A New Act For Paul Tracy
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.