Paul Tracy during Pole Day qualifiying for the IZOD IndyCar Series 94th running of the Indianapolis 500. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
I haven’t always liked Paul Tracy as a driver.
I have friends from Canada who swear by him. I think he’s their version of Dale Earnhardt - brash, totally unapologetic, completely fearless, and willing to push beyond the limits of his talent if necessary to win.
But me, well... I’ve always been torn when it comes to PT. It’s been strange over the years how every time I try to like him, he does something stupid or outrageous... but then, when I decide I don’t like him, he comes back and turns that feeling on its head and makes me laugh at his jokes or gasp in amazement at some new feat of derring-do.
Whether I like him or not, of course, is totally immaterial - both to me and to Tracy himself. The Thrill from West Hill (for you non-Canucks out there, that’s in Scarborough, which ironically is on the east side of Toronto) doesn’t appear to care who likes him. What’s important is that he’s liked - or if he is not, he is at least talked about - and to him that in itself is a reason why he should be in an IndyCar.
And I agree with him.
Paul is no spring chicken. He’s past 40 years old, which in NASCAR years would be the beginnings of middle age but in IndyCars is inching towards the retirement village. For some, that alone is a reason for him to be seeking other forms of employment.
But Tracy is on the upswing of a physical fitness program that has him in the best shape he’s been in for years. He has proven that he is still capable of driving an IndyCar with enough verve to be competitive. He may not be as wild as he once was - his braking points are a few yards farther out from the apex than in his prime - but if you're watching Tracy drive you're doing it from the edge of your seat.
Let’s be clear: today’s Paul Tracy is a far more mature one than the PT who loudly and brashly served as the face of CART - and later Champ Car - for a decade. We got a glimpse of that equanimity (don’t ever say PT has mellowed - as the great "Weird Al" Yankovic once sang, "I’ll be mellow when I’m dead" seems to be PT’s motto) when he failed to qualify for this year’s Indianapolis 500. A younger version of Tracy might have been red-faced, angry, casting blame, excoriating the people or circumstances that brought him to that moment. But today’s Tracy met his misfortune with surprising grace, blunt honesty and quiet emotion.
That’s not to say that the modern incarnation of Paul Tracy has been dulled at all by age. It’s hard to forget his run-ins in 2006 with Sebastien Bourdais and Alex Tagliani in the Champ Car series. In both instances, he ended up in physical altercations with his peers because his driving style - generously described as "pushing the edge of the envelope" - resulted in taking out both his car and theirs. But what really sticks in people’s minds in both situations was the burly, red-faced Tracy ready to pick fights with a couple of drivers who shouted epithets from the safety of their racing helmets.
And here is the perfect illustration of the dual nature of Tracy’s psyche. His comments that "French guys always keep their helmets on" were intended as jokes - surely, ill-timed and definitely not politically correct, which actually fits right in with Tracy’s sense of humor. Predictably, what's funny to Tracy is often offensive to someone else, and his comments caused a major uproar, especially when he arrived in Montreal for the Champ Car race there. But just as all of French Canada was ready to condemn Tracy to whatever hell they believed in, the Thrill from West Hill appeared for driver introductions with a blue Mexican "luchador" wrestling mask and a Quebec flag wrapped around his neck. Just like that, in the middle of some outlandish wrestling poses, Tracy went from public enemy number one to "Captain Quebec."
That is vintage Paul Tracy. Just when you think you’re ready to hate the guy, he makes you like him in spite of yourself.
That hasn’t stopped many IndyCar fans from holding on to their dislike. Tracy spent the better part of a decade calling IndyCars "crapwagons" and disdaining anything and everything about the Indy Racing League. That some of his comments were based in truth - truth that many IndyCar fans did not have the inclination to face on their own - did nothing to lessen the harsh impact of his brashness. IndyCar fans took his jibes extremely personally, and to this day there are many who still have not forgiven him for it.
And, of course, there’s 2002.
The controversy will go on as long as Tracy lives - perhaps longer. Opinions vary wildly according to where one’s loyalties lay at the time. IRL fans consider Tracy to be the Wally Pipp to Helio Castroneves’ Lou Gehrig and a sour-grapes artist for the ages. Champ Car fans still call him the 2002 Indianapolis 500 victor and that Castroneves’ visage on the Borg-Warner Trophy is simply a mistake that could still conceivably be rectified.
For Tracy’s part, he still believes he won the race. And he still has fun with the topic - if people are going to keep asking him about it, after all, why not have some fun? One well-placed raised eyebrow, a well-timed smirk, and the match is thrown into the gasoline again. But I suspect that Tracy does this more to satisfy his inner Loki than to make any sort of case. He’s moved on, even if his fans haven’t.
Paul Tracy today is happily married, a proud father, and a man who enjoys his life in almost every respect. But what Tracy does not have is a full-time ride in an IndyCar. His fans believe that this is an inconceivable outrage, a violation of the natural order (especially given the increasingly questionable inclusion of Milka Duno on the racetrack). In true Tracy form, he does not temper this outrage - rather, he feeds it, stokes it, builds it up. Part of it is his brashness; another part is his keen understanding that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Basically, if he and others keep saying that it’s a travesty that he is not driving, eventually enough people will believe it is so that he will get a ride somewhere.
The thing is, Tracy and his fans are right. IndyCar does need him, every bit as much as NASCAR needed Dale Earnhardt. We have all seen the decline that NASCAR has suffered because the top stars have been in the bland, corporate-issue mold of stars like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. A polarizing figure like an Earnhardt or Tracy adds flavor to blandness and makes what could be a boring exercise into potential water-cooler fodder. And make no mistake - a 40-something Paul Tracy is still quite capable of driving cars and driving interest.
Whether you like Paul Tracy or not is immaterial - chances are you have a strong opinion one way or the other, and that is really all that’s important. For at the end of the day, when Paul Tracy is around IndyCars, we are entertained. And that is why we need him.