Does IndyCar Need Paul Tracy?

Paul Tracy deserves a full-time ride in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

There. I said it. Many that have followed this site over the years are probably now scratching their collective heads. Most of what they’ve heard from me is that PT needs to hang it up. Well, we are now officially in the campaign season so waffling is not only accepted, it’s encouraged.

No, I’m not just coming out of a disorienting junk-food coma from New Year’s weekend. I still feel the same about Mr. Tracy as I always have. I think he is a loud-mouthed rube who has worn out his welcome and is well past his prime. But I also think he didn’t forget the fast way around a race track in the last few years.

Let’s not forget that in the nineties, Roger Penske thought enough of Tracy’s driving talents to hire him not once, but twice. He tore up a lot of cars for The Captain, but he also won a lot of races. After he left Marlboro Team Penske for good, he signed with Team Kool Green where he had more success as well as more controversy. In 1999, he had seven podium finishes including two wins en route to a third place finish in the points. Oh yeah, he also started that season on the sidelines due to a CART suspension for his boorish behavior at the end of the 1998 season, which included a pitside brawl with his car owner Barry Green in Houston.

Some scoff at his 2003 championship season because they say it was against sub-par competition in CART. But just like Eddie Cheever is an Indianapolis 500 winner – Paul Tracy is a championship-winning driver. Actually, that’s not a fair comparison because Tracy had been in the running against real competition in earlier years.

There is not much about Paul Tracy that doesn’t rub me the wrong way. I cheered for him when he made his debut with Penske in a blue Mobil-1 car painted in a livery similar to the sister Marlboro cars at Michigan in 1991. He appeared to be a mild-mannered kid with preppy horn-rimmed glasses that was eager to learn. Somewhere along the way, he became brash, controversial and very unlikable. But he was always fun to watch.

So after many posts where I said that Tracy needed to hang it up, have I had a sudden change of heart? Well, not exactly.

But in a way, I think Paul Tracy is a victim. That’s not a word I throw around much. In this day and age of self-pity, I think this world has way too many self-proclaimed victims. Very few times do I think someone is actually an innocent victim of their circumstances, but Paul Tracy actually is. With the Champ Car and IRL unification prior to the 2008 season, most of the Champ Car teams migrated over to the IRL, except for Forsythe Racing – Paul Tracy’s team. Gerry Forsythe wanted nothing to do with Tony George’s league and chose to pout, take his ball and go home. Unfortunately, he had Paul Tracy under contract and refused to release him until the season was well underway and all the rides had been taken. Tracy ended up driving in only one race that season – at Edmonton in a third car for Tony George’s Vision Racing, which he promptly drove to a fourth place finish.

For 2009, Tracy could only muster up a five-race deal with his then-buddy Jimmy Vasser and KV Racing Technology with GEICO sponsorship and an embarrassingly disastrous one-race deal with Foyt at Milwaukee. The best he could do with KV in 2009 was seventh at Mid-Ohio. His 2010 season consisted of a three-race deal at KV and then fill-in duty for three races at Dreyer & Reinbold, substituting for the injured Mike Conway. His KV ride at Indianapolis failed to make the starting grid.

For 2011, the GEICO sponsorship at KV went to a full-season deal for Tony Kanaan. Tracy claims that he was the one that found that sponsorship and was none too happy. He attacked KV and Jimmy Vasser on Twitter and I’m not sure if they ever patched things up. Tracy signed with Dreyer & Reinbold for a one-race deal at Indianapolis and then signed a separate five race deal with Jay Penske’s struggling Dragon Racing. The best result was a twelfth place finish in the first race at Texas.

It’s been painful to watch an aging champion who was filled with so much bravado reduced to part-time rides with second and third tier teams. He turned forty-three last month and has been driving like it. The question is; has he lost that much speed or is he just driving slow cars for struggling teams?

In the early nineties, IndyCar racing was the domain of seasoned veterans. Gary Bettenhausen, Al Unser, AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Gordon Johncock, Tom Sneva and Johnny Rutherford were all driving in their fifties. That no longer happens. Davey Hamilton, John Andretti and Paul Tracy were the only drivers over the age of forty to drive in 2011. It is a young man’s game – much more so than it was when Tracy started driving.

Few drivers benefit from a part-time schedule, unless it is an up and coming rookie wanting to be noticed by other teams. There is no benefit to a forty-three year-old driver being in a car only four or five times a year – especially when it involves a lower tier team. It takes time for drivers and teams to gel, no matter how much experience is involved.

Since his last full-time gig with Forsythe in 2007, Paul Tracy has driven in only nineteen races, which doesn’t even average out to five races per season. In that time, his average finish has been just slightly worse than fourteenth – not really enough to justify his claims that he needs to be in a car full-time.

