Greg Moore: An Unfulfilled Legacy

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Some will wonder why I’m not writing about McLaren and James Hinchcliffe parting ways today. Trust me, I will discuss that on Friday. But I felt like it was important to stay with the topic I already had planned for today – GP

As most of you know, tomorrow will mark the twentieth anniversary of when Greg Moore was fatally injured at Fontana. I was able to keep up with the events of the weekend through my primitive 1999 dial-up internet, and I was well-aware that Moore had been involved in an accident in the parking lot over the weekend, when he suffered a broken hand.

He did not make a qualifying attempt and was doubtful to even race. Having not made a qualifying attempt, Moore had to start from the back of the field. Moore was passing several cars in the opening laps. We all know what happened in Turn Two on Lap Nine, so I won’t rehash the details.

I was watching the race from home on my couch. I sat up as I saw the fatal crash unfold. The usually unflappable Paul Page gasped “Oh my God!” as Moore’s car came to rest. To their credit, ESPN did not ever show a replay. They didn’t have to. After watching the severity of the crash, you just knew. I was hoping for the best, but deep down – I knew. When pit-reporter Gary Gerould introduced Dr. Steve Olvey for “an announcement” – he didn’t even need to say the words. He just confirmed what we already knew.

Unlike some, I did watch the remainder of the race. There was a championship to be decided between rookie Juan Montoya and Dario Franchitti. My turning the TV off was not going to bring Moore back and I had been wanting Franchitti to win the championship – although my enthusiasm had completely gone by then. For the record, Montoya and Franchitti ended up tied in points, but Montoya won the championship by winning more races.

A side-note to the tragedy-marred race is that Adrian Fernandez won the race from the thirteenth starting spot. I felt especially bad for Fernandez, because this was the second race he had won in which a driver had been lost. When he won his first career race at Toronto in 1996, driver Jeff Krosnoff and corner worker Gary Avrin were both fatally injured on the back straightaway as Fernandez was about to take the checkered flag. Fernandez would not celebrate his first career victory nor would he celebrate his first 500-mile race win at Fontana.

I stayed with the race until the end. I also watched the reactions of the drivers when they were told of Moore’s death after the race was over. I know some enjoy seeing it, but I’ve never liked watching grown men cry. When the TV cameras peer in to capture someone’s grief, I feel like we are invading a private moment. I felt the same way in 2011 after the death of Dan Wheldon – as we watched Franchitti openly sobbing in the cockpit of his car. That is not something we need to be privy to.

When the race was over, I was in no mood to greet trick-or-treaters. I had been a single dad for a couple of years by then. Halloween is one of my least favorite occasions, but every year I felt an obligation to my own kids as well as the neighborhood kids to partake – either by getting them ready to go out and by answering the door and putting on a festive face. But this particular Halloween, I felt far from festive. The disbelief I had experienced from the afternoon had spiraled into a full-fledged sinking feeling. After about an hour, I could no longer do it. I turned the front lights out and retreated to my computer area to fire up my dial-up internet and read the tributes that were pouring in.

If you were not an IndyCar fan at that time, it’s hard to convey what a can’t-miss up and coming star Greg Moore was destined to be. He won the 1995 Indy Lights championship by winning ten (that is not a typo) of twelve races. He finished second and fifth in the two he didn’t win. Ironically, his worst finish that year was at Vancouver – very near his home in Maple Ridge, B.C.

His first season in CART was 1996, the first year of The Split. I bring that up because due to the politics of the sport at that time, Moore never raced in the Indianapolis 500. His rookie year was a typical rookie year – some mistakes thrown in amidst a few flashes of brilliance. He went winless that season, but had three podiums and four more Top-Seven finishes on his way to a ninth place finish. His first race win was the next season at Milwaukee and he backed that up the next week with another win on the completely different track at Belle Isle. He also had three second-place finishes that season – one on a street circuit, one on a natural terrain road course and one on an oval. He was showing his speed as well as his versatility.

To me, Greg Moore’s signature moment came on Easter weekend in 1998 at Rio. It was the late stages of the race and Moore was trailing Alex Zanardi. As the two came upon the lapped car of Arnd Meier, Moore went to the inside of Meier and then to the outside of Zanardi as the headed into Turn One. It was one of those moves that I will remember forever.

