Greg Moore: What Might Have Been
While today (Friday Oct 30) marks the fifty-fifth anniversary of the death of three-time Indy 500 winner Wilbur Shaw; most present-day race fans are justifiably focused on tomorrow’s ten-year anniversary of the death of one of Indy car’s brightest stars – Greg Moore.
Although he competed in only four seasons in CART from 1996 to 1999, Moore demonstrated enough talent to show that he would one day be considered one of the greats of our sport.
Greg Moore hailed from Maple Ridge, B.C. just outside of Vancouver. He began running Indy Lights in 1993 with his family’s underfunded team at the age of seventeen. In 1994, he won three races and finished third in the Indy Lights championship. For 1995, he joined Gerry Forsythe’s Player’s racing team and absolutely dominated the Indy Lights series; winning an astonishing ten of twelve races on his way to winning the Indy Lights championship.
The following year, Forsythe elevated the twenty year-old Moore to his CART team. Although Moore went winless in his 1996 rookie campaign, he immediately impressed his competitors with a spirited drive at Homestead where he finished seventh in his very first race. Although Moore had his share of DNF’s that season, he also had a third place finish at Cleveland and Surfer’s Paradise along with a second place finish at Nazareth. Sprinkled throughout his rookie season was a fourth at Toronto, a fifth at Milwaukee and a sixth at Laguna Seca. In his first year, Moore showed consistency and success at just about every type of track that CART ran. He finished second to Alex Zanardi in the 1996 Rookie of the year totals.
Moore’s sophomore season in 1997 saw no signs of a letdown as he started the season with a fourth place at Homestead, followed by a second place finish at Surfer’s Paradise. Two races later, he had another second at the “roval” at Rio. That set the stage for June, when Moore became the youngest winner in Indy cars (twenty-two years, one month and ten days) at that time by winning at Milwaukee. He followed that win with another victory in his very next race at Belle Isle. The second half of 2007 was a disaster for Moore, however. He suffered seven DNF’s in his final eight starts, the only finish being a second at Mid-Ohio. He had proven that he could win so long as the car would finish. After such a spectacular start, the second half of the 1997 season dropped Moore to a disappointing seventh place in the standings.
The following year saw Moore return with a new resolve as well as a new teammate. For the first time, Player’s Forsythe Racing expanded to a two-car team when Patrick Carpentier joined the Canadian sponsored team. Again, the season started strong for Moore, as he piled up one strong finish after another. In the first six races of the 1998 season, Greg Moore finished no worse than sixth as he had a win, a second place finish, two third place finishes, a fourth and a sixth. His win at Rio included one of the more phenomenal passes I’ve seen as he deftly sliced through traffic, sandwiched his car between Arnd Meier and Alex Zanardi, then cut across Zanardi’s nose on the outside just before entering turn one to take the lead from Zanardi with five laps to go. He also won at Michigan later that season. But again, 1998 was the tale of two seasons for Greg Moore. After such a strong start to his season, the second half was punctuated with seven DNF’s, which caused him to finish fifth – another disappointment after leading the championship near the midpoint of the season.
The 1999 season would be a challenge to all the teams, as there would be twenty races held on four different continents. Like previous years, 1999 started strong for Greg as he won out of the box in the first race of the season at Homestead. He also had a fourth place finish in the next race at Motegi. But from that point, it was pretty much of a struggle for the Player’s team. The Mercedes-Ilmor engine that he was saddled with was on its last legs and was very uncompetitive. Again, the second half of the season was plagued with eight DNF’s for Moore.
Greg Moore was in the final year of his contract with Gerry Forsythe and he began to look at other potential rides for the 2000 season. At the same time, Roger Penske had been enduring a very un-Penske like run of mediocrity and was looking to clean house for the new millennium. Always keeping his eye on superb talent with average teams, Penske signed the two brightest rising stars in the series – Greg Moore and Gil de Ferran in the late summer, to be the new drivers for Marlboro Team Penske.
