In this edition of Speedway Media’s first seasons’ column, we caught up with former IndyCar driver turned NBC broadcaster, Paul Tracy. In the interview, Tracy discusses what brought him into the sport in 1991, meeting with Roger Penske to help him get a full-time ride, winning his first race at Long Beach in 1993, among many other memories throughout Tracy’s early career.
SM: You made your CART debut at the age of 22 in the 1991 season at Long Beach for Dale Coyne before ultimately driving for Roger Penske. What it was like to make your debut at that age and how did you make the connection with Roger Penske that landed you a full-time ride for the 1992 season?
PT: “I started out winning the Indy Lights Championship and then I had a test with True Sports Racing and they were sponsored by Budweiser,” Tracy said. “I was still 20 years old and the test went really well and they signed me to an option contract and then they couldn’t get Budweiser to sponsor me because I was under 21. We went through the winter trying to find a sponsor, but we had nothing to start the season.
“Much to the dismay of my mom, my dad refinanced our house and made a deal with Dale Coyne to drive for him (at Long Beach) all with the hopes of a good race and some prize money. I qualified really well in Dale’s car, which at that time, Dale was known for not having the best equipment. The car was a year old. In the race, the motor blew up and that was it. I thought that was the end of the road.
“Penske had contacted us and asked me what I wanted to do. I said our goal was to get to Indianapolis. He said, sit tight and wait for me to call you. We put a lot of faith in Roger and the day after Indy qualifying, Roger called my dad and said, ‘I need you to drive to Detroit and meet me at my office at midnight.’ That’s what we did, got in a car and drove to Detroit. The contract was on the table and he said sign this now, or I have another driver waiting at the motel to sign it.”
SM: When was your first conversation with Roger and did you feel like this was a place to be after the first meeting?
PT: “Oh obviously,” he said. His team was the best team. How could you not go with your first real racing opportunity to be with the best team in the history of the sport? To some degree, he kind of spoiled me. After I left Team Penske, you were so spoiled with the best preparations.”
SM: During the ‘92 season, you ran 11 out of the 16 races that year. What kind of expectations did you have at the beginning of the season? Was managing expectations difficult knowing you weren’t full-time?
PT: “Yeah, I started (racing) in ‘91 and there were really no expectations,” Tracy said. “Roger said, I’m going to sign you as a test driver. You might test for one year or five years, I can’t promise you anything. Other than that, you’re going to do a lot of testing for us.
“My test came at Mid-Ohio. I had already been there with True Sport Racing, so I knew the track well. I admittedly was very quick. I was quicker than Emerson (Fittipaldi) and Rick (Mears) on the first day. That raised a lot of eyebrows.
“We went to Michigan, tested there and I was quick again. Roger said ‘I’m going to have you race at the Michigan 500.’ I went out in my first race and crashed. I thought immediately, my career was over. He asked my doctor how long I would be, and my doctor said five to seven weeks. I had a rod and screw in my leg. At five weeks, I was out of my cast and in the soft cast.
“The first test he (Roger) took me back to was Michigan, the site of my crash. There was the car that was smashed, sitting in the paddock, and the mark on the wall. (Roger) wanted me to do a 500-mile test when I went out. I was shitting myself and got through it (test). Speeds were good. That set the stage for the ‘92 season, where I would run Phoenix, Nazareth, Michigan and Detroit. He put sponsorship together with Mobil 1 and that’s how the ‘92 season came about.”
SM: Your first race with Roger came in ‘91 at Michigan. Discuss what it was like in the weeks leading up to your first IndyCar start? Were you anxious or nervous or were you thinking, ‘I’m ready to go out there and show what I’ve got’?
PT: “I was a little bit nervous, but I tested so much there at Michigan,” he said. “I had been there (Michigan) like 10 times, but I had never drafted with anyone else. I remember Roger telling me at the start, ‘just take the start and don’t pass anyone. If anyone passes you, it’s no big deal. Just stay on the lead lap and wait until the last 100 miles and then we’ll start racing.’
“The green flag dropped and I was in the top seven or eight after qualifying. I remember I was behind Scott Brayton on the first lap, he was somewhat slow I thought. So, I thought, I’m going to pass him and I came up behind him (Brayton) in Turns 3 and 4 and I lost the rear of the car. I caught the car, but the car went the other way and hit the wall. My first start with Penske didn’t go very well.”
SM: In ‘91, your best finish came at Nazareth finishing sixth, and then the year after, you bettered that finish with a second-place at Michigan while leading 67 laps. Did you think at that point, Michigan was probably your best shot to win after having gearbox problems earlier in the season?
PT: “That was the comeback race at Michigan after breaking my leg the year before,” Tracy said about the 1992 Michigan race. “So, to come back, run up front, lead the race for a long time, the win came down to a shootout with me and Scott Goodyear at the end. I was really happy with how that race went. I thought that was really close to being my first win, but ultimately my first win didn’t come until the following year at Long Beach in 1993.”
SM: As the season wore on, your two other podiums came at Mid-Ohio (second) and third at Nazareth. During your rookie season in ‘92, was there still a learning curve for you and the team? Was there a moment when you began to feel comfortable?
