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Frankly Dear ...

Tracy Doesn't Care How CART Markets Him, Even if Friends Say That Along With His Flamboyant Image He Has Softer Side

April 13, 2002|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Paul Tracy saw a bit of open road between Kingman, Ariz., and Hoover Dam. With the valley laid out below him, he wondered how fast his new Porsche 911 Turbo could go. Since there were no other cars to be seen

A Porsche 911 Turbo will do 190 mph on the highway.

That's about 5 mph faster than Tracy will be traveling at the end of Shoreline Drive during today's second day of qualifying for the 28th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach as CART sets its starting grid for Sunday's race. Tracy, a two-time winner at Long Beach, was ninth at 101.465 mph in his Team Green Reynard-Honda after Friday's first round of qualifying.

With Robby Gordon having migrated to NASCAR's Winston Cup series, Tracy is the undisputed bad boy of open-wheel auto racing. Jimmy Vasser, who runs around Las Vegas with fellow resident Tracy, says his buddy is "flamboyant," with a well-earned reputation but has a soft side that the public rarely sees.

Whether he's dying his hair red or green, punting another car out of the way, referring to the series' chief steward as a clown, arguing with car owner Barry Green or calling out the series itself for perceived preferential treatment received by former CART team owner Roger Penske, Tracy seems to be a racer who doesn't hold back.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 16, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Auto racing--Dario Franchitti finished second to Juan Montoya in the 1999 CART championship series. It was incorrectly reported in a Sports story Saturday that Christian Fittipaldi finished second.

"For sure, I'm aggressive on the track and I'll do what it takes to get the job done," he said. "I'm not afraid to use the nose of the car, or the wings, to get somebody bumped, and I've been expressive out of the car when things haven't gone the way I wanted it to go. That's just my personality."

But does Tracy buy into his reputation? Not really.

"Anybody who knows me knows that I'm a fairly normal guy," Tracy said. "It's something CART has played up as a marketing thing. I just roll with it. Racing is racing, but it's still entertainment as well. Like anything, there are good guys and bad guys."

In Tracy's world, worse than being bad is being bland, which is one reason he doesn't mind being Darth Vader, as long as nobody confuses him with Charles Grodin. And that's not likely.

He has had well-documented on-track run-ins with his teammate, Dario Franchitti--once while they were running first and second--and was suspended for the first race of 1999 for several incidents the previous year. Al Unser Jr., Michel Jourdain Jr., Christian Fittipaldi, Michael Andretti ... there's no shortage of drivers who have cussed Tracy under their breath.

In this year's season opener in Monterrey, Mexico, Tracy got under Alex Tagliani's skin by cutting the fellow Canadian's tire during a charge from the last row. Tracy had a chance to win, then settled for ninth because of a late-race fuel problem.

"I went to Phoenix for an eye check and I asked the doctor his background," said Max Papis, who was once in second place in Australia when Tracy punted him off-course. "He said he did eye surgery to Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy. I said, 'Who? Paul Tracy.' I said, 'Please, do not put [Paul Tracy] in your resume--everyone thinks he is driving blindfolded."

Tracy was fined $50,000, penalized three championship points and put on probation for the final two races last season, after he'd called former chief steward Chris Kneifel a clown and complained of perceived leniency toward Penske's drivers, series champion Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves, after a pit incident at Laguna Seca in which Castroneves knocked Tracy out of the race.

Forgettable? Boring? No way.

"If I was that much of a bad guy, I wouldn't be in the series for 11 years. I'd be gone," said Tracy, who as recently as 1997 drove for Penske. "I must be doing something right."

Vasser says Tracy, 33, the divorced father of an 8-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, is not a simple person.

"He's pretty complex," Vasser said. "He's Jekyll and Hyde. The way he drives on the track and the way the public sees him ... he'd give the shirt off his back to his friends or anyone he cares about, but he won't give you an inch on the track.

"He's a bit flamboyant. He certainly doesn't like to fly under the radar. He's not understated."

Chris Pook, CART's new president, doesn't mind.

"Every sport has its characters, and he's one of our characters and he's very important to us," said Pook, who has been on the job since December.

"The fact that he's an incredible racing car driver is an added bonus."

Certainly, he is that. Tracy notched his first champ car victory at Long Beach in 1993, the first of five that season driving for Penske. He has won 18 races and finished second 12 times in 173 starts.

He won a second time at Long Beach in 2000, followed by victories at Road America and Vancouver, but he hasn't won since.

Last year, Tracy had two thirds and a fourth--at Long Beach-- to open the season, then finished higher than sixth only once over the next 17 races.

He says Team Green was stretched thin when it added a third car, driven by Andretti, and early-season decisions in the setup and aerodynamics took the Reynard-Honda combination down the wrong road.

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