It Seems Like Yesterday

There are certain events in our lives that we remember every detail – where we were, what the weather was, and so forth. I’m old enough to remember when JFK was assassinated. I was only five years old at the time, but I remember it vividly. I was ready to start my sophomore year in college and had already met Susan, whom I would marry thirty-five years later, when I heard the news that Elvis Presley had died. I know exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news that afternoon on the radio.

It was fifteen years ago today, that I was watching the 1999 Marlboro 500 at what was then California Speedway in Fontana, CA. It seems like yesterday.

It was an unusually warm Halloween Sunday and the CART championship was to be decided. The championship was down to two drivers – Juan Montoya and Dario Franchitti. By the end of the day, both drivers would be tied and Montoya would win the tie-breaker based on more wins.

But the championship would become secondary on that day. For that day fifteen years ago, was the day that promising young driver, Greg Moore from Canada, would be fatally injured in a Turn Two crash on Lap Nine.

Moore’s death shook the world of open-wheel racing. He was not a rising star, or a star in the making – he already was a star.

Greg Moore drove only four seasons in CART, but showed signs of brilliance in each. He was still nineteen when he made his rookie debut at Homestead in 1996, yet he finished seventh in his very first race. As most rookies do, he went winless that rookie season, but posted three podium finishes on his way to a ninth place finish in points. His first career victory came the following year at Milwaukee. He followed that up with another win in his very next race at Belle Isle, proving that his talents covered short ovals and the tight confines of a street circuit. Aside from those two wins, his second season saw Moore earn three additional podiums.

1998 was Moore’s breakout season. Not only did he post two more wins, but he had six more Top-Five finishes on his way to a fifth place finish in the points. One of his wins that season came at Rio de Janeiro, where he completed one of the most impressive passes I’ve seen in all the years that I’ve followed this sport. He cut across the nose of an unsuspecting Alex Zanardi while entering Turn One. At the time, it seemed to serve notice that there would be a changing of the guard as the upstart showed up the defending CART champion on his way to victory.

Greg Moore had come of age at the young age of twenty-three. He was acknowledged by fans and drivers alike as CART’s future. He was fan-friendly and deeply respected by his fellow drivers for his talent and ability. His results were even more impressive when you considered that his entire CART career was spent saddled with what by that time was an underwhelming Mercedes-Benz engine that was outclassed weekly by Honda and Ford.

The 1999 season could not have started better for Moore. He won the opening race at Homestead and it looked as if he was to be a threat to win the championship in only his fourth season. A solid fourth place finish in the next race at Motegi did nothing to squelch those thoughts. As it turned out, Moore had won his last race. The second half of a season that started with so much promise saw Moore score seven DNF’s in the second half of the season.

Moore’s contract with Gerry Forsythe was up at the end of the 1999 season. His poor results were mostly attributed to the Mercedes engine and a team that was slipping. The results did nothing to dim Greg Moore’s star power. Roger Penske’s team was another that had been slipping and was in need of a house-cleaning. Al Unser, Jr. was moving on. So was Goodyear. Penske moved to Honda and even ditched his own chassis in favor of the favored Reynard. Tim Cindric was joining The Captain, after a successful stint at Team Rahal. Prior to the season finale at Fontana, Roger Penske had announced the fresh pairing of Gil de Ferran and Greg Moore would be his driver lineup for the 2000 season. It was the signal of a fresh start for Marlboro Team Penske.

Heading into that season finale, Moore was simply trying to salvage a top-ten finish in points in his last ride at Player’s/Forsythe Racing before moving on to a promising future at Penske. On the day before the race, Moore’s hand was injured when a car in the parking lot near the paddock backed into his oncoming scooter; prior to qualifying. The next morning, he was cleared to drive with a brace on his right hand, although he would start at the back of the field since he had posted no qualifying speed.

By Lap Nine, Moore was already moving up through the field when he lost control of his car in Turn Two. Without going into the gruesome details, it was a horrifying crash. When you saw it, you feared the worst. Later in the race, our worst fears were confirmed. Twenty-four year old Greg Moore had been pronounced dead.

None of the drivers in the race, won by Adrian Fernandez, had been told of Moore’s fate. Max Papis was on the podium celebrating, when his car owner, Bobby Rahal, whispered the news to him. His disappearing smile was evident to everyone.

Compared to when I was growing up in the sixties, racing fatalities are a rare thing these days. Unfortunately, they still happen. Counting the death of Jovy Marcelo at Indianapolis in 1992, there have been eight IndyCar racing fatalities in the past twenty-two seasons. That’s an average of one every 2.75 years, which is still disturbingly high.

Not to minimize the loss of others that have been fatally injured, but the loss of Greg Moore rocked this sport more than any other I’ve seen – except perhaps the loss of Dan Wheldon a little more than three years ago. Although it seems like yesterday, I have to realize that there are some IndyCar fans out there that don’t remember Greg Moore. That’s a shame.

He was one of the brightest talents I’ve seen come along in a long time. To sign with Roger Penske at age twenty-four, tells you how evident his talent was. Of course, we all know that the seat Moore was to fill eventually went to Helio Castroneves, who went on to win three Indianapolis 500’s, finish second in two more and be in the mix for several championships. Realizing how competitive that ride has been over the years, one can only reflect and ponder what might have been had Greg Moore lived to fulfill that dream.

