with second and third tier teams. He turned forty-three last month and has been driving like it. The question is; has he lost that much speed or is he just driving slow cars for struggling teams?
In the early nineties, IndyCar racing was the domain of seasoned veterans. Gary Bettenhausen, Al Unser, AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Gordon Johncock, Tom Sneva and Johnny Rutherford were all driving in their fifties. That no longer happens. Davey Hamilton, John Andretti and Paul Tracy were the only drivers over the age of forty to drive in 2011. It is a young man’s game – much more so than it was when Tracy started driving.
Few drivers benefit from a part-time schedule, unless it is an up and coming rookie wanting to be noticed by other teams. There is no benefit to a forty-three year-old driver being in a car only four or five times a year – especially when it involves a lower tier team. It takes time for drivers and teams to gel, no matter how much experience is involved.
Since his last full-time gig with Forsythe in 2007, Paul Tracy has driven in only nineteen races, which doesn’t even average out to five races per season. In that time, his average finish has been just slightly worse than fourteenth – not really enough to justify his claims that he needs to be in a car full-time.
But if he can put the funding together for a full-time ride for 2012, I think a team would be justified in giving him a shot – if for no other reason, to squelch his claims that he is deserving of such. Seriously, with all things being equal – and that includes cash – is it more appealing for Dale Coyne to have James Jakes in a car over Paul Tracy? If for nothing else, it could have provided great internet fodder for Coyne to team Tracy alongside his nemesis Sébastien Bourdais; had Justin Wilson not decided to return to Dale Coyne Racing, as reported by Marshall Pruett yesterday. Now that Wilson is headed there, perhaps that opens up a full-time slot for Tracy at Dreyer & Reinbold.
So my stance on Paul Tracy is that he is a talented driver whose act has worn thin. But he was cheated out of a legitimate shot in the IZOD IndyCar Series by an egotistical owner trying to prove some meaningless point. He has been relentless in his pursuit of sponsorship. I think he deserves one last shot.
The series lost one of its biggest stars last fall in Dan Wheldon. This was already a series that was struggling for star power. Like him or not, Paul Tracy carries a fairly high level of name recognition – at least he used to. Some call him colorful, but I simply call him controversial. Although I don’t care for his behavior, it appeals to a lot of people – people that this series needs to be watching their races.
I think the IZOD IndyCar Series needs Paul Tracy on a full-time basis. Having him in a part-time ride is pointless. Anything less than a full-time ride does a disservice to Tracy, his fans and the series in general.