A Day To Remember

Death at the race track is never a pleasant subject. Although it’s a topic that is rarely discussed among drivers or even fans, it is always silently lurking in the back of everyone’s mind whenever drivers are on the track. Although racing fatalities are far less common today than they were when I grew up in the sixties, they still occur and seem to shake our foundation harder than ever.

Racing deaths strike at random. They can hit some of the biggest stars along with some of the most obscure drivers in the sport. It doesn’t matter.

Since 1990, just a few of the names of drivers tied to IndyCar that lost their lives on the track all fall somewhere into the spectrum between superstar and obscure. Rich Vogler, Billy Vukovich III, Jovy Marcelo, Scott Brayton, Jeff Krosnoff, Gonzalo Rodriguez, Greg Moore, Tony Renna, Paul Dana, Dan Wheldon, Justin Wilson and Bryan Clauson were all fatally injured in racing accidents.

Declaring which one hurt the most is like saying which of your children is your favorite. Each fatality is painful in their own meaningful way.

While they are all painful, I can say that one that stands out as one of the most painful to me was the day we lost Greg Moore – seventeen years ago today.

As tragic as it was to lose Dan Wheldon in his prime at the age of thirty-three, you could at least look at all he had already accomplished in his short career. While that doesn’t ease the pain of his wife Susie and their two young sons Sebastian and Oliver, we as fans can take comfort in knowing how much Wheldon had already done. We were left wondering what more he could have accomplished.

With Greg Moore, we fans were left wondering what might have been. He was only twenty-four when he lost his life in a Turn Two crash at Fontana on Halloween of 1999.

Moore spent all four years of his CART career at Gerry Forsythe’s Player’s/Forsythe Racing with the underpowered Mercedes engine. As a twenty year-old rookie in 1996, Moore earned three podium finishes and a total of five Top-Five finishes on his way to a tenth place finish in the points standings. He won his first race in 1997 at Milwaukee and duplicated that effort in the very next race at Belle Isle. He had seven Top-Five finished that season, but also suffered eight DNF’s, settling for a seventh place finish in the points.

In 1998, Moore had his best season in CART. He earned two more wins, one of which was at Rio when he made one of the finest moves on Alex Zanardi I have ever seen on a race track heading into Turn One. Altogether, Greg Moore scored two wins, six podiums and eight Top-Five finishes in a nineteen race season to finish a career high fifth in points.

The 1999 season would have ended up being Moore’s last season with Forsythe. It started out with a win at Homestead and the first half of the season showed promise. But Moore faded in the second half, as the Mercedes was simply not fast enough and the team was showing poor results.

With his contract scheduled to be up at the end of the season, Moore shopped around and was signed to join Marlboro Team Penske after the 1999 season, who was coming off of a bad stretch of their own. Al Unser, Jr. would not be returning. Team Penske was going through a major overhaul for the 2000 season. They shelved the uncompetitive Penske chassis for the favored Reyanrd. Even though Penske was a shareholder in Ilmore, he left the weakened Mercedes program for Honda; and switched from Goodyear to the more competitive Firestone tires, even though Penske owned a string of Goodyear stores. Roger Penske never let his own business interests get in the way of going faster.

The only thing left was their driver lineup. With Gil de Ferran and Greg Moore signed for 2000 and beyond, Penske had an established veteran in de Feran and the promising up-and-comer in Moore. The future was about to be bright again at Team Penske.

The day before the 1999 Marlboro 500 at Fontana – the final race of the season, Greg Moore was riding his scooter through the infield parking lot. He was struck by a car and injured his right hand. He missed qualifying and had to start from the back of the field the next day, while wearing a brace on his hand after being cleared to drive Sunday morning.

On Lap Nine of the race, Moore lost control and slammed cockpit first into the Turn Two inside wall. It was one of those crashes where you feared the worse. In fact, it was eerily similar to Josef Newgarden’s crash at Texas this past season. The main difference was that Newgarden got out of the car and Moore didn’t.

When the TV broadcast never shows a replay, that’s a bad sign. You feel like they know something that we don’t. As the race went on, nary a word was said about Moore’s condition except for Dr. Steve Olvey confirming that he had been flown to Loma Linda Hospital with life-threatening injuries. Later in the broadcast, our worst thoughts were confirmed. Greg Moore had succumbed to his injuries.

To us watching the broadcast; the race nor the championship no longer mattered. But to the drivers on the track, both mattered because no drivers in the race were told of Moore’s death until after the race. For the record, Adrian Fernandez won the race, Max Papis was second and Christian Fittipaldi finished third. After the race, the mood became appropriately somber and sent the entire Indy car community into the offseason on a tragic note.

The loss of Greg Moore was more than just losing a driver or a good guy. Greg Moore was the face of the future for American open-wheel racing. He was all of those things – a great friend in the paddock and also outstanding with fans, as well as an excellent driver. He was the Josef Newgarden of today, except on a more accelerated basis. Moore won races in just his second year and was in the series for only four years, as opposed to five for Newgarden. Moore was also a year younger than Newgarden before signing with Penske.