After I grew up, Halloween has never been one of my favorite days to celebrate. It used to hold a little more significance to me, because it was also my grandmother’s birthday. But for the past fifteen years, October 31st has really meant only one thing for me. It was the day that Maple Ridge, British Columbia and open-wheel racing lost a bright star and a true talent. Please remember Greg Moore today.

George Phillips

8 Responses to “It Seems Like Yesterday”

  1. After many years of being a fan, I guess it is part of the landscape to have your heartbroken because of a tragedy at the track. I’ll always remember Dan Wheldon with a sadness that is similar to the sadness my parents felt when Vuky lost his life in a racing accident in 1955. Throughout my young life Vuky’s name was always spoken with great reverence and that has carried on through my life as well. Wheldon and Senna generate those same feelings in me as well. As with drivers like Dave MacDonald I always think of Greg Moore with a genuine thought of what I think they would have become. That thought is a sincere tribute.

  2. Thanks for the Greg Moore tribute today George. Whenever I think of Greg Moore I am reminded of how Sterling Moss described racing on the edge: “You go through a corner absolutely flat out, right on the ragged edge, but absolutely in control, on your own line to an inch, the car just hanging there, the tyres as good as geared to the road, locked to it, and yet you know that if you ask one more mile an hour of the car, if you put another 5 pounds of sidethrust on it, you’ll lose the whole flaming vehicle………..You’re on top of it all, and the exhilaration, the thrill is tremendous, and you say to yourself, all right you bastards, top that one!”

    There have been and are today drivers who are good at riding that high line on the ragged edge, but I don’t of any better at it than Greg Moore was. Perhaps it was a skill he honed while ice racing in Canada.

  3. I will think about Greg Moore today. What I remember of him was how likable he was coupled with the incredible talent he had. He was accelerating to the top of the sport so quickly it was almost unsettling. It was like things were happening too fast for him and then that horrendous accident happened and it was absolutely gut wrenching. Such a talent, an ambassador, a friendly fellow driver, faster than hell- such a unfortunate waste of an amazing human being. He was one if my favorites if not my favorite up and coming driver in CART. I also remember how well his family handled the outcome. I was amazed at their composure and acceptance of what had happened. Greg Moore we will never forget you.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Moore’s career coincided with my real coming of age as a racing fan. I had a keen interest in the sport prior to 1996, I was a huge Al Unser Jr. fan, but it was not until I entered middle (1996) and high school (1999) that I fully grasped the totality of being a racing fan. Knowing the different series, the tracks, the cars, learning what the heck Red Bull and Players actually were, paying real attention basically… This, not coincidentally, also occurred as major racing events were scheduled near where I lived for the first time in my life.

    I saw Moore race in Houston in 1998 (when he took pole) and 1999, where he measured up to the Moore I saw on television. Aggressive and fast, capable of making breathtaking passes, wringing as much as he could out of an underperforming engine (especially in 1999). Even though he was replacing my favorite driver, I was so very excited about his future at Penske, and so very sad 15 years ago. A good friend of mine was an out and out Moore fan, and he was doubly excited and doubly devastated.

    I took the loss of Moore harder than I have any other loss during my time as a racing fan, I think because he was at that stage in his career where his ability to achieve greatness was no longer in question but that ability had not yet paid off in the accomplishments it deserved. It remains galling, with many victories and championships a seemingly sure bet, perhaps as soon as that next season.

    Thank you for this, George.

  5. Brian McKay Says:

    Thanks for the tribute, George.

  6. Very nice tribute, George. Greg was one of my three favorite drivers in CART in the late-’90s (full disclosure: 1. Jimmy Vasser, 2. Alex Zanardi/Juan Montoya, 3. Greg Moore), so his death hit very hard. Even more than I remember October 31, 1999 (which I remember very clearly), I can remember watching the Homestead season opener in 1996. I’d followed Greg’s career in On Track magazine and on TV through his time in F2000 and Indy Lights, so I knew he was something more than special when the ’96 season started. At the beginning of the Homestead race, I insisted to my studying partner (not a race fan at all, but who’d indulge my having racing on in my dorm room while we did homework…well, while he did homework, and I watched the race) that he keep an eye out for the young Canadian kid in the blue-and-white #99. Greg made me look smarter than I really am that day, as he went from the back to the front multiple times to finish 7th after trouble in the pits. You just couldn’t take your eyes off of Greg at any time that the Player’s car was on screen, even if it was in the far background.

    Even more than I wonder about what might have been had Ayrton Senna or Dan Wheldon or any other driver of the last 20 years had not had their fatal accidents, I ruminate on what might have been had Greg lived into 2000 and beyond. Multiple championships and Indy 500 wins seem like the absolute minimum, and I’d also have put large money on a successful post-driving career in the broadcast booth (Greg was incredibly humble and well spoken in interviews) or in team ownership (he also seemed to be one of the sharpest minds in the paddock, from everything I heard). The sky was the limit for that guy. I guess we were lucky to have gotten to experience as much as we actually did, though. He packed an awful lot of greatness into those 24 1/2 years…

  7. hey george. nice to see someone who was only a superstar as greg moore was but who also was one of the nicest people ive meet in a longtime. i only meet him once. but it like it was more then one time i did. rip greg. thanks again geoge.

  8. Nicely done George.

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