Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tracy Mulling Retirement: "I Saw Him Dying In Front Of My Eyes,"

Paul Tracy has done all there is to do in Open Wheel racing. In 1985 — at age 16 -- he became the youngest-ever Canadian Formula Ford Champion, before rocketing through the Can-Am and American Racing Series ranks to claim more than 50 victories and eventually, the 2003 Champ Car World Series championship. He’s taken turns in Grand Am, NASCAR and IROC competition as well, and now, “The Thrill from West Hill” wonders if the time has come to call it a career.

Tracy was in the thick of Sunday’s 15-car IndyCar holocaust at Las Vegas Motor Speedway; a crash that took the life of two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon. Tracy’s left-rear tire served as the launching pad for Wheldon’s fatal flight, and what he experienced that day has the Scarborough, Ontario, native contemplating his own mortality.

“After the accident, I was in the (infield) hospital when they wheeled Dan in,” said a subdued Tracy. “I could see it was bad. Real bad. I went and talked with Dario (Franchitti), Tony Kanaan and Justin Wilson, and they were like, `We heard he’s stable and his vitals are good.’ I told them, `Guys, that’s not what I just saw.’ Ten minutes later, they came in and told us he had passed.”

The hours that followed became a blur of sadness, sorrow and anger; emotions that Tracy still struggles to understand.

He said there were "a lot of tears,” as drivers huddled with IndyCar officials to determine how best to proceed. “There was a lot of posturing and a lot of opinions. Should we re-start the race? Should we cancel it? Should we go out there and put on some kind of staged exhibition? Nobody really knew for sure.

“Mario Andretti was there, and he felt very strongly that the show must go on. He’s seen it all over the last 40 years; he used to lose friends on a weekly basis. Mario said that in his opinion, cancelling that CART race at Texas in 2001 (when drivers experienced dizziness and vertigo due to high speeds and elevated g-forces) doomed Open Wheel racing to the state it’s in today. He said we couldn’t just say, `We’re folding the tent and shutting it down.’ We couldn’t do something that wasn’t right, and I feel that ultimately, the right decision was made."

After about an hour of conversation and debate, “(IndyCar CEO) Randy Bernard came in and said, `OK, we’re going to go out and do a five-lap salute to Dan.’ And pretty quickly, everyone agreed that was the best thing to do. It was certainly better than trying to put on a race with drivers whose heads were not in the game. If your head’s not clear, you shouldn’t be on the track, and we all knew that.”

In hindsight, Tracy called the Las Vegas race, “a recipe for disaster. It was like an Open Wheel Talladega," he said. "The track was freshly paved, and we know that when a track is fresh and new, it has a ton of grip in it. What we had was a fresh, brand-new track with high banking, and cars with a lot of downforce. That adds up to a Talladega-style open wheel race at 225 mph, which is a recipe for disaster. And that’s what it ended up being; a disaster.

“We had a great champion in Dan Wheldon, and now he’s gone,” said Tracy, while holding out hope that something good may ultimately come from the tragedy. “When we lost Greg Moore in 1999, a lot of good stuff happened,” he said. “The HANS device was invented, and they paved the area inside the turns to keep cars from going through the grass and barrel-rolling. When Dale Earnhardt died, the SAFER barrier… and the Car of Tomorrow came about.”

Tracy is firm in the belief that there is an area of safety still to be addressed. “Even with the new technologies that have come about in the last 10 years, nothing has changed when it comes to the catch fencing," he said. "We saw it with Carl Edwards at Talladega, and we saw it again Sunday with Dan. When cars get into the fencing, it acts like a spider web. It grabs them and tears them to pieces. Fifteen drivers were involved in a horrendous wreck Sunday, and everyone walked away but Dan; the one guy who got into the fence.

“That needs to be the next wave of development in driver and track safety,” he said. “Why can’t there be some kind of ballistic, plexiglass-type cover that goes over the catch fence and keeps cars from getting caught-up and torn to pieces?”