The loss of Greg Moore was something that many have not gotten over yet, even though we are now seventeen years removed from it. Along with Paul Tracy, he was the pride of Canada. But Tracy represented the past while Moore was the future. The closest thing that Canada has now is James Hinchcliffe, who was twelve when Moore lost his life. For those that are too young to remember Greg Moore, I would equate him with all of the best attributes of a combination of James Hinchcliffe and Josef Newgarden – both on and off the track.

So as we go through this Halloween, please keep the memory of Greg Moore in your heart and pray for his family and friends. As I grew out of childhood, Halloween was never one of my favorite days to celebrate. It was a day when all the freaks came out. But after Halloween of 1999, the day took on a whole new meaning to me. It was definitely a day to remember.

George Phillips

11 Responses to “A Day To Remember”

  1. Greg would have been a star at Indy! I would say he would have had Helio’s 3 wins there for sure. Steve Olvey covers this day in detail in his book, Rapid Repsonse, which is the best book about racing I have ever read.

    I too remember that day well and the sting was a bit more for me, I always liked Greg and was looking forward to seeing the first promotional shots of him in his white and orange firesuit.

    A very sad loss for racing and something that likely changed the course of history for motorsports. Not sure we would have seen a Sam Hornish win titles or Wheldon even with Greg here, strange to think about!

  2. I remember watching that race live. After seeing that crash I remember thinking, there is no way he survived that. That was one of those days I questioned why I was an INDYCAR fan. Greg was such a likable driver with immense talent. It seemed like he always had a smile . You couldn’t help but feel so happy for him when he won a spot at Team Penske.

  3. I remember seeing Greg Moore win at Milwaukee and thinking…… this kid is just crazy good! Thanks for posting this George.

  4. WHAT? IndyCar (CART) actually RACED on Hallowe’en? C’mon, that must be a typo!

    I was in the Turn Two stands early on the morning of First Day of qualifying at Indianapolis in 1973 when Art Pollard slammed into the outside wall of Turn One and barrel rolled towards us in Two. I was 10 and I’ll never forget the way his arms freakishly moved outside the cockpit during the rolls and the fire blowing into his helmeted face as he sat in the car when the flipping was over. I was also standing on the backstretch at IMS and saw Scotty Brayton’s fatal accident. NEVER did I question why I was an IndyCar fan, nary once. Were we sad? Of course we were, just like we are saddened by fatalities at tracks we weren’t at. Dan and Justin’s were particularly hard because I had gotten to interact with both of them and they were the BEST! But fatalities have never shaken our love for the most incredible sport in the world, just like fatalities don’t shake the driver’s love for their chosen occupation. It’s what separates our sport from all the other games. Just my opinion….

  5. billytheskink Says:

    Thank you for this, George.

    Greg Moore was probably the first racing fatality that deeply affected me, the first one that occurred when I was old enough and paying enough attention to grasp what the racing community experiences when they lose a driver. I had seen Moore race twice on the streets of Houston, where he took pole in 1998, and loss of a driver I had actually seen in person was particularly eye-opening.

    What I remember more than his wreck, though, was that Moore’s death was one of three in the world of sports around the same time. Earlier in the week, golfer Payne Stewart was killed in a plane crash. The day after the race in Fontana, the great Walter Payton succumbed to liver disease.

  6. It was Justin Wilson’s death that was the most painful, for me. I remember seeing him giving a post race interview in Mid-Ohio, so full of enthusiasm, as he was fighting to gain a full-time drive, and had just scored a podium. One couldn’t help but support him in his effort to get back in the series.

  7. I was looking today at Coastal 181’s latest newsletter and saw the new Dan Wheldon book. The thought of Dan not being here still makes me very sad. I am sorry I never saw him race live, but his death in Vegas in 2011 finally lit the fire for me to get off the couch and go see racing.

  8. Greg Moore would have been a champ not only in CART but also F1, had he not been killed in 1999.

  9. hey George. I had the pleasure of meeting greg moore and he made me a fan right after that meeting. bryan clauson I got to be friends with that’s another that’s been really hard on me as well.

  10. Nice thoughts and rememberance. I was there that day. Still sticks in my mind the helicopter flying over the stands that day, seeing the drivers reation after the race was complete. It’s never easy and we move forward as fans.

  11. Uruguay hasnt forgotten about Gonzalo Rodríguez. With Santiago Urrutia losing the Indy Lights title for team orders from their rivals, we are wishing that he can find the budget to return in 2017 and continue to chasing the same dream as Gonchi.

    I recommend you to watch the Gonchi documentary on Netflix. Also, the Gonzalo Rodríguez Foundation has helped to create and run the LatinNCAP crash tests.

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