For Paul Tracy, making his pitch now part of the game

As Paul Tracy prepares for his fourth IZOD IndyCar series start of the season at Kentucky Speedway, the transformation from brash racing superstar to grizzled veteran qualifies as a makeover worthy of  Dr. Phil's couch.

Gone, it seems, is the gruff exterior and the win-or-leave-a-pile-of-shredded-carbon-fiber mentality.

Now Tracy heads a personal marketing team that pulls together sponsorship packages to create racing opportunities and values the idea of finishing races as much as starting them.

Somewhere, Gerry Forsythe is chuckling at the irony, along with a bevy of former engineers and crew chiefs.

Wizened and now sporting a chrome mane and matching goatee, Tracy is not only looking older, but acting wiser. He had every opportunity to smear a wickedly-sliding KV Racing car all over the wall at Indy in a last-gasp qualifying effort on Bump Day, but chose to wave off the attempt and bring the car back to the garage in one piece and on four wheels rather than at the business end of a tow hook.

The 41-year-old Scarborough, Ontario native is now a driver content to choose his spots both on and off the track. His plan for the Dreyer & Reinbold Motegi Racing Wheels car at Kentucky is one-part conservative and one-part opportunistic. 

"Yeah, I've just got to do what I can do," said Tracy on Tuesday afternoon. "Obviously, talked to the team. They said, 'Our cars are pretty solid.' We don't do anything that's way outside of the box. Mile-and-a-half cars when you're out there qualifying, running, not too difficult. There's quite a bit of banking at Kentucky. The cars are fairly stable with the bigger wings on them.

"In the race, if it's like Chicagoland, you know, for sure the first third of the race, because I haven't done that style of racing in a while, it's going to take me a little bit to get my feet back under me and get used to whatever situation you have to get into. But as the race progresses, you know, hopefully we'll be running towards the front.

"My goal is, are we going to come there and win the race? It's a pretty lofty goal. But I think a realistic expectation is to finish in the top 10. If things go really well, have a good, solid finish like Justin (Wilson) had, maybe even a top five or six."

For the Paul Tracy of 1999 or even 2007, the mere thought of a Top-10 finish would have been fighting words, and indeed it led to epic battles with his old nemesis Sebastien Bourdais and fellow Canadian Alex Tagliani, along with on occasion, his own teams and owners. 

But The Thrill From West Hill is now thrilled to be back in an IndyCar and on his first 1.5-mile oval since the 2005 ChampCar race at Las Vegas Speedway. That race was famous for Tracy being put in the wall by Bourdais in spectacular fashion after leading 107 of the first 123 laps.

Paul Tracy circa 2010 knows each race is both an audition and a chance to silence critics who contend he's past his sell-by date. The primary goal now is getting into the car. Any car. And every car. IndyCars. Supercars. His customer vintage Mercury hot rod. Even possibly off-road racing trucks.

Tracy knows that getting rides will take both sponsorship money and personality; while the former has been difficult to find, the latter is a key ingredient of the Paul Tracy brand. He is regularly one of the most entertaining drivers on Twitter, and has broadened his off-track exposure significantly as co-host of Speed TV's Battle of the Supercars series.

Learning to play the sponsorship game is now critical to his goal of campaigning an IZOD IndyCar full season schedule. The Motegi Wheels deal came as a result of Tracy's relationship with Supercars co-host Tanner Foust. Opportunities to shake hands, kiss babies and indeed throw out the first pitch at a baseball game are not lost on the 2010 version of The Chrome Horn.

"I mean, nowadays, you know, for a lot of drivers, if you're not a Dario Franchitti or a Scott Dixon or one of these guys that's on the big teams, I mean, you've got to find a budget to go racing.

"Kind of been fortunate enough that I've got some good guys working with me," continued Tracy. "I'm not a marketing guy and I'm not a sales pitch by or a boardroom pitch guy. From that standpoint, a lot of the companies that I've been associated with, you don't really have to go in and throw a big pitch at them.

"But, you know, it's difficult now to find sponsorship. I've got a team of people. I've got a group in Canada... working on Canadian sponsors, I have a guy by the name of Allen Jay and Brandon McManus who worked with KV Racing working on sponsorship. Another guy by the name of Doug Barnett who handles the GEICO account.

"From that standpoint, (I've) got many relationships to juggle, a lot of phone calls and a lot of faxes and emails to shake the bushes to see how do we put together a full program for 2011. That's what I'm really focused on right now."

With the finish line to his career now closer than the starting line, Tracy's unfinished business is not settling personal feuds, like he famously did in the Bourdais days, but taking the green flag at the Brickyard again next year and settling a personal score with the track that dashed his hopes this past May. He admitted that the disappointment of not making the field in 2010 shook him harder than "losing" the race in a controversial post-race decision to Helio Castroneves in 2002.

"Obviously this last year at Indy obviously was such a disappointment that that's really the thing that just drives the stake right into my heart," Tracy said. "You know, that cuts deeper than any loss. I didn't realize how much, you know, hurt that would put into me."

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