Even if a way is found to keep cars out of the fence, Tracy said he may not be around to see it. “I’m like any other race driver,” he said. “I don’t rest on my laurels. My mentality has always been that I’m no better than my last race. But my wife had never seen anything like what happened Sunday, and she asked me that night, `Why do you need to do this anymore? You’ve got a house full of trophies, you’ve got a Champ Car championship and all those wins. What are you trying to prove?’

“The problem is, I don’t remember all those wins,” said Tracy. "I only remember what happened yesterday.

“Racers are different,” he said. “We have a mental shut-off switch that blocks out all the bad things that can happen to us. Without that switch, it’d be impossible to do a job that requires you to risk your life every time you compete. When you’re tucked up behind another car at 225 mph, you don’t think about it. You don’t even consider lifting (off the gas). But afterward, you think about it and say, `Damn, that was crazy.’”

In the aftermath of Wheldon’s death, Tracy said there is a question he must soon address. “I’m not a 20-year old kid anymore,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and what I saw (Sunday) when they wheeled Dan into that medical unit is something I’ll never forget. I saw him dying in front of my eyes, and that memory is etched into my brain forever.

“I don’t need to drive anymore,” he said “At this point, I’m not in equipment that allows me to win races, anyway. I am doing this purely out of ego. I spend my own money to do it, and I need to ask myself, `Are the risks worth the reward?’

“I think it’s finally time for me to weigh those options and decide if I should look at doing something else.”


  1. Anonymous1:34 PM

    PT is a great champion and his words should be taken seriously. I hope something good can come out of this terrible event. RIP Dan Wheldon

  2. Again dave another awesome story that only you could do. Thanks for all you do in a sport that take a lot out of us. The name Godfather is the perfect way to describe you. Thanks again

  3. Anonymous1:49 PM

    A very mature & reasonable portrait of PT. I hope he has input into what's next for OW.

  4. Anonymous2:04 PM

    Excellent story. Hope you have a follow-up in a couple months. Thanks.

  5. Time heals ALL wounds, we'll see Tracy tooling around some track before too long. Really interesting to hear Mario's take on event completion which mirrored my own. Perhaps someday, someone will invent a catchfence that doesn't act as a gigantic cheese grater.

  6. Anonymous2:56 PM


  7. Anonymous3:27 PM

    Well said PT and Dave... the looks on everyone's faces as we watched the five-lap tribute - and the tears in those 19 helmets - are things I'll never forget... felt as empty as I did with Gonzalo, Greg and Paul died

  8. Andrew5:21 PM

    Even if PT retires, I'd like to see him stay in IndyCar as a driver rep, or involved in Safety. It would be a waste to let his understanding of motorsports fade away.

  9. Rob Nichols7:33 PM

    Great story/ Interview and I hope you do get a followup interview with him. PT needs to stay in open wheel somehow. I have been a big fan of his since his Lights days.

  10. I grew up with IndyCar racing and was 9 years old when I went to the 1964 Indy 500. There was a huge, firey pileup coming out of turn 4 and Eddie Sachs (riding on 8 gasoline tanks) and Dave MacDonald died right in front of us. After they cleaned up the track and had a moment of silence, they re-started the race, which AJ Foyt won. During the entire race, Sach's burned car sat in full view with a tarp over it--they didn't remove his body until the crowd left. Mario Andretti started racing in that era, and the mentality of "The Show Must Go On" prevailed in that day. It was a different time then--but after that race they restricted the amount of fuel cars could carry, and eventually went to ethanol. I was at Indy the year of the big pit fire, injuring Rick Mears, and the next year they put something in ethanol so you could see it burn, and required fire suits for everyone in the pits (I worked for a TV station in Indy and we all had to get them.) Racing DOES learn from these tragedies, but sometimes slowly. If enough of us scream about catch fence technology, they'll fix it. I'd hate to see PT retire, but if his heart's not in it anymore, he should. But let's learn from this tragedy and try to keep another one from happening.