This is the seventh in a special series of columns celebrating significant Canadian motorsports accomplishments in the 25 years that Toronto Star Wheels has been publishing. Today, we look back to when Paul Tracy became the first Canadian to win the Toronto Indy.
The year 1993 was one of the most successful in Paul Tracy’s racing life although, as he told me in conversations, he was in the doghouse a lot of the time.
He won five races for the legendary Marlboro Team Penske and finished third in the CART championship behind his veteran teammate, Emerson Fittipaldi, and the reigning World Champion, Nigel Mansell, who’d turned his back on Formula One in favour of racing in North America.
Yes, he won seven races in 2003, and the championship, but several of the better Indy car drivers of the day were racing in the rival Indy Racing League and the depth of the field wasn’t as great as it had been in ’93, when la crème de la crème was running in CART.
As it turned out, he won the Molson Indy Toronto both those years, but the first time was definitely the most significant.
On that day — Sunday, July 18 — the 24-year-old became the first Canadian Indy car driver to win a race in Canada. And on that day, Paul Tracy was the best racing driver he could be, and he took on and beat the best in the business.
There was no rival league around to drain away the talent in 1993, so Al Unser Jr., Mario and Michael Andretti, Arie Luyendyk, Eddie Cheever, Danny Sullivan, Scott Goodyear, Bobby Rahal, Scott Brayton, Jimmy Vasser and all the other swashbucklers of the time were out there gunning for him.
His employer, Roger Penske, loved him and hated him at the same time. He loved him because he recognized God-given talent when he saw it. He hated him because Tracy gave him ulcers.
In the second race of the season, at Phoenix, Tracy had lapped the field twice. Think about that for a moment: he was two laps ahead of everybody else. Now we’ll let Tracy himself pick up the story:
“Nobody could touch me there,” he told John Phillips for a story in Car & Driver magazine. “By lap 100, I’d lapped the field twice. I was in the zone, in my own world, just blasting.
“Then with about 30 laps to go, Roger says on my radio, ‘All right, let’s back it down.’ And I’m like, back it down? I’m killin’ out here. Guys are swerving to get out of my way. I was furious. And that’s when I hit the wall.”
I’ve heard Tracy tell that story. His eyes sparkle and he laughs merrily, which is why Penske had tummy trouble. Tracy wrecked his cars and laughed about it afterward.
But that’s not all.
There was a week between the race in Phoenix and one in Long Beach so Tracy drove to the coast and, to kill some time and entertain himself, he went to a kart track. He started racing a guy. He had an accident on the go-kart track. A really bad accident.
“I must have been going 90 miles an hour when I hit the guy and I flipped. I had no gloves and I was sliding along on my hands, hips, elbows and arms.
“I got to the Long Beach circuit the next day and I was covered in bandages and everybody was looking at me kinda weird. I lied. I said I was riding a mountain bike down a hill and fell off. I had to get medical clearance in order to race. Roger saw me — and the look on his face . . .”
Tracy’s eyes sparkle at the memory and he’s got a great big grin on his face as he tells the story.
But Long Beach, his first win of ’93, was a turning point.
“That’s when it clicked,” he told me in a recent interview. “I knew then that I could win. We went on from there. I won at Cleveland the week before Toronto, and then we went into Toronto and I won there.”
There were more than 70,000 people in the stands at the CNE that day and, as one, they stood and cheered as the young Canadian took the lead late in the race following a pit stop. They didn’t stop cheering until he’d accepted the checkered flag and stopped in Winner’s Circle following a victory lap.
One guy told me he felt the same emotions in downtown Toronto that day as he’d felt on the Ile Notre-Dame in Montreal in 1978 when Gilles Villeneuve won the Canadian Grand Prix.
And I agreed with him. Some people were in tears.
“I led a lot of the race; I think Emerson got by me for a little while. Coming into the last pit stop, I was on a little different fuel strategy. I went four or five laps further than him and then that cycled me out in front of him at the pit stop.
“His stop was probably pretty much the same as mine but because I was on track at speed and he was on cold tires getting up to speed, I wasn’t threatened.”
Tracy said he never thought he had the race in the bag, but was confident he was going to win.
“Once I was out front, well, it’s pretty tough to pass in Toronto. I had a pretty big lead — four or five seconds.
“Having said that, I was nervous. You always get nervous any time you’re leading a race and you’re coming down to the end. I was nervous but I was also confident that I had it under control.
“But I really remember the last lap. I could hear the fans all the way around the track, through the helmet and over the noise of the car. That’s something I’ll never forget.
“He was talking to me then. I was on his good side. He had a smile on his face.”
No need for Tums that day.
Norris McDonald writes daily about auto racing at wheels.ca