Out of the Woods

on .

Paul Tracy Battles Back from Racing Limbo

While this year’s merger of the Indy Racing League and the former Champ Car series has clearly elevated open-wheel racing in North America, one potentially thrilling ingredient has been conspicuously absent - the firebrand that is Paul Tracy.

03_CART_Rd18_AUSTRALI_opt1The 39-year-old from Toronto, arguably the most exciting open-wheel driver for the past decade-and-a-half, has been sidelined for most of this season, unable to get a team or sponsor to offer him a regular ride. He has competed in only two events in 2008 - the last-ever Champ Car race at Long Beach in April and the first IRL-sanctioned Canadian IndyCar race at Edmonton in July.

He was a somewhat disappointing 11th in Long Beach, driving for Forsythe/Pettit Racing, but put on a sterling showing for the home fans in Edmonton by charging from 15th on the grid to finish fourth in his Subway-sponsored Vision Racing Dallara-Honda, prepared by Derrick Walker’s crew.

“I’m super excited for the team. They prepared this car in about a week-and-a-half and I gave it a first-class effort for the sponsor,” said Tracy at the time. “With a little more practice and me not sitting on the couch for the past six months, maybe we could do better.”

Tracy’s strong Edmonton performance prompted widespread speculation that Tony George,
co-owner of the Vision team as well as founder and CEO of the Indy Racing League, would find a way to get the Canadian back into a car again before the end of the season.

At various times, it was reported that he might run the road courses at Sears Point and Detroit or perhaps the season-finale on the Chicagoland oval. But it never happened. Talks were held, potential sponsors were approached, but nobody came forward with the required cash.

And now Tracy’s career might be about to take a different turn as he prepares to make his debut in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas on September 20. He is slated to drive a Toyota Tundra for Germain Racing after a successful test at Chicagoland in late May.

The team, formed in 2004, is owned by brothers Bob, Steve and Rick Germain, who also have 19 auto dealerships in Ohio and Florida. It quickly became a top contender, winning the truck championship with Todd Bodine in 2006. Bodine and rookie Justin Marks are the team’s regular truck drivers, sometimes joined by Chrissy Wallace, 20-year-old daughter of the Germains’
Nationwide Series driver Mike Wallace.

“Paul did a nice job,” said Bob Germain, of the Chicagoland test. “So we got a little support and decided it would be fun to run him in his hometown. He’s our style, very aggressive. He and Todd are a lot alike.”

Tracy said he is “humbled” by the opportunity as Germain Racing is “a championship team committed to winning.” He tried to learn as much as he could from Bodine at the test because he is “one of the best in the business.” As for the upcoming race, he said: “I figure it’s an audition for 2009 with those guys because I think Todd wants to go to the Nationwide Series.”

Germain said he would indeed consider Tracy as a possible driver for his team in 2009. Still, the team has also been testing others, including Sean Caisse, a promising prospect from the ARCA series.

This is not Tracy’s first foray into NASCAR. He did six Nationwide (then known as Busch) races in 2006 and the results were not encouraging. His bestlesieur-tracy1_opt finish was a 24th at Daytona, while his best qualifying effort was a 23rd on the Mexico City road course.

His lack of success in those NASCAR races is thought to have been a major reason why he decided to re-commit to Champ Car by signing a five-year contract with team owner Jerry Forsythe, running through 2011 and reportedly worth $2.5 million annually.

The 2007 season was not one of his best. He finished just 12th in points with a single win - the 31st of his career - at Cleveland. Forsythe began talking about renegotiating the financial terms of their deal.

Meanwhile, Champ Car co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven and the IRL’s George began talks that would lead to the merger of their series - or more accurately, the IRL takeover of Champ Car. Forsythe was Kalkhoven’s partner in Champ Car. He signed on to the merger, albeit reluctantly, but announced he would not run any cars in George’s series.

Still, Forsythe was not prepared to release Tracy from his contract - at least not initially. He and his new team partner Dan Pettit wanted him to drive for them in Champ Car’s last hurrah at Long Beach on April 20. That meant Tracy was unavailable for the preceding three IRL races and effectively torpedoed any hope of getting a full-season deal with another team.

03_CART_Rd18_AUSTRALIA_opt“The merger was the best thing for open-wheel racing. It happened late and was kind of messy, but the end result is where it needs to be,” said Tracy. “I’m not frustrated by the merger. I’m frustrated that I don’t have a ride. I was under contract to Jerry Forsythe when they decided not to go racing. That left me hung out.”

Tracy indicated after Long Beach that he had finally secured his release from his Forsythe contract. Still, some last-minute delays and apparent complications in finalizing his subsequent Edmonton deal left some to wonder whether there might yet be some restrictions on his new-found freedom.

After Long Beach, Tracy began working with fellow Champ Car refugee Derrick Walker, a team owner who had fully intended to make the transition to the IRL until his main sponsor, Aussie Vineyards, jumped ship at the last minute to KV Racing, the team co-owned by Kalkhoven.

The pair searched for sponsorship to run the Indy 500 together - an event where Tracy feels he has had unfinished business since 2002 when his late-race pass of Helio Castroneves for the lead was denied by officials who said the track was already under caution. He had to settle forsecond place that year. This year, he had to settle for nothing, as he and Walker could not find the required money - for Indy or anything else.

“Derrick and I had been talking all the way from Long Beach about trying to put something together. It kept going down dead-end roads,” said Tracy. “Nobody was willing to put in any serious money and nobody offered any kind of serious program. It’s disappointing. There’s lots of interest out there, but in IndyCar everyone is desperate for sponsorship. They just ask how much sponsorship I have.”

Tony George was also trying to find Tracy a ride, knowing how much of a crowd-pleaser and major draw he is, especially at Canadian events. With his help, a deal was finally put together for Edmonton. George’s Vision Racing team would provide the car, Walker’s team would prepare it. Tracy was on the beach in San Diego, taking a vacation with his wife and kids, when he got a call from Walker
to give him the good news.

“The most important part of the season for me is always the Canadian races. Right from the beginning of my career, winning the Toronto race in ‘93, to run well at home was always the focal point of my year,” said Tracy. “I think it would have been difficult emotionally to not be a part
of the [Edmonton] IndyCar race.”

After his strong fourth-place finish, Tracy was hopeful for the future. “I got this opportunity and we cashed in on it,” he said at the time. “So fromLK5A0487_opt that standpoint, I hope the door was cracked open for us. I hope it’s wide open for me and Derrick to be able to move forward and do something long-term.”

But apparently the door remains closed and so now he is left with the possible NASCAR option or perhaps some sports car racing, which he
acknowledges he is also looking at. At one point, there were rumors that Forsythe might launch an American Le Mans Series team, but there now seems to be no foundation to that.

Still, Tracy has not given up on a return to IndyCar and is still hoping an opportunity may yet present itself. “I never dreamed that the last phase of my career would go like this,” he said. “I really want to stay in IndyCar racing. I’m still young.
I have a great passion for the sport and I plan to be part of it for many years to come.”

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