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Vasser Win Comes Without a Tracy

Auto racing: He takes advantage of mistake by Canadian to win Marlboro 500 at California Speedway.

November 02, 1998|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FONTANA — On Friday, Paul Tracy was suspended from next season's first race by CART officials for "blocking, [taking an] unjustifiable risk and unsportsmanlike conduct" at last week's race in Australia.

On Sunday, Tracy was four laps from collecting $1 million from CART as winner of the second annual Marlboro 500 at California Speedway. He had led for 25 laps and was in control of the season's final race when it came time to resume racing speed after a yellow caution flag.

As the green flag came out for the final four laps, Tracy stomped on the accelerator. Instead of pulling away from Greg Moore and the Target tandem of Jimmy Vasser and Alex Zanardi, the car abruptly spun into the infield and crashed into a retaining wall. Cold tires--cooled from 11 laps of cruising behind the pace car--were his undoing.

This set off as wild a finish for an estimated 105,000 spectators as CART champ cars have ever seen at the conclusion of 500 miles before Vasser claimed the million dollars.

Moore, astounded at seeing his fellow Canadian grounded in the grass, took the lead, but Tracy's crash brought out another caution flag.

"I saw Paul wave to me when I went by, so I knew he wasn't hurt, but I hoped he'd hit the wall hard enough to make a big mess for the emergency crew."

It didn't take long enough for Moore.

There was only one lap of racing left when the green flag came out again and Moore, as the front driver, was a sitting duck at the hands of the pursuing Vasser and Zanardi.

Vasser went low, Zanardi went high and both swept past Moore almost at the time the white flag was waved, signaling one lap to go. Moore managed to get past Zanardi and split the Target pair at the finish line, but he couldn't catch the flying Vasser.

"I saw Greg had a big gurney on his car, which gives it a lot more downforce and makes the car run better in traffic, but I knew that he'd have trouble running by himself," Vasser said. "I knew that if I had a good restart, got a good run on him, he would have no chance holding me off. There was really nothing he could do about it. The same thing happened to me at Michigan Speedway."

The finish was redemption of sorts for Vasser for Michigan, where Moore passed him on the final lap to win the U.S. 500 last July.

"Somehow it doesn't seem quite the same," said Moore philosophically. "Anywhere but here today, second place would have been nice."

That is because his winning purse at Michigan was $100,000, compared to Vasser's $1 million. Plus the disparity between first and second Sunday. Moore pocketed only $60,000 after finishing 0.360 second behind Vasser.

CART has offered a $1-million purse only twice and Vasser has won both times. The first was in the 1996 U.S. 500 when CART ran its premier race the same day as the Indianapolis 500.

Vasser's win also moved him past Team Kool Green's Dario Franchitti, Tracy's teammate, for second place in CART FedEx points, earning another $500,000 for Vasser and a second one-two finish for Chip Ganassi's team. Zanardi had clinched the $1-million champion's bonus four races earlier.

"I thought before Paul spun out that he and I would be able to break away." Moore said. "I thought it was going to be a two-horse Canadian race for the last 10 laps. It's a bitter pill to swallow.

"If Paul had not gone off on the restart, I would have had a better chance at winning, but with two teammates right behind me, it made the job a lot more difficult. Going into corners 3 and 4 on the restart, the draft is so bad if you're leading and they're right behind you, you're out of luck."

Tracy was disconsolate over the fate of his car.

"From my standpoint, I dropped the ball," he said. "The guys worked their butts off all season and they deserved to finish the season on a high note. I just tried to do the restart the way I'd done the previous one and get a good jump, and it just drove around on me. It was my mistake."

There were 24 lead changes among seven drivers, not quite the record 62 they had in Michigan, but enough in the final 100 miles to send the huge crowd home with memories of a remarkable finish.

Eight cars finished on the lead lap with Vasser, who averaged 153.785 mph, a speed slowed by 10 yellow flags for 74 laps.

Adrian Fernandez, who started last after crashing during qualifying, finished fourth, followed by the PacWest duo of Mauricio Gugelmin and Mark Blundell, last year's winner.

Bobby Rahal, making the final race of his 17 years as a CART driver, finished 11th and appeared satisfied with putting the cap on his career.

"My objective was to retire on a competitive note, and I feel I accomplished that," he said. "On that last restart, with only one lap to go, I was still trying to pass [Helio] Castro-Neves for position."

The 11th place enabled Rahal to finish in the top 10 in CART standings. Had Tracy won the race, he would have passed Rahal.

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