'THRILL' SAYS INDYCAR CAN RACE ON 'GOOD' OVALS IN EUROPE, WANTS TO TAKE LEAD IN FORMING DRIVERS GROUP TO PROMOTE SAFETY
You always know when you're about to get a zinger from Paul Tracy. His eyes light up and the corners of his mouth curl into a grin and he lets loose with - whatever.
This time it was about his possible retirement from Indy car racing, which is now officially off as the result of an interview he did last week with Marshall Pruett of speedtv.com in which he said he intends to race full-time in the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2012.
Three weeks earlier, in the aftermath of the racing crash at Las Vegas that killed Dan Wheldon, Tracy had appeared on Canada AM and said he was seriously considering calling it a career because his wife and his mother had both asked him to stop.
"So, what was their reaction (to the Pruett story)," I asked him last Saturday at Action Honda out in Scarborough, where he'd gone to support Rick Hansen's 26th Anniversary Man in Motion Relay.
Tracy's eyes lit up - and . . . get ready, because here it comes:
"I haven't told them yet!" he laughed.
Which is why it's always such a delight to talk to the "Thrill from West Hill," because you never really know which way the conversation's going to go.
In a wide-ranging interview, Tracy made it clear that:
- if he doesn't get a full-time ride in 2012, he will retire from Indy car racing. Therte will be no one-offs in Toronto and/or Edmonton next year. It's going to be all or nothing.
- if IndyCar can't find suitable oval speedways to race on in the United States, they should look to Europe.
- he is prepared to take a leadership role in a drivers' organization that would include racers of all types and focus specifically on safety issues.
- he thinks a roll cage or canopy protecting the cockpit of an Indy car is a good idea - maybe.
- and plexiglass over the fencing above the SAFER barrier at oval race tracks is a good idea.
As far as talk of him retiring is concerned, he said everybody was upset in the aftermath of the Wheldon tragedy.
"What I saw in the hospital unit (doctors fighting to revive Wheldon), nobody wants to see," he said. "I was shook up a little bit but everybody’s had a chance to calm down and think about it and I'm saying today that my plans remain basically unchaged.
"I want to compete next year – a full season – but if I can’t do that, if I can’t get a full season, I’m over trying to get into cars part-time, with part-time teams. I’m not gonna race any more stuff part-time."
Toronto and Edmonton have always been on Tracy's schedule in recent years, even though he hasn't been employed full-time by one of the full-time teams, but even that scenario is now out the window, he says.
"I don’t see the point in it any more," he said, "running around at the back. The last four years that I’ve done it, I’ve been put in a spare car that’s been off in a corner of a race shop somewhere, and my crew has been a bunch of guys that they hired for the weekend. You can't compete at this level any more doing it like that."
Tracy said even if he gets a full-time deal, it will still be his final year in Indy cars.
"I still want to do some endurance racing - Le Mans, Sebring - but I'll be finished with the Indy cars. I want to go out on top, though. We've got some meetings lined up with a couple of teams.
"I've got a level of funding that I can take to the table and some of the teams I’m talking to have a level of funding. Hopefully, we can put it all together."
One of the criticisms of IndyCar following the Wheldon crash was its insistence on racing at high-banked, mile-and-a-half speedways that some say are better suited to NASCAR stock cars.
But the series has been running into difficulty in recent years to fullfil its marketing plan of racing on superspeedways, short ovals, road courses and street circuits. To be blunt, there are not enough flat, mile-long, oval tracks to race on and fans have not exactly been breaking down the doors to watch the racing there anyway - the tracks at Milwaukee and New Hampshire being prime examples.
Tracy thinks there's a solution - in Europe.
" First, I don't think they want to go over to Europe, but if they need ovals, they do have some options on tracks that worked for Indy cars in the past.
"The Lausitzring Speedway in Germany is a good oval speedway. It's pretty flat, and so is Rockingham (in England). It's also pretty flat. I think they're good venues and I think they should look at them. They both always drew a good crowd; whether they made any money, I don't know.
"On the other hand, I don’t think they should abandon mile-and-a-half tracks in the States, but they have to figure out a way so that the cars aren’t running three and four wide. My problem is that I don't know how you stop the cars from pack racing on those high banks.
"I don’t know the answer, because if you slow the cars down. you’re going to have more of a pack, and if you speed them up, keep ‘em going up to 240 miles an hour, then you have a different problem.
"We ran around Texas in a CART car at 240 mph and everybody was blacking out from the G forces. I don’t know how you separate the cars, except on a flatter track where you might be able to run side-by-side for a couple of corners but you’d better get back in line pretty quick."
Tracy said he thinks racing drivers from all categories should band together to make sure their concerns, particularly about safety, get a proper hearing with racing authorities. He said, for instance, that the Indy drivers had talked to CEO Randy Bernard about two abreast restarts as being too dangerous and had been ignored.
"(In the aftermath of the Wheldon crash) I sent out a tweet that said, basically, that we’re all playing the same game, we’re all playing football but it’s a different sized ball. We’re all running on the same tracks; we’re just using a different ball to play the game, whether it’s NASCAR, or IndyCar or drag racing or sprint cars.
"Safety inovations can improve across the board. My thought is that we’ve got all these driver groups – IndyCar’s got a driver group, I’m sure NASCAR does - and what we need is for some of the top guys from every level - John Force, Jimmie Johnson, Dario - to get together at some point and form not so much a union but maybe have a meeting once or twice a year and you talk about the safety issues in everybody’s sport and I bet you'll find there’s a common thread running through the whole thing.
"A lot of the problems are probably the same problems. So how do we get the organizing bodies of every group to fix it? Everybody’s trying to do their own thing and that doesn’t solve anything."
Tracy said he's been pretty busy the last few weeks and that his friend Johnson is in the middle of the NASCAR Chase.
"He’s got a lot going on right now. So I’d have to talk to Dario and him and see what would have to be done to get something going. But yes, I'm going to push for that."
Tracy had these thoughts on several other subjects of concern:
- A roll cage or canopy to protect Indy car drivers who race now with exposed cockpits:
"The questions I have would be how do you get out of it (the car) in a hurry? What if the mechanism to get out was somehow damaged in a crash, or if there was a fire? Those are some of the issues that you’d have to tackle."
He said the modern Indy car is difficult to exit as it is.
"Even right now, most of the drivers can’t get out of an IRL car (quickly) because you can’t get the headrest off. The headrests fit so tight because of the aerodynamics around the driver’s head – the driver’s helmet is basically encased all the way around - and you can’t get out from under it.
"There should be a five-second rule; you should be able to get out of the car and touch both feet on the ground within five seconds. I mean, you should be