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Tracy Hits the Top After a Wild Ride

October 31, 2003|SHAV GLICK

Finishing 13th wasn't the way Paul Tracy envisioned winning his first CART champ car championship, but after 13 years and one of racing's most see-saw careers, he'll take it any way he can.

CART will honor the 34-year-old Canadian champion at its awards banquet Tuesday in Palm Springs, and there will be a lot of people there, Tracy among them, saying it was a long time coming.

"Basically, my whole career has been hot-cold, hot-cold," he said. "It's never been lukewarm."

That could just as well be said of the 2003 season and the final race in Australia, where he clinched the title Sunday.

* The career: From the day in 1991 that Roger Penske found him sitting on a curb in Long Beach, disconsolate after a disappointing race in a car his family had rented from Dale Coyne to showcase their son's talent, Tracy has been up and down. He finished 22nd that day, but Penske saw something he liked and hired him as a test driver.

Five wins in 1993 made him one of CART's hottest drivers. Three years later, he went winless. Five more wins followed, then another winless year in 2001. Last year he won only once. After switching from Team Kool Green to Player's Forsythe Racing, he won seven races, six poles and led all 18 races this year.

"I don't feel that much different, being the champion, but I guess now that I've won, in one way it will be different," he said. "I have won tons of races and led tons of laps and I am in the top five in every category that there is, but people would always say, 'Well, you haven't won a championship.' That puts a lot of weight on you. Now it's been taken off, they can't say that anymore."

* The season: Tracy started off with three victories, then hit a midseason slump before rallying with three late-season wins, holding off Bruno Junqueira, who collapsed worse than Tracy in the title-decider in Australia.

"It was another hot-cold, hot-cold scenario," Tracy said. "After the three wins, we went to Europe and in the next three races we scored three points. We had a gearbox failure in England, chose the wrong aero package for Germany and then came back to Milwaukee, where we were running up front and had a wheel fall off after the last pit stop.

"Then we would get hot again, then cold. Bruno would have a big weekend and I would go home dejected ... and then I'd come back the following week and win. Then I'd say, 'OK, I got him now,' and then he would come back the next week and win. So we both, every weekend, responded back and forth, almost like a sporting match.

"We just raised our game every weekend in the last four, five weeks."

* The final race: Tracy started fifth, was knocked back to last in a brush with Junqueira's Newman-Haas teammate, Sebastien Bourdais, and then was involved in another accident that damaged his car's suspension. Meanwhile, Junqueira was running in front.

"I had every range of emotion you can possibly have in a two-hour time period," Tracy said.

"Before the race, I had a good warmup and felt confident. I knew there was going to be some type of a team strategy from Newman-Haas and obviously that became a factor when Bruno led the thing away, instead of the pole position guy [Bourdais] leading.

"So, when I got clipped by Bourdais and spun out, I went from being confident of having a good result to really [ticked] off. Then I was just trying to work my way back up the field when I had Tag [Alex Tagliani] spin in front of me and then drive into me. I backed up into another car and damaged my suspension and felt we were pretty much out of the race. I was really down.

"Then later in the race seeing Bruno crash ... feeling elated, you know, just an unbelievable feeling of happiness."

When Junqueira spun and crashed 10 laps from the end of the race, it was the first time he had failed to finish all season -- and it assured Tracy of the championship.

It also meant Tracy would not have to carry his championship fight to Fontana, where he has yet to finish a race in six California Speedway starts.

"I hated to see the race canceled, but I can easily understand why," he said. "When I got back from Australia, I couldn't get a flight home from L.A. to Las Vegas, so I had to drive. The smoke was very heavy and it was basically like being in fog. So the air quality was not good. And I understand there was a lot of falling ash around the track. The most important thing was the safety of the fans."

With the 2003 season over and new ownership apparently about to take over CART, Tracy is optimistic about his future, and the future of the open-wheel series.

"I am looking forward to coming back next year with No. 1 on my car," he said. "I have made my career in champ cars, and I have always been a supporter of the series. I have a contract for another year and at the moment I have no interest in NASCAR or Formula One. I'm still young and I think I'm at the top of my game right now."

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