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Greg Moore's passion took him right to the top

I really liked Greg Moore because he always called me back.

I really liked Greg Moore because he always called me back.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself: “Big deal. So the guy called him back.”

But when you are in the business of writing for newspapers about rock stars or movie stars or car racers, the fact that they call you back and don’t give you a hard time about it is a very big deal because it makes your job a whole lot easier.

Those are little things, but they stick in your memory.

Moore, of Maple Ridge, B.C., who was a Canadian open-wheel racing star on the cusp of greatness, died exactly 10 years ago today when his car went out of control at California Speedway and hit a wall. He was 24.

When I say he was on the cusp of greatness, he was driving his last race for the Player’s Forsythe Racing Team when he died.

The following season, he was going to partner Gil de Ferran in the famous Marlboro Team Penske which, in Indy-car racing, is the top of the mountain.

As the result of his accident, Moore was replaced on that team by Helio Castroneves, who has since won the Indianapolis 500 three times. Although he’s never won the CART or IRL championships, Castroneves has always been knocking on the door and you have to wonder whether Moore would have enjoyed the same success.

We’ll never know but it’s something that has to be mentioned. His close friends Dario Franchitti and Max Papis, among others, at one time or another have said that Moore would have won many races and championships and they’re probably right.

For my part, I think it’s safe to say that he wouldn’t have won Dancing With The Stars.

In any event, there was another – major – reason I liked Moore and that was the way he went about creating his own breaks as he climbed the ladder.

Over the years, I’ve written all sorts of stories about any number of young racing drivers who’ve been cut off at the pass by one of the stark realities of modern auto racing: the lack of finance.

The fact that he didn’t have a lot of money didn’t stop Moore and that’s why I’ve often questioned the commitment of all those other guys who’ve moaned and groaned and wrung their hands because they didn’t have a million dollars to give to some guy to take a race-ready car to the track for them.

Moore didn’t have a million bucks – far from it – but that was just a minor irritation. He had a dream and nothing was going to hold him back; nothing was going to stop him.

After entering and doing well in lesser formulas – karts, Formula Ford (he was Esso Protec rookie-of-the-year in 1991) and Formula Ford 2000 (he was USAC FF2000 West Champion and rookie of the year in ’92) – he entered the Indy Lights series with his own team.

That’s right: with his own team.

Maybe Greg and the guys on that team (mostly friends from back home in B.C. and he never, ever forgot those guys after he’d gone on to the big time) didn’t know what they were doing (as compared to the “big” teams of the day: Canada’s Brian Stewart Racing, Tasman Motorsports, Dick Simon Racing, etc.), but he had enough money to buy a car and to lease a Buick motor and that was good enough for him (and should be good enough for just about anybody else who has ambition, too).

Yes, when they went to the races, they slept in the backs of trucks and in tents (no motorhomes or even cheap hotels for that gang) and they ate peanut butter sandwiches. But Moore was out there, running in the Indy Lights series and paying his dues and that’s all that counted. He showed what he could do — which turned out to be pretty good.

He finished ninth in points in his rookie season in 1993 and then was third in ’94.

Now, I have to tell you a good story from around this time about how Moore managed to maintain his tradition of always racing with the number 99, which was the number he was handed when he first started karting. He carried it with him through his Formula Ford years. He got to Indy Lights and discovered it was the property of my friend, Brian Stewart of Sutton, the long-time King of Indy Lights.

“I’d run Kat Teasdale the previous year,” Stewart recalled, “and she wanted 99 on her car so CART had assigned the number to me. So when Greg entered his own team in the Indy Lights series in 1993, he had to come to me and ask for the number.

“I gave it to him but I wanted something in return. I had a lot of people asking me for passes to the Molson Indy Toronto that year so I gave him the number 99 and he gave me six of his passes for the Molson Indy and so everybody was happy.”

Recognition of his talent (plus some pretty intense lobbying of the Imperial Tobacco Co. by his father, Ric) resulted in a Player’s-funded ride with the Forsythe Indy Lights team in 1995 and Moore responded by winning the Lights championship.

Actually, winning the championship is almost a misnomer. He completely dominated it, winning 10 of the 12 races (he broke Paul Tracy’s 1990 record of nine wins in a season) and he was more than 100 points clear of his nearest challenger at season’s end.

Greg Moore was on his way. Promoted to the Player’s Forsythe IndyCar team the following year, Moore nearly won the first CART race he ran – at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he qualified sixth but was penalized for a pit-lane infraction.

After that, though, it was all uphill as he placed second at Nazareth, third at Cleveland and fourth in the Molson Indy Toronto.

In 1997, he scored his first IndyCar win at Milwaukee and, for a time, he was the youngest driver – at 22 – in series history to win a race. He went on to score five poles, five victories and 17 podiums in 72 race starts in his short career.

Although Moore never turned a wheel for his team, Roger Penske told me in an interview in Phoenix in 2002 that he’d had high hopes Moore would have been able to get the job done.

“We signed him because we considered him a major talent,” Penske said. “It’s a shame he wasn’t able to fulfill his promise.”

A shame, indeed.

Norris McDonald writes an Auto Racing blog at Wheels.ca. [email protected]

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