But if he can put the funding together for a full-time ride for 2012, I think a team would be justified in giving him a shot – if for no other reason, to squelch his claims that he is deserving of such. Seriously, with all things being equal – and that includes cash – is it more appealing for Dale Coyne to have James Jakes in a car over Paul Tracy? If for nothing else, it could have provided great internet fodder for Coyne to team Tracy alongside his nemesis Sébastien Bourdais; had Justin Wilson not decided to return to Dale Coyne Racing, as reported by Marshall Pruett yesterday. Now that Wilson is headed there, perhaps that opens up a full-time slot for Tracy at Dreyer & Reinbold.

So my stance on Paul Tracy is that he is a talented driver whose act has worn thin. But he was cheated out of a legitimate shot in the IZOD IndyCar Series by an egotistical owner trying to prove some meaningless point. He has been relentless in his pursuit of sponsorship. I think he deserves one last shot.

The series lost one of its biggest stars last fall in Dan Wheldon. This was already a series that was struggling for star power. Like him or not, Paul Tracy carries a fairly high level of name recognition – at least he used to. Some call him colorful, but I simply call him controversial. Although I don’t care for his behavior, it appeals to a lot of people – people that this series needs to be watching their races.

I think the IZOD IndyCar Series needs Paul Tracy on a full-time basis. Having him in a part-time ride is pointless. Anything less than a full-time ride does a disservice to Tracy, his fans and the series in general.

George Phillips

18 Responses to “Does IndyCar Need Paul Tracy?”

  1. There are times when Tracy gets on my last nerve.

    But it also gets on my nerves when people bring up this laundry list of things he did or said during the bad old days of the split and act as if his current difficulties are part of some karmic balancing.

    I have 20+ driver in the Izod IndyCar Series I genuinely like. I’m not saying I dislike PT, but he adds a fairly well-known name, the compelling story of if a former champ can reclaim his former glory, and yes, maybe a dash of controversy now and again.

    I’m not sure if he’ll secure a full-time ride for 2012 or not, but I’d sure like to see him ride off into the sunset after 1-2 more seasons with a decent team. Give him one more good run at it.

  2. As Nascar (and professional wrestling) has demonstrated, racing is all about personalities now. To the great untapped market of sports fans, engines and chassis and race directors mean little. It’s all about who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy? It’s about marketing the drivers.

    Now that Danica has left, most casual fans probably couldn’t name one Indycar driver. That must be improved if Indycar wants ratings and attendance. And–aside from reasons you mentioned–that’s why Paul Tracy needs a seat. Indycar needs Paul Tracy.

  3. I don’t disagree, except I don’t think the word “deserves” is applicable to racing. “Is worthy of” is about as far as I can go, and that applies to far more drivers than there are cars. I’m ambivalent toward Tracy. He’s got a definite personality, so that’s good. But there’s kind of an air of entitlement there that rubs me the wrong way. That could be just my perception. That being said, I’m happy to leave it up to the ride market to decide his fate.

  4. First time I saw PT race was in Phoenix 1993. He led over half the race, lapped the entire field–then stuffed it into the wall. That’s sort of how his career has been; stellar performances mixed with stupid mistakes. It was great seeing PT on track and in the paddock last year and he has my support for at least one last full-time ride. The young wunderkind has now become an older statesman in the IndyCar series—here’s hoping he can honor his new role.

  5. Firstly, I will admit to having the very same opinions toward PT as noted here by George and pressdog. Still, the writer has convinced me to think about this issue more objectively than I may have to this point and some fair points are made to the positive for PT.

    That being said, I just don’t see him as any more or less attraction for fans outside the existing circle of Indycar fandom so his value there is minimal as I see it.

    My point essentially is that if you don’t already know who PT is, you’re not going to care about some 20-year old storylines of a guy who grew up in the shadow of the real legends of Indycar.

    Capable driver worthy of consideration for a full-time seat? Yes, but for whatever reason, he is unable to convince owners otherwise. Maybe that has something to do with his past or his present.

    Honestly, if I put on the owner’s cap for a bit, and given the choice, I think I’d bet on TScheck having better potential in several ways than PT. Just my opinion though.

  6. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    PT is controversial alright, not only that and he is not simply hard on equipment, he is at the same time impulsive, frequently dangerous and at times desperate… And please do not try to make the arguement that racing is inherently dangerous, which of course it is.
    I have witnessed too many hairbrained and irresponsible stunts by PT over the years. Stunts that neither he nor the equiment he was driving were capable of pulling off and he knew it each time. Too many times he chose to endanger others and ruin their chances at a competitive race because either he and or his equipment couldn’t cut it ….

