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SPORTS WEEKEND

Tracy Hopes to Repeat Himself at Long Beach

Grand Prix: Defending champion has won twice on seaside course.

April 06, 2001|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When a driver wins his first race, it usually is such a special moment that he looks forward to returning to that track.

Paul Tracy won his first CART champ car race in 1993 at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, after qualifying outside in the front row. He also won last year after starting 17th, giving the burly Canadian who now lives in Las Vegas another reason for wanting to return.

"I love coming to Long Beach, it's been good to me," Tracy said as he prepared for today's first round of practice on the seaside course in the Team Kool Green car he won with last year. "I've had some disappointments there too, but two CART wins and a win in Indy Lights is a pretty good achievement."

Tracy, 32, is in his 11th season as a CART driver and has yet to meet the lofty expectations that accompanied his arrival in 1981 as the winner of nine of 14 Indy Lights races. Before that, he had won the Canadian Formula Ford championship at 16.

In a controversial career marked by suspensions for rough driving, fines for unsportsmanlike conduct, arguing on pit row with car owner Barry Green, probations for taking unnecessary risks and a variety of ailments and injuries, Tracy has finished third in CART's standings three times. Along the way, he has won 18 races and 13 poles.

"Last year, after I won Long Beach, I thought it was going to be the year, but we bogged down in midseason with five DNFs [did not finish] in a row with mechanical problems. I still had a shot at the championship when we were second going to Fontana, but another engine failure knocked me back to fifth."

In this season's opener, on a road course at Monterrey, Mexico, Tracy finished third.

Showing the same talent in moving up through a field from far back that he displayed last year at Long Beach, Tracy worked his way toward the lead after starting 15th.

"We had problems with the engine and I went with the wrong setup in qualifying," he said. "We had to switch engines and went back to an old setup for the race and the car ran great. I passed five cars on the first lap, got another one before the first pit stop and then got a couple more on pit road.

"With 10 or 12 laps to go, I got by [Kenny] Brack for third, but I couldn't catch the two guys in front [race winner Cristiano da Matta and Gil de Ferran]. I hope to get a much better starting position this week."

Tracy won one of his CART poles at Long Beach in 1994, when he was driving for Roger Penske.

CART has a new schedule this season for practice and qualifying. Provisional qualifying on Friday has been eliminated on road or street courses, leaving Saturday-only qualifying. There will be two practice sessions today, totaling 3 hours 45 minutes.

Another practice session is scheduled Saturday morning for 75 minutes, then qualifying will start at 1:45 p.m.

"We're coming off that solid run in Mexico, we're the defending champions, the Team Green crew is undefeated in pit crew contests and I know I can run well here, although I hope to start a little closer to the front this year," Tracy said.

"We won last year but needed a lot of breaks, which we got, to win it. It seemed like every time we needed to pit, a yellow [caution flag] came out at just the right time. When the yellows came out, we ducked in right away, came out and picked up a lot of ground.

"I drove well and the car was really good but we couldn't have done it without the luck we had on pit strategy. Once I got in front, I had enough car to pull away."

Green has added another driver, although he is not a Team Green driver as are Tracy and Dario Franchitti of Scotland. Michael Andretti is under Green's wing, but drives for Team Motorola.

"Michael is somewhat of a teammate in that all our computers are linked together and information is passed back and forth between crew chiefs, but so far Michael has not done any debriefing with Dario and me," Tracy said. "On the other hand, I get all of his data and he gets all of mine, so I guess essentially we are teammates."

Andretti and Tracy were teammates once before, in 1995 with Newman-Haas, and it was no secret that they did not get along.

"That was a long time ago and a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then," Tracy said. "We're older now and we both realize that it's in our best interest to work together to get the most out of our cars."

Andretti is going to drive in the Indianapolis 500 this year, for the first time since CART boycotted the race in 1996, but Tracy and Franchitti are not.

"Sure, I'd like to get back to Indy," Tracy said. "Every driver would, but not this year. Michael has a special deal with [Motorola] and he's going with a different crew, with Barry overseeing their operation. If I go, I want to go with my own guys, the guys I work with all year, but the last thing I would want to jeopardize is my position in CART.

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