July 7, 2011
No quit in Paul Tracy
By STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency
TORONTO - The Paul Tracy Farewell Tour is at least a season away from fruition.
This will not be — despite what some are saying — his final Honda Indy Toronto.
He’s back for another kick at the Indy, the way he’s been here for all but one of the Toronto races in one form or another. He started out as a kid, running those pre-race races that only the gearheads pay attention to. By 1993 he was a champion for the first time. Now here we are, in another century, and his blonde hair has turned to gray, and he’s a part-timer in a full-time business, and at 42, an age normally reserved for athletes ready to say goodbye, Tracy isn’t disappearing quite so easily.
Whatever it is inside of him, that emotional stubbornness that made him both great and difficult, popular and despised, The Thrill from West Hill can’t walk away without at least giving it one more shot, for one full season of racing. That’s the plan for next year. One season in the same car with the same crew, the same team, same sponsors, just like the old days.
That’s the plan. Pulling it off is another story entirely.
For now and for this weekend and for next week in Edmonton, it’s Tracy mostly standing alone. Pro racing is a team sport and he really doesn’t have a team around him anymore. He races sometimes, not other times. He races in one car one week, another the next. He’s the pro racing equivalent of a freelancer — he’ll work for whomever is paying this week and let’s see what next week brings.
“It would be like taking a high level hockey player, who’d had a lot of success and had a long career and he only comes in and plays selected games and no practice,” said Tracy, explaining his plight after making an appearance at Honda Canada, one of his sponsors. “You’re going to play OK, but you’re not going to do what you think you can do. It’s not your best game or anything like that.
“You take a Mark Messier or a Wayne Gretzky at the end of their careers and if you kept them out for half a season and put them in for one game, and took them out for 20 games and put them in for another game, and let them have no practice, no training or anything, how do you think that would go?”
My answer: They’d still be the smartest players on the ice to which Tracy replied: “I don’t know if I’ve ever been the smartest guy on the track.
“As a driver, I still feel I can win races. I’m not as fast as I used to be, but I’m still fast enough. If I was in a car full time and had the same opportunity as everyone else, working with one team and one engineer all the time, I’d do OK. But I’m jumping around from team to team to team, different crews, different people, I haven’t done a test in a car in about four years — it kind of stacks the deck against you to compete against guys like Dario (Franchitti) and (Will) Power. They’re in the same car all the time, working with the same people.”
There is, though, in his eyes, an advantage to not having a full-time ride. He says he feels more preserved at his advanced racing age. “I don’t feel worn out,” he said. “I’m still eager to get in the car. I’m not caught up in the grind you can get caught up in. Travelling all the time. Going to tests. Making appearances. Going to races, recovering from races. I’m running half the schedule of everybody else. The season doesn’t wear on me the way it wears on others.”
While no one is picking Tracy to win Sunday’s race, he won’t discount his own chances. Even if he’s living in Las Vegas, this is still his racing home. This is where he’s most comfortable. This is the race that means the most to him. And it’s where so much of his history has been written.
A few years ago, a teenager came up to him with is own piece of history. He pulled out a photo from his wallet and it was a picture of Tracy, the boy’s mother, and the young man as an infant, taken at the Toronto Indy. The kid asked for an autograph. He told him “you’ve been my favourite my whole life.”
The kid’s name: Robert Wickens. He’s 22 now and test driving for Formula 1. “You see that and it tells you how long you’ve been around.” And still, with at least more one year, to go.