Tracy does it the fun way

DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:11 PM ET

Someone once asked me what I thought set Paul Tracy apart from other top race car drivers of his generation.

Thinking back over the 20-plus years that “The Thrill from West Hill” has been making passes and taking other liberties on race tracks around the globe there are a couple of stories that are worth repeating in an effort to define Tracy’s career.

The first comes from when Tracy was 8 or 9 years old and by now a regular at a Go-Kart track in Whitby, Ont., about 20 kms east of the family’s Rouge Valley home. His father Tony would take him to the track just about every weekend to race against a bunch of other 8- and 9-year-olds in a semi-structured environment.

Well, after a couple of weeks of this, where he managed always to finish near the top but never win, Tracy told his dad he didn’t want to go back.

When his dad ask why, Tracy said it was because he would never be able to win at that track.

“I told my dad that I was way faster than the kid that always won but that every time I got set to pass him the flag man would wave me off,” he said.

“And if I did pass the kid the same official would throw the black flag (forcing the young Tracy to take a penalty).”

One more chance

Tony Tracy managed to talk his son into giving the Whitby track one more chance.

“So that day there were two heats and the top six or so karters from each heat would advance to the final,” Tracy said. “I was in the second heat and just like every other time at that track when I passed this one kid, out came the black flag sending me into a drive-through penalty.

“I managed to get back out and I made the top six sending me into the final.”

In the finals, Tracy got a good start but was still behind his young nemesis. He said he almost didn’t even want to try to pass the kid.

“But my dad had told me before the final to go for it and not worry about getting black flagged.”

So, with one lap left in the race, Tracy moved inside of his competitor and made the pass. He looked up as he crossed the finish line to see if there was a black flag being displayed.

There wasn’t. But what Tracy did see made him never question the resolve his father had to help him become a great race car driver.

“There at the finish line was my dad wrestling the flag man to the ground rendering him unable to wave any kind of flag at all.”

What caused Tony Tracy to go to such extremes to help his son win that day was that he had found out the official who had prevented Paul from winning all those previous weeks was, in fact, the other kid’s father.

Years later with Tracy now part of legendary team owner Roger Penske’s powerful group of drivers, what Tracy learned that day in Whitby would come back to trigger, maybe the biggest mistake of his career — one that probably ended up costing him his win in the greatest open wheel oval race in the world — the 2002 Indianapolis 500.

Several run-ins

As Tracy tells the story in the most recent edition of Car&Driver Magazine, after several run-ins with Penske in the 1990s over Tracy’s aggressive driving style and his refusal to lose races deliberately to allow a teammate to earn more championship points — a common but despicable occurrence in open-wheel racing — Penske wanted to loan out Tracy’s contract to a lesser squad.

“My dad and I just blew a gasket. We said: ‘Bulls--t, no way.’ Roger was quiet, said nothin’ for a couple weeks.Then he goes: ‘Paul, if you don’t like it, maybe you should do something else.’ ”

It was a split that proved very costly.

On the final lap of the 2002 Indy 500, Tracy passed the Penske-owned No. 3 car of Helio Castroneves for what appeared to 200,000 people in the stands as a win at the Brickyard, but at the last second a yellow flag appeared.

“Roger was God in the IRL then,” Tracy said. “And Helio was in Roger’s car. And here I am, the CART poster boy who’d always said the IRL was s--t.”

Two incidents in which Tracy chose to do it his way. Might he have had more championships by playing nice — probably — but it would have been a career that would not have been near as much fun.


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