PT: “I thought I was pretty comfortable in an IndyCar right away,” the 2003 CART champion said. “After my first test with True Sports, I thought the car suited me well, the horsepower level, everything.”
SM: Your first-ever Indy 500 experience was in 1992. I know it wasn’t the result you wanted with a 20th place finish but regardless of that, what was it like experiencing your first Indy 500? What were your thoughts as you entered the garage on race day, the pre-race ceremonies, pace laps before the green, etc.?
PT: “Indy has always been a tough place for me,” Tracy said. “That track, for whatever reason, was not suited for me. 2002, you can argue whether or not I won the race, that was my best result ever there. Other than that, every time I ran Indy, I struggled. I never qualified that great. (Indy) was just a hard track for me.”
SM: Fast forward to 1993. You scored your first career win at Long Beach. You qualified on the outside pole and led 81 of the 105 laps. What does that first career win still mean to you to this day and have you ever had a chance to re-watch that race? Earlier in the week, the broadcast mentioned you fell off a mountain bike and that your hands were sore.
PT: “There’s a story behind that as well,” Tracy said about falling off a mountain bike. “I had told the team I fell off a mountain bike, but I was out with some buddies go-karting at a track in California called Adams Raceway in some shifter karts. My friend (Mark Smith, former IndyCar driver) and I got tangled up and I flipped the go-kart and that’s how I tore myself.
“However, I had crashed the week before at Phoenix after leading two laps. Everyone was looking at me sideways. After crashing the go-kart Wednesday of the Long Beach week, I showed up at the track black and blue and covered in blood. I thought, ‘shit, I better win this race or I am going to get fired.’ Luckily, Long Beach was one of my favorite tracks and everything went well in the race.”
SM: After 1992, you went on to win 31 races, 74 podium finishes and even won the championship in 2003. However, are there any races where you wish you had another chance at or a do-over? If so, which race stands out the most and why?
PT: “There’s a lot of them but Phoenix stands out the most,” the Canadian native said. “In my first full-season in ‘93, there’s some specific races that stand out because I lost the championship to (Nigel) Mansell by 25 points. I was right there at the championship, but I crashed out at Phoenix, Milwaukee and Mid-Ohio, all three while leading those races by a huge margin. I would like to have one of those three back.”
SM: I wanted to follow up on this. I saw a video on your Instagram post about racing four days after the September 11th terrorist attacks in Germany. What was going through your mind at that time?
PT: “Yeah, we didn’t know if we were ever going to get back across to the United States because, at that time, the worldwide flights were canceled,” Tracy said. “CART had gotten permission from the United States and the German government to let us race. At that race, there were a lot of crazy things that had happened. (Alex) Zenardi had got hurt there and there was a lot of stuff going on.”
SM: What is your fondest memory of entering the sport?
PT: “Just all the people I’ve worked with in the sport,” he said. “I can walk around the paddock and talk to any of the teams and ask them about their game plan for the race. Not only knowing the drivers on a good level but the mechanics as well. They will tell me straight and that really helps with our NBC broadcasts.”
SM: Some drivers keep their own memorabilia and some don’t. Are you a driver that collects your own merchandise and if so, is there anything in your collection that reminds you of your rookie years?
PT: “I have helmets and (fire) suits from specific times and races that I won over the years,” Tracy said. “The ones I’ve won specific races in, I still have them all. I have the suits from the 2003 championship and some Team Penske items. I have helmets that are of significant importance to me.”
SM: Out of winning 31 races, which trophy out of your collections means the most to you and why?
PT: “It’s hard to say which one is the most important to me, but winning in my hometown was great, winning in Vancouver in my own country was great and then my Long Beach trophies are really important as well. I guess if I had to categorize them, winning in my country meant a lot for sure.”
SM: It’s hard to believe your CART debut came 30 years ago. However, what would a 52-year-old Paul Tracy tell a 20-year-old Paul Tracy? Is there anything you would do differently?
PT: “Well, when I started racing, I drove flat out like it was the last lap,” Tracy said. “Back in those days, you couldn’t do that because the equipment wouldn’t hold up, the gearboxes would break, engines would blow up, etc. One of the things that Roger’s people would say, if they were developing their own cars, if it’ll hold up when Paul drives it, then anybody can drive it. If the car doesn’t break behind the wheel with him driving it, then the car will race the whole race. That would be everything inside the car. Now the cars are so reliable. It’s rare that you see an engine fail or gearbox fail. The drivers now drive like I did at the beginning of my career, but you just couldn’t do that back then since the equipment wasn’t as strong.”
Throughout Paul Tracy’s career, the Scarborough, Ontario native has made 261 career CART starts with 31 career victories, 74 podium finishes and 24 pole positions along with winning the 2003 championship. Additionally, Tracy made 20 NTT IndyCar starts sporadically from 2002 to 2011. He also has 10 wins in 35 races from 1988 to 1990 in his Indy Lights career while winning the championship in 1990. He has also made starts in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Xfinity Series and the former NASCAR Rolex Grand-Am Sports Car Series.
Special thanks to Kevin Lee of NBC Sports for helping with this interview and many thanks to Paul Tracy for taking the time out of his schedule to conduct the interview.