  7. billytheskink Says:

    Tracy’s legacy is set whether he drives another race or not. Not that everyone agrees on what that legacy is (champion, danger, great, hothead, whatever), but that a full season or two will not change anyone’s opinion of his career.

    Whatever you think of Tracy, it’s difficult to deny he is a very accomplished driver. I like to see drivers with resumes like Tracy’s go out on their own terms, whether I like them or not. I suppose it’s not fair to say they’ve earned that right, because that’s not how the racing business works, but as a fan I like to feel as if they have. I want to see drivers who have made so many memories for me as a fan say goodbye the way they want to.

    Many do go out on their own terms, Michael and Mario Andretti, Gil de Ferran, Bobby Rahal, AJ Foyt are recent examples that come to mind. Those that don’t, guys like Johnny Rutherford, Buddy Lazier, and Al Unsers Jr. And Sr. leave me feeling a tinge of sadness. Tracy won’t be the last member of either group, but I’d be happier to see him in the former… and that has nothing to do with liking him or not.

  8. Good comments by all. I could take PT or leave him at this point. I’ll be happy if he gets a drive, but not entirely bummed if he doesn’t.

  9. I hate to say it, but, today, PT is no longer the draw that he was in the past. 10 years ago you couldn’t take your eyes off of him while today he is a field filler. Knowing when it is time to hang it up has got to be very difficult.

  10. The nice thing about a PT in a full time ride with a reasonable team is that we would have an answer at the end of the year.

    Is he past it or does he have it?

    I would like to see it.

    I was excited to hear Sebastian was back in a car this year. I was terribly bummed that we didn’t hear squat from him.

    One bonus to this year is that the new cars might even up the teams – or even worse – spread them out even further. Engineering is going to win races this year… And maybe the powerplants will make or break teams. I hope there is a nice way to even out any significant differences in engines this year. It would be a bummer to have only one engine win and everyone else racing for 6+

  11. Let’s be clear. Paul Tracy is certainly an icon in the sport. However there is a “reason” team owners aren’t asking him to drive. Could it be the hot-head in him? Or that deals that are put together like last year continue to be shopped with another team? (Dragon & the Dryer/Reinbold deal for that last few races of 2011). If memory serves me right, Jimmy Vasser had a relationship with Geico before PT. PT also had a relationship with the agent who handled the Geico race sponsorship, in fact even helped PT with a NASCAR ride. Some how, sometime last year that relationship broke and of course Kannan was available. What’s not to like about TK? If the deal was truly PT’s and Geico really liked & wanted him, why wouldn’t they stick with him? Comon sense prevails.

    As for if he should be in the series, yes he should be. The constant twitter feeds from last year that continue this year are just Paul feeding his ego as was the article in How about get the deal done, then talk about it? Crossing my fingers PT. Would be great to see you one last time in the car full season. Maybe even cause some crash damage to the new car.

    Canada has 2 other drivers fans can root for! And one of them drove past you in Toronto, in fact you didn’t like the moves he put on you, yet you’ve done the same thing in the past.

    good luck to PT & finding the funding for a full time ride.

    • It’s not crash damage – it’s legitimate safety testing. What he really needs is a sponsorship with Dallara so that they can pay for the cars he tears up and give him a little on the side for the OTHER guys cars that get torn up.

      It will be interesting to see not only how the new cars/engines/aero work, but to see what the drivers/owners/sport do in the wake of Las Vegas.

  12. Interesting article. I would like to see PT race one more full season. Then we could see his name next to Danny boys on the 500 trophy.

  13. Who are you, and what have you done with George!?


  14. I think the IRL needs PT to add some credibility to the series as it is pretty much been seen as a joke/circus ever since it’s inception.

    It was helped when CART folded and the real teams came to the series but still as a fan of open wheel racing I still wont watch. If PT did get a ride I might actually check a story online about results if I saw his name pop up.

    I do disagree with one part of your blog tho saying that Forsythe is petty for not making the switch. Just because a man has principles and doesn’t want to join the circus doesn’t make him petty.

    Hell maybe in a dream he saw the new clown car of the future (Dallara) and just couldn’t stop laughing.

    As soon as the IRL folds we can once again start a new and hopefully top level open wheel racing will return to North America until then I will just keep tabs on F2000 and F1600 as that is the best OW racing as of late.

  15. Age has nothing to do with it. Wisdom is the key, I do understand, look i am 52. my mind is solid. doing very well in SCCA. Remember money buys speed.yes seat time is very important, Positive influence breads winners, age is no excuse.
    My vot is YES. Thanks Chris

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