There are certain events in our lives that we remember every detail – where we were, what the weather was, and so forth. I’m old enough to remember when JFK was assassinated. I was only five years old at the time, but I remember it vividly. I was ready to start my sophomore year in college and had already met Susan, whom I would marry thirty-five years later, when Elvis Presley died. I know exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard then news that afternoon on the radio.
It was fifteen years ago today, that I was watching the 1999 Marlboro 500 at what was then California Speedway in Fontana, CA. It seems like yesterday.
It was an unusually warm Halloween Sunday and the CART championship was to be decided. The championship was down to two drivers – Juan Montoya and Dario Franchitti. By the end of the day, both drivers would be tied and Montoya would win the tie-breaker based on more wins.
But the championship would become secondary on that day. For that day fifteen years ago, was the day that promising young driver, Greg Moore from Canada, would be fatally injured in a Turn Two crash on Lap Nine.
Moore’s death shook the world of open-wheel racing. He was not a rising star, or a star in the making – he already was a star.
Greg Moore drove only four seasons in CART, but showed signs of brilliance in each. He was still nineteen when he made his rookie debut at Homestead in 1996, yet he finished seventh in his very first race. As most rookies do, he went winless that rookie season, but posted three podium finishes on his way to a ninth place finish in points. His first career victory came the following year at Milwaukee. He followed that up with another win in his very next race at Belle Isle, proving that his talents covered short ovals and the tight confines of a street circuit. Aside from those two wins, his second season saw Moore earn three additional podiums.
1998 was Moore’s breakout season. Not only did he post two more wins, but he had six more Top-Five finishes on his way to a fifth place finish in the points. One of his wins that’s season came at Rio de Janeiro, where he completed one of the most impressive passes I’ve seen in all the years that I’ve followed this sport. He cut across the nose of an unsuspecting Alex Zanardi while entering Turn One. At the time, it seemed to serve notice that there would be a changing of the guard as the upstart showed up the defending CART champion on his way to victory.
Greg Moore had come of age at the young age of twenty-three. He was acknowledged by fans and drivers alike as CART’s future. He was fan-friendly and deeply respected by his fellow drivers for his talent and ability. His results were even more impressive when you considered that his entire CART career was spent saddled with what by that time was an underwhelming Mercedes-Benz engine that was outclassed weekly by Honda and Ford.
The 1999 season could not have started better for Moore. He won the opening race at Homestead and it looked as if he was to be a threat to win the championship in only his fourth season. A solid fourth place finish in the next race at Motegi did nothing to squelch those thoughts. As it turned out, Moore had won his last race. The second half of a season that started with so much promise saw Moore score seven DNF’s in the second half of the season.
Moore’s contract with Gerry Forsythe was up at the end of the 1999 season. His poor results were mostly attributed to the Mercedes engine and a team that was slipping. The results did nothing to dim Greg Moore’s star power. Roger Penske’s team was another that had been slipping and was in need of a house-cleaning. Al Unser, Jr. was moving on. So was Goodyear. Penske moved to Honda and even ditched his own chassis in favor of the favored Reynard. Tim Cindric was joining The Captain, after a successful stint at Team Rahal. Prior to the season finale at Fontana, Roger Penske had announced the fresh pairing of Gil de Ferran and Greg Moore would be his driver lineup for the 2000 season. It was the signal of a fresh start for Marlboro Team Penske.
Heading into that season finale, Moore was simply trying to salvage a top-ten finish in points in his last ride at Player’s/Forsythe racing before moving on to a promising future at Penske. On the day before the race, Moore’s hand was injured when a car in the parking lot near the paddock backed into his oncoming scooter; prior to qualifying. The next morning, he was cleared to drive with a brace on his right hand, although he would start at the back of the field since he had posted no qualifying speed.
By Lap Nine, Moore was already moving up through the field when he lost control of his car in Turn Two. Without going into the gruesome details, it was a horrifying crash. When you saw it, you feared the worst. Later in the race, our worst fears were confirmed. Twenty-four year old Greg Moore had been pronounced dead.
None of the drivers in the race, won by Adrian Fernandez, had been told of Moore’s fate. Max Papis was on the podium celebrating, when his car owner, Bobby Rahal, whispered the news to him. His disappearing smile was evident to everyone.
Compared to when I was growing up in the sixties, racing fatalities are a rare thing these days. Unfortunately, they still happen. Counting the death of Jovy Marcelo at Indianapolis in 1992, there have been eight IndyCar racing fatalities. That’s an average of one every 2.75 years, which is still disturbingly high.
Not to minimize the loss of others that have been fatally injured, but the loss of Greg Moore rocked this sport more than any other I’ve seen – except perhaps the loss of Dan Wheldon a little more than three years ago. Although it seems like yesterday, I have to realize that there are some IndyCar fans out there that don’t remember Greg Moore. That’s a shame.
He was one of the brightest talents I’ve seen come along in a long time. To sign with Roger Penske at age twenty-four, tells you how evident his talent was. Of course, we all know that the seat Moore was to fill eventually went to Helio Castroneves, who went on to win three Indianapolis 500’s, finish second in two more and be in the mix for several championships. Realizing how competitive that ride has been over the years, one can only reflect and ponder what might have been had Greg Moore lived to fulfill that dream.
After I grew up, Halloween has never been one of my favorite days to celebrate. It used to hold a little more significance to me, because it was also my grandmother’s birthday. But for the past fifteen years, October 31st has really meant only one thing for me. It was the day that Maple Ridge, British Columbia and open-wheel racing lost a bright star and a true talent. Please remember Greg Moore today.