Well, one down and one to go.
For much of the last few weeks, I’ve been writing about how two gifted Canadian race drivers have been waiting by the telephone, or – more likely – watching their Twitter accounts for news they need in order to make 2011 a successful year in car racing for both of them.
While James Hinchcliffe of Oaville is still waiting for official word that he will be driving an Indy car in the opening race of the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series season next Sunday in St. Petersburg, Fla., Paul Tracy of Toronto and Las Vegas finally got some the good news Monday.
He will be driving in this year’s 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing with financial support from sponsor WIX Filters. Further word is expected soon of sponsorship that will also see Tracy compete in the Honda Indy Toronto and the Honda Indy Edmonton.
While a full season would have been preferable – and I’ll get to that in a moment, because there’s a bit of a mystery cooking – the Indy 500 and the two Canadian races on the IZOD IndyCar calendar are of primary importance to the "Thrill from West Hill."
Tracy, in his 21st year of major open-wheel racing, has competed in 273 Indy car events and is in the top 10, all-time, in victories (31), poles won (25) and laps led (4,238). Tracy won the Champ Car World Series championship in 2003.
"Obviously, it feels great to be back with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing," Tracy said. "It's been a chaotic winter, but it's good to have the deal stowed away with a competitive program lined up with WIX Filters and DRR for the Indianapolis 500."
Dreyer & Reinbold co-owner Robbie Buhl said the team is excited to have Tracy aboard.
"He's a great personality and driver and we believe he will be very competitive during the Indy 500."
Hinchcliffe, meantime, is still on the fence. Although his photo is in the driver lineup on the INDYCAR website, there is no car number, which means the seat remains unconfirmed.
Now, back to Tracy.
I am an old friend, and huge fan, of racing reporter Gordon Kirby who has been around the sport forever and ever. He knows everybody and has no distractions so his Indy car stuff is spot on.
He’s reporting in his latest column (you can read it all at gordonkirby.com, if you like) that quotes attributed to INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard that were published in the USA Today newspaper last week (that story is here) may have done grievous harm to Tracy’s attempts to land a full-time ride for this season with a team headed by Jay Penske, Roger’s son.
USA Today quoted Bernard as suggesting, in response to a question about why Tracy, Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan weren’t at the INDYCAR tests at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama, that Tracy and the others aren't able to sell tickets and haven't been able to form an emotional attachment with fans. According to Kirby, Bernard tried to quell any controversy by telling Speed TV’s Robin Miller the day after the quotes appeared that he had misspoken and that Tracy is a big draw (see that story here).
However, this is the important bit. Writes Kirby:
"Bernard's comments in USA Today have damaged the work Tracy and Jay Penske have put in trying to sell sponsorship for Tracy to drive for Penske this year. Jay's team was sidelined after Tony Kanaan and Gil de Ferran were unable to sell sponsorship but Tracy and Penske have been working hard to find the backing for Tracy.
"After Bernard's comments about Tracy appeared in USA Today however, Tracy's prospective sponsors asked him why the boss of INDYCAR was saying he wasn't a draw. What, they wanted to know, was going on?
"On Sunday night," writes Kirby, "Tracy's deal with Penske hung in the balance but PT at least has a deal to race in the Indy 500 with another team. This agreement should be announced today (as happened Monday – see above)."
It makes you wonder why Bernard – who’s rarely put a foot, wheel or word wrong since he took over as INDYCAR CEO last year – was as careless as he was when discussing the fortunes of an Indy car racing icon like Paul Tracy.
Particularly when his statements might have inadvertently sabotaged Tracy’s chances of running a full season in a series that so desperately needs a star like him.