A New Act For Paul Tracy

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For my friends north of the border, I’ll apologize in advance for anything in this post that might rub you the wrong way. But one of their own, former driver Paul Tracy, was named to the NBCSN booth for six races this season – including this Sunday’s race at Long Beach.

Years ago, I established the fact that I am not a huge fan of Paul Tracy. I think he was an exciting driver to watch in his day. There were many times that I thought he had gotten a raw deal on the track. But there were so many times that he brought his problems on himself, that it was hard for me to pull for him most of the time.

It was fascinating to watch Paul Tracy morph into what he has become today. Many of us remember the sight of a clean-cut, preppie looking kid with the round horn-rimmed glasses climbing into the cockpit of a Mobil One Penske car with the same paint scheme as the sister Marlboro cars, only in blue instead of red in 1991. He said all the right things and came across as meek, mild and grateful to have such a ride.

Somewhere along the way, he lost the prep-school demeanor and embraced a motif more befitting of Guy Fieri. His reddish school boy hair was transformed into blondish, sometimes white hair with spikes. He lost the glasses, but gained his share of visible tattoos. His boyish innocence turned into a brashness that was tough to stomach. You wondered which was the act – was Tracy an Eddie Haskell clone that was playing the role of a prototypical Penske driver, or was his brashness a false bravado that was created to intimidate others? More than twenty years later, I’m still not sure.

Did a marketing or PR guy get hold of Tracy somewhere around 1993 and advise him that if he wanted to be remembered, he was going to have to ditch his current image and try to craft this rebellious monster from scratch? If that’s what happened, someone gave him some bad advice. Rick Mears was the opposite of what Tracy has become and no one seems to have trouble recollecting his career.

Tracy’s defenders will tell you that his present bad-boy image is all an act. They say that in private, he more resembles the driver we first saw when he emerged at Team Penske as the heir to Rick Mears’ ride. To me – that makes this current version of Tracy even harder to take. Nothing comes across as more disingenuous that someone trying to be something they are not. I enjoy those with fiery personalities, if they are genuine. AJ Foyt and Robin Miller both come to mind. No one questions the sincerity of a Foyt blow-up or a Robin Miller rant. But when the bespectacled preppy kid transforms himself into a caricature of a rogue – something rings a little hollow

Looking back, I think maybe the main reason I’m not a Tracy fan is because his act is transparent. When he first showed up at Penske after a few stints with Dale Coyne, I was a huge Tracy fan. He was my kind of athlete. He seemingly had no ego, knew his place in the scheme of things and presented himself well. Plus – he could drive the heck out of a race car.

At Michigan in 1992, Al Unser, Jr. went up and grabbed Tracy by the neck after the race, just as he was crawling out of his car on national television. Tracy looked shocked and scared to death. Unser came across as a frustrated bully, while Tracy appeared to be an innocent victim. But at some point, the roles reversed. Tracy became the bully on the track and started fights off of it. I wasn’t sure if this was the same kid I used to like.

Things came to a head in 1998, when Tracy and his car owner, Barry Green, got into a shoving match on pit lane in Houston, late in the season. This led to Tracy serving a one-race suspension to begin the 1999 season.

Whichever version is the real Paul Tracy; there is no denying that he was fun to watch in the car. He could pull some bone-headed moves from time to time, but could also be fearless and brilliant behind the wheel. His emotions drove him to that brilliance, but sometimes they got the best of him. He did not back down in a car, and was fun to watch. His use of the “chrome horn” got him in trouble a few times, but also served him well in many races. It helped him to finally win the 2003 CART championship, while driving for Gerry Forsythe.

Where I permanently soured on Tracy however, was after the controversial 2002 Indianapolis 500. I don’t blame him for thinking he had initially won the race. The late-race yellow came out just as Tracy was passing Helio Castroneves heading into Turn Three. After filing a protest and the results being reviewed for several weeks by a somewhat partial board – Castroneves was declared the official winner.

Did Tracy and Barry Green have a strong case? Yes. Did things look fishy with Tony George presiding over the hearing, after regular CART drivers had won the previous two 500’s? Definitely. But Tracy did not handle it well. He did not accept the verdict of the hearing. When asked if he would return the next year, he responded that he didn’t want to drive one of those “Crapwagons”. The term has endured as a rallying cry for those still lingering on the CART/Champ Car side of The Split.

On Monday, I wrote about drivers becoming bitter as they approached retirement. Tracy carried his bitterness regarding the 2002 Indianapolis 500 way too far. To this day he considers himself the winner of that race. He will post on Twitter that he is miffed when he is not invited to a gathering of Indianapolis 500 winners. It’s gone beyond funny. It comes across as petty and pathetic at the same time. I’m convinced that Tennessee was a recipient of a bad call with 6.9 seconds left against Michigan last Friday night. But I don’t continue to refer to them as an Elite Eight team. It’s been twelve years. Tracy needs to let it go.

