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Tracy's Charge Earns Checkered Flag in Indy Alternative

May 25, 1997|MIKE KUPPER | TIMES ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

MADISON, Ill. — Don't look now, but Team Penske is back from its one-year slump. Well, half of Team Penske is, anyway, on short tracks.

Punctuating a rain-threatened race with a cavalry dash from seventh place to first in the last 34 laps, Canadian Paul Tracy Saturday won his third PPG CART World Series race in a row, this one the inaugural Motorola 300, the weekend alternative to the Indy Racing League's Indy 500 today.

"My car was really, really hooked up the last part of the race," said Tracy, adding the victory here at the new Gateway International Raceway, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, to previous wins at Nazareth, Pa., and Rio de Janeiro in his Penske-Mercedes.

And for Roger Penske's outfit, the dominant team in Indy car racing in the '90s but winless last season, it was triumph No. 99.

It was hard-earned, though, Tracy having to make up a 1.27-mile lap he lost early in the race when he passed up a chance to visit his pit during a caution period, then had to stop for fuel later when the green flag was flying.

In his late-race chase, he passed Greg Moore; Jimmy Vasser, last year's CART champion; Gil de Ferran and Alex Zanardi--Dario Franchitti fell out of the running because of a broken transmission--setting up what turned out to be a one-sided duel with leader Patrick Carpentier in the last four laps.

Carpentier, another Canadian, driving a Reynard-Mercedes for Tony Bettenhausen and making the strongest showing of his rookie season, was low on fuel at the end and had to choose to conserve the fuel and settle for a second-place finish, or battle Tracy and risk not finishing.

Carpentier wanted to take the risk but Bettenhausen, whose racing family has known mostly heartache for more than 50 years on the Memorial Day weekend, chose the sure finish.

"Tony kept telling me [via radio], 'You gotta save fuel. Run it in sixth gear [overdrive].' At first I didn't want to. I'd drive in sixth gear, then I'd go to fifth and he'd be telling me to get back to sixth."

So after Tracy had passed Zanardi's Reynard-Honda for second place with the end in sight, Carpentier left it in sixth and, when Tracy loomed large in his mirrors, let the charging challenger by on the 234th lap of the 236-lap race.

Bettenhausen's father, the original Tony, raced 14 years without ever reaching his main goal, victory at Indianapolis. He was second once, gave up a ride in what turned out to be the winning car another time, then was killed there in 1961, shaking down a friend's car. Brother Gary had the race all but won--driving for Penske--in 1972 but was robbed when his car failed late in the race. And this Tony raced there unsuccessfully 11 times.

Gateway International isn't the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, of course, but with CART boycotting the 500 for the second consecutive year in a squabble over rules, the race here was Bettenhausen's only chance this racing weekend.

"[Carpentier] didn't want to pay much attention to me and I don't blame him," he said. "But we needed to finish."

For a first-time event, the race offered a little of everything.

An announced crowd of 48,500--capacity before the race had been listed at 45,000--experienced occasional rain-generated caution periods, a thundering but injury-free crash by Scott Pruett, Bobby Rahal scrambling from a burning car, an Andretti slowing down and, from time to time, some exceptional racing. The caution light was on eight times for 88 laps, the longest a 37-lap hiatus for Pruett's crash and subsequent sprinkles.

Pruett, running sixth, suddenly lost his brakes and was carried directly into the outside wall in Turn 2, backing in hard, then the car snapping around and hitting again in the front, showering the track with debris.

"I took a big hit," Pruett said. "It felt like someone jumped on my chest."

Rahal suffered minor burns on his upper right arm when a fuel-line connector separated and burning fuel was sprayed into the cockpit.

Others disappointed were Michael Andretti, who led--mostly during caution periods--in midrace but eventually lost his battle with an ill-handling car; pole sitter Raul Boesel, who led the first 40 laps, then fell victim to a throttle problem; and Al Unser Jr., the other half of Team Penske, taken out of the race by transmission failure.

But for Tracy, who ran at an average speed of 113.88 mph and finished 2.3 seconds ahead of Carpentier, the day couldn't have been nicer.

"From a driving standpoint, this was one of the most exciting races I've ever driven," he said.

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