A Day To Remember
Death at the race track is never a pleasant subject. Although it’s a topic that is rarely discussed among drivers or even fans, it is always silently lurking in the back of everyone’s mind whenever drivers are on the track. Although racing fatalities are far less common today than they were when I grew up in the sixties, they still occur and seem to shake our foundation harder than ever.
Racing deaths strike at random. They can hit some of the biggest stars along with some of the most obscure drivers in the sport. It doesn’t matter.
Since 1990, just a few of the names of drivers tied to IndyCar that lost their lives on the track all fall somewhere into the spectrum between superstar and obscure. Rich Vogler, Billy Vukovich III, Jovy Marcelo, Scott Brayton, Jeff Krosnoff, Gonzalo Rodriguez, Greg Moore, Tony Renna, Paul Dana, Dan Wheldon, Justin Wilson and Bryan Clauson were all fatally injured in racing accidents.
Declaring which one hurt the most is like saying which of your children is your favorite. Each fatality is painful in their own meaningful way.
While they are all painful, I can say that one that stands out as one of the most painful to me was the day we lost Greg Moore – seventeen years ago today.
As tragic as it was to lose Dan Wheldon in his prime at the age of thirty-three, you could at least look at all he had already accomplished in his short career. While that doesn’t ease the pain of his wife Susie and their two young sons Sebastian and Oliver, we as fans can take comfort in knowing how much Wheldon had already done. We were left wondering what more he could have accomplished.
With Greg Moore, we fans were left wondering what might have been. He was only twenty-four when he lost his life in a Turn Two crash at Fontana on Halloween of 1999.
Moore spent all four years of his CART career at Gerry Forsythe’s Player’s/Forsythe Racing with the underpowered Mercedes engine. As a twenty year-old rookie in 1996, Moore earned three podium finishes and a total of five Top-Five finishes on his way to a tenth place finish in the points standings. He won his first race in 1997 at Milwaukee and duplicated that effort in the very next race at Belle Isle. He had seven Top-Five finished that season, but also suffered eight DNF’s, settling for a seventh place finish in the points.
In 1998, Moore had his best season in CART. He earned two more wins, one of which was at Rio when he made one of the finest moves on Alex Zanardi I have ever seen on a race track heading into Turn One. Altogether, Greg Moore scored two wins, six podiums and eight Top-Five finishes in a nineteen race season to finish a career high fifth in points.
The 1999 season would have ended up being Moore’s last season with Forsythe. It started out with a win at Homestead and the first half of the season showed promise. But Moore faded in the second half, as the Mercedes was simply not fast enough and the team was showing poor results.
With his contract scheduled to be up at the end of the season, Moore shopped around and was signed to join Marlboro Team Penske after the 1999 season, who was coming off of a bad stretch of their own. Al Unser, Jr. would not be returning. Team Penske was going through a major overhaul for the 2000 season. They shelved the uncompetitive Penske chassis for the favored Reyanrd. Even though Penske was a shareholder in Ilmore, he left the weakened Mercedes program for Honda; and switched from Goodyear to the more competitive Firestone tires, even though Penske owned a string of Goodyear stores. Roger Penske never let his own business interests get in the way of going faster.
The only thing left was their driver lineup. With Gil de Ferran and Greg Moore signed for 2000 and beyond, Penske had an established veteran in de Feran and the promising up-and-comer in Moore. The future was about to be bright again at Team Penske.
The day before the 1999 Marlboro 500 at Fontana – the final race of the season, Greg Moore was riding his scooter through the infield parking lot. He was struck by a car and injured his right hand. He missed qualifying and had to start from the back of the field the next day, while wearing a brace on his hand after being cleared to drive Sunday morning.
On Lap Nine of the race, Moore lost control and slammed cockpit first into the Turn Two inside wall. It was one of those crashes where you feared the worse. In fact, it was eerily similar to Josef Newgarden’s crash at Texas this past season. The main difference was that Newgarden got out of the car and Moore didn’t.
When the TV broadcast never shows a replay, that’s a bad sign. You feel like they know something that we don’t. As the race went on, nary a word was said about Moore’s condition except for Dr. Steve Olvey confirming that he had been flown to Loma Linda Hospital with life-threatening injuries. Later in the broadcast, our worst thoughts were confirmed. Greg Moore had succumbed to his injuries.
To us watching the broadcast; the race nor the championship no longer mattered. But to the drivers on the track, both mattered because no drivers in the race were told of Moore’s death until after the race. For the record, Adrian Fernandez won the race, Max Papis was second and Christian Fittipaldi finished third. After the race, the mood became appropriately somber and sent the entire Indy car community into the offseason on a tragic note.
The loss of Greg Moore was more than just losing a driver or a good guy. Greg Moore was the face of the future for American open-wheel racing. He was all of those things – a great friend in the paddock and also outstanding with fans, as well as an excellent driver. He was the Josef Newgarden of today, except on a more accelerated basis. Moore won races in just his second year and was in the series for only four years, as opposed to five for Newgarden. Moore was also a year younger than Newgarden before signing with Penske.
The loss of Greg Moore was something that many have not gotten over yet, even though we are now seventeen years removed from it. Along with Paul Tracy, he was the pride of Canada. But Tracy represented the past while Moore was the future. The closest thing that Canada has now is James Hinchcliffe, who was twelve when Moore lost his life. For those that are too young to remember Greg Moore, I would equate him with all of the best attributes of a combination of James Hinchcliffe and Josef Newgarden – both on and off the track.
So as we go through this Halloween, please keep the memory of Greg Moore in your heart and pray for his family and friends. As I grew out of childhood, Halloween was never one of my favorite days to celebrate. It was a day when all the freaks came out. But after Halloween of 1999, the day took on a whole new meaning to me. It was definitely a day to remember.