FONTANA, CALIFORNIA, October 29, 2003
Paul Tracy has won the CART Champ Car title and the greeting he got when arriving back in the States from Surfers Paradise, Australia, was an inferno.
Southern California is on fire and it's touch-and-go as to whether the transplanted Canadian who makes his home near Las Vegas can get to properly celebrate on North American soil.
Cooler temperatures and friendly winds are predicted for the latter part of the week, yet the prospect of ash at the 2-mile California Speedway oval and the need for rescue teams to continue extinguishing the massive fires in the area caused the Speedway to postpone the race yesterday and, today, CART cancelled the King Taco 500-miler.
It's hard to believe that Paul Tracy hasn't worn the champion's mantle since 1990, the year he put his personal stamp on what used to be CART's top rung of the step-up ladder, its Indy Lights series. Did you know that more Champ Car winners have come from that discarded discipline than anywhere else?
Anyway, what PT did in 2003 was he's done each year he's been on the CART circuitsince 1992. He drove his heart out all year long, only this time he ranked up seven wins and six pole positions. Not intending to downplay the Thrill from West Hill's immense talent, he's had the team he needed all along supporting him this season, Team Player's.
We're not allowed to call them by their given name anymore, of course, so being politically correct, something the new champ seldom is, Team PF Racing's Neil Micklewright put together just the right band of geniuses to complement Tracy, including CART's own Obi Wan Kenobi, Tony Cicale, engineers Todd Malloy and Mike Pulaski.
"When I came to this team they just told me to let them know what I needed to win," Tracy explained after arriving back in Las Vegas. He'd returned on CART's charter, but had to rent a car to get home as flights between LA and Vegas were halted because of the maelstrom. "I have one day to do laundry and then turn around and come back," he laughed.
"It's all the people behind the scenes who are key to this championship, particularly Bob Bexon and Jerry Forsythe. They've both believed in me a long time. I worked with Bob when I was at Team KOOL Green and then he moved to Player's [both brands are part of British American Tobacco]. He wanted me there but I had a contract and, for the longest time, it just didn't come together," Tracy recalled.
"Bob and Jerry gave me the people, the chassis to win with. Just tell us the guys you want to work with, they said. Just tell us who you're comfortable with. The team these guys put together is just guys I feel really close to. Everything just clicked," Tracy allowed. "They put the package around me and it all worked out."
Taking the title in Australia was a relief for the Canadian ace, who's had a tough time at California Speedway since it opened in 1997. "I'm glad we were able to complete the championship run before getting there because we've had a lot of mechanical failures at that track," Paul said.
"I crashed there once and had a lot of engine failures in that 500-miler but I don't see that happening this year with Ford-Cosworth's 1200-mile engines." Unfortunately, we'll never get to find out, thanks to the vagaries of So Cal's Santa Ana winds and the fires they produce.
As anyone who has followed the Champ Car circuit knows, since 1992 Paul Tracy has "driven at the maximum level. You have to work hard to go to that championship level" and Tracy has done just that. "The weight of pressure people put on you to win championships even though I've won a ton of races and poles, led lots of laps, well, that's not there anymore.
"I always kept trying to get the title. I've always given at least 100% and always put it all on the line. At this point in my career," Tracy reflected, "I'm relieved this championship has come. It's been worth the wait."
Taking the title in a wild Lexmark Indy 300 at Surfers Paradise, Tracy experienced "the whole range of emotions. We had a good warmup and I was really confident before the start of the race. I knew that Newman/Haas Racing would have team strategies that allowed Bruno [Junqueira] to get ahead," and that strategy was to have polesitter Sebastien Bourdais balk Tracy at the start so his teammate could get away.
"I went from confident to pissed off" when he had contact with Bourdais at the first turn. "I tried to get back to the front and then the second incident occurred [with Alex Tagliani, Roberto Moreno and Darren Manning]. Then, I was just disappointed. I knew I'd lose a lot of laps and wondered if the guys would be able to fix the car. When they did and I saw that Bruno took himself out, I became elated. Yeah, I had every range of emotions in that race."
Once he got his hands around CART's Vanderbilt Cup, one of two physical prizes for winning the titlea $1 million check is the otherTracy "just broke down and started crying. It's just been the emotions of the hard work and the sacrifices and the ups and the downs you go through throughout a career. Some people never get to this level; some people never get the opportunity to win a race," he allowed.
"My career has always been hot and cold, hot and cold," Tracy admitted. "And that's how this season went, too. It wasn't on an even keel most of the time. We started with three wins then got three points in the next three races. Winning two out of three Canadian races was a great highlight but it's been" a roller coaster ride, for sure.
"For me, I have won so many races and led so many laps, but I have never been able to get to this point. It's never all fallen together for me," Tracy said. "It's just a big release of joy and it just feels like a [giant] weight has been lifted off."
Paul Tracy has been one of CART's best ambassadors during the difficult recent timesand he's been a team player for the series when others wouldn't stay with CART, doing whatever he could to assist in hoisting the Champ Car banner.
Now that he's on the champion's media tour, both in the United States and in his home country of Canada, the world will get to see just what a passionate person Paul is for his sport and his chosen discipline. "I can finally say I'm champion."