But Paul Tracy became a sympathetic figure during the unification of the two series in 2008. He was still driving for Gerry Forsythe, who wanted nothing to do with the new unified series. Not only that while many former Champ Car drivers were scurrying to finalize their plans – Forsythe maintained he would hold Tracy to his contract and not allow him to join the merger. By the time Forsythe relented on that stance, all rides were gone. Paul Tracy was literally left on the outside looking in.

Some thought a team would make room for him. After all, he was a former champion. But he was five years removed from that championship season. He was a lightening rod for controversy and he was approaching forty. Those are not good traits for someone needing a ride, with so few to go around.

Tracy had some sporadic appearances in the series over the next few years. He finally returned to the Indianapolis 500 in 2009, for the first time since the controversial race in 2002; starting thirteenth and finishing ninth. Due to a backfired strategy, he missed the race in 2010. His final appearance as a driver at Indianapolis was the centennial year of 2011. It was very unremarkable – starting and finishing twenty-fifth. His last appearance in an IndyCar was the ill-fated race at Las Vegas, later that season.

So now, we get to enjoy the fully retired version of Paul Tracy in the booth this weekend. Tracy is now forty-five and seems to have come to grips with the idea that his driving career is over. He still will post a few snarky tweets now and then, but his tone seems much more mellow. There is no doubt that with a twenty year career of driving Indy cars, he can give us a lot of keen insight. Some will maintain that that is what Townsend Bell is for. But Paul Tracy has won a lot more IndyCar races than Townsend Bell – say to the tune of thirty wins for Tracy compared to zero for Bell. I think Townsend Bell is a decent driver and a good analyst, but I’m going to pay a little more attention to what Paul Tracy has to say.

If Paul Tracy can leave his act at home and check his ego at the door, I think he will do a very good job. He speaks well and is intelligent. But if he uses this opportunity as a way to continue his act and enhance his brand as a bad-boy. It will make for a long and arduous telecast. It is my hope that we’ll look forward to his remaining five races on NBCSN, instead of dreading them.

George Phillips

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6 Responses to “A New Act For Paul Tracy”

  1. S.Nelson Says:

    Only a few yeas ago he had a lot of the folks at Track Forum behind him when he was a poster. That was until he started complaint on the board about the series not helping him financially with a ride. He later claimed that his TF account was hacked after some bad mouthing was made. Maybe it was hacked.

  2. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    I think that PT could offer many good insights and that he likely will, but I also believe that with an open mic he has enormous loose cannon potential. Should be interesting…

  3. billytheskink Says:

    In fairness to Tracy, the late 1990s were a time when the spiky bleach-blond hair trend was infecting racers and normal people alike. Jacques Villeneuve and Jeremy McGrath, two of the best in world in what they raced during that time, come to mind as others who were sucked into the frosted tips vortex back then.

    I don’t feel I know enough to opine on how genuine Tracy’s brash attitude is, but I do think it is fair to point out that many drivers become more outspoken as their careers progress. I do know that interviews with the young versions of AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, and Bobby Unser (to name a few) come across as quite subdued compared the personalities that we now know them for.

    What I remember most about Al Unser Jr’s post-race “discussion” with Tracy in 1992 was how entertaining it was to learn that Unser talked in the same “aww shucks” tone of voice when he was angry and swearing as he did when happy and excited.

    Tracy in the booth is an interesting experiment and I hope it goes well.

  4. Ron Ford Says:

    I hope I never get on your bad side.

  5. I have never cared for the guy…I don’t understand the hype with him…if it wasn’t for Robin Miller always talking about him, would anyone even care…he is on tv because of Miller…if he is this over loved Canadian the few claim he is, then why won’t a Canadian company back this guy in a car…hopefully this Sunday will be the last time I have to hear about him…except from robin miller, who seems to be Paul Tracy’s personal fluffer…sorry any conversation about Paul Tracy seems to anger me…I would compare the Payl Tracy fans today with the hillbillies who still are rooting for the south to rise back up…sadly hanging on to a thread…

  6. Nicely written article summing up his career. I learned some things I didn’t know. I thought you did a great job balancing out our review of his career and personas. Sadly, the only real memories I gave of PT is his not driving well and complaining about no one being willing to fund a driver of his caliber. He came across on tv as a bitter man, even when he had a ride for the weekend.

    Something you didn’t touch on, George, was his petty arguing and treatment of Jimmy Vasser when KVM wouldn’t give him a fully funded ride. Remember his sniping Tweets at the time? Not classy and not a way to advance your career with any other potential team or sponsor.

    Not much of a team player either. I still remember the race at Watkins where Mario Moraes, the primary driver at KV at the time and his teammate (PT was occasionally driving their second car), was trying to pass him. The pass would have put PT a lap down, so, instead of allowing his teammate to pass, then hindering the next car, PT punted Mario off the track, wrecking him and ending his race. Then he wonders why KV isn’t interested in him?

    Good thing they always broadcast the race on a 1-2 minute daly. I just hope the guy on the bleep button is quick.

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