The long 1999 CART season was scheduled to wind down on October 31st with the Marlboro 500 at California Speedway in Fontana. It had been a disappointing season for Greg Moore, but he had much to look forward to in 2000 with his new ride with Roger Penske. However, there was still one more race to run at Fontana with his current team.
Prior to qualifying, Moore was on his scooter in the garage area when an automobile hit him. The collision knocked him from his scooter and broke his right hand. At first, it was unclear if Moore would be able to race. He had missed qualifying but after being fitted with a specially designed brace, Moore took to the track in a late afternoon test to prove to the doctors that he was able to drive and control the car. After posting lap times that would have placed him on the front row, Moore was cleared to drive in the race for the next day, although he would have to start from the back of the field after missing qualifying.
Moore immediately started passing cars two at a time as he made his way towards the front. On lap ten, he lost control of his car coming out of turn two and skidded onto the infield grass. The car seemed to be on ice as it slid toward the inside retaining wall, without slowing down much at all. Just before impact, the sideways moving car tripped a wheel in the grass – causing the car to begin a barrel roll. When the car tumbled into the concrete barrier, it practically disintegrated into pieces. What was remaining of the tub, lay upside down and motionless. Everyone feared the worst. I had a sinking feeling when I saw the crash live, that there was no way anyone could have survived – but you hope against hope. Unfortunately, the announcement came before the race was over. Greg Moore was dead at the age of twenty-four.
The race continued. It had to. Although death is not as common in racing as it was fifty years ago, it is still a possibility that all drivers live with and accept. There was still a championship to decide between Juan Montoya and Dario Franchitti. No drivers were told of the news during the race except for Moore’s teammate, Patrick Carpentier, who was called in and parked as the team dealt with the news. As a footnote, Adrian Fernandez won the race while Montoya and Franchitti ended the season in a tie, but the tiebreaker went to Montoya based on number of wins.
There were no victory celebrations afterward. Unbeknownst to the drivers, the flags at the track had already been lowered to half-mast before the race was over. Most drivers were told the news on their cool-down laps. The race broadcast was somber and the pits had a pall cast over them. The planned banquet the following night to celebrate the champion went on as scheduled at the request of Greg’s father, but instead of saluting the new champion – it became a tribute to Greg’s life.
Few drivers have made such an impact in their first four years in the series as Greg Moore. Michael Andretti and Sam Hornish come to mind, but neither of them was as likeable as Moore. I have followed this sport for forty-five years and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a young driver that held so many of the intangible qualities that a car owner and sponsor craves. He was the entire package. He was a superb driver that was liked and respected by his peers as well as the fans.
Greg Moore had that air about him that so few athletes carry. On the track, he could be smooth as silk yet have fiery aggression all on the same lap. Off the track, he had the star power to be confident without being overly cocky. He could be smooth and articulate in an interview, but still allow his charm and personality to come through.
In an ironic twist, Greg’s death opened the door for a recently unemployed, down on his luck driver named Helio Castroneves. Carl Hogan had just announced that his team would fold after the season and Helio would be without a ride. Within days of Greg’s death, Helio Castroneves was signed to replace Greg at Team Penske. Helio has since, parlayed that opportunity into three Indy 500 wins and stardom.
Had destiny not stepped in on that fateful day, who knows what kind of tandem Greg Moore and Gil de Ferran would have made? It’s such a hard thing to predict who would and would not have won the Indianapolis 500. Ten years ago, if given the choice between Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan and who would have had the most Indy wins – my money would have been on Kanaan. But if Greg Moore had lived to drive for Roger Penske, the odds are good that he could have been a multiple winner.
I thought it was a nice gesture that one of the championship contenders from that day and one of Greg’s closest friends, Dario Franchitti, chose the day that he won the 2009 championship as a day to pay homage to his friend, ten years later. It was a fitting tribute.
But all of the what-ifs cannot erase the events of that day ten years ago. Quite honestly, I can’t believe it has been that long. Over the years, I’ve seen many drivers killed in racing. I know it’s a part of the sport that will never fully go away, but you never get used to it. But I’ve never felt the sense of what might have been, as I did when I watched Greg Moore lose his life.