Later that year, Moore won at Michigan to add a 500-mile race win to his resume.

1999 started as planned for the young Canadian. He dominated the season-opener at Homestead for the fifth win of his career. It would be his last. The under-powered Mercedes-Benz engine would be a culprit in a disappointing season, as well as his contract with Gerry Forsythe being up at the end of the season and serving as a distraction. Forsythe offered him a new contract, but Moore turned it down.

Greg Moore signed with Team Penske for the 2000 season in August of 1999. He was to be paired with the newly signed Gil de Ferran. Penske had been coming off a few forgettable seasons of his own and was looking for a reboot, with two new drivers, new Reynard chassis, new Firestone tires and new Honda engines.

When Moore lost his life at Fontana, Penske quickly signed the promising Helio Castroneves, whose Hogan Racing team had just folded after Fontana. Gil de Ferran won two CART titles and the 2003 Indianapolis 500. Helio Castroneves went on to win the Indianapolis 500 three times and had a seventeen-season career driving Indy cars fulltime for Roger Penske and still drives in his sports car team and the Indianapolis 500 for Penske.

Greg Moore was born just one month before Castroneves, so he could have just now been winding down his career had he lived. Although he looked more like an attorney than a race car driver, he had an enormous amount of talent.

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By all accounts, he was also the most popular driver in the paddock. That’s easy to say after someone passes away, but in this case it was true. He was genuinely liked and respected by all of his peers. To this day, Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti speak of Moore in reverent tones.

Many times a promising athlete signs with a good team for a lot of money, only to produce mediocre results. We will never know for certain, but I don’t think that would have been the case with Greg Moore and Penske. I think he and de Ferran were going to be an unbeatable combo. Gil de Ferran ended up retiring just four years into his Penske deal and was replaced by Sam Hornish. Can you imagine a pairing of Sam Hornish and Greg Moore?

Unfortunately, we will never know what might have been. That is left only to our imaginations and unfulfilled dreams. But I know this – there is a lot more to the legacy of Greg Moore besides a horrific crash video found on You Tube. I think Greg Moore could have broken and re-written a lot of records, and that includes the Indianapolis 500; had it not been for that fateful day at Fontana – twenty years ago tomorrow.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “Greg Moore: An Unfulfilled Legacy”

  1. I thank you for the thoughtful tribute to Greg Moore.

  2. We were at Fontana that fateful day. I had photos of each driver after they qualified, except Greg because he did not qualify, having injured his wrist. I felt cheated at the time.
    We were glad to see Greg start the race, but so soon after the start we saw the flying debris created by the collision. We remember seeing Father Phil scampering down pit lane toward the waiting helicopter. We saw all the flags around the circuit being lowered to half staff about 90 minutes after the crash. We heard the announcement on the radio. After 20 years we still vividly remember and recall the details of that event, especially on Halloween. And we say a prayer that he rests in peace. Appropriate and accurate article, George.

  3. I remember the day well, I had a terrible headache that morning. Was busy all day and got home to the first Olvey interview about it being life threatening. I of course have since seen the crash, read about it in Olvey’s book, etc. I think Greg would have blown away whatever Helio did in that car. He would have been incredible at Indy.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    I was not able to watch the race, I heard of the incident and saw it that evening. I’m not sure that lessens the impact any, it was a gut punch either way. I’m as sad that we lost Moore today as I was back then.

    Moore’s potential seemed unlimited, especially when the prospect of him not being saddled with the loud and slow Mercedes-Benz was just over the horizon…

  5. I was at the Milwaukee Mile when Greg won his first race. My god, what a talent I thought then. Sadly, neither the Mile and Greg are still alive. I believe the current popularity of IndyCar racing in Canada can be traced back to the BC born Greg Moore. LARGE THANKS George for this retrospective of Greg Moore’s racing career. Tomorrow the bell will toll for Greg Moore. RIP

  6. Greg favored the Buddy Holly look.

  7. When Greg won his first race in 1997 at the Milwaukee Mile, the race was called the Miller 200. I can’t think of anything positive that has come since the banning of beer sponsors and tobacco sponsors from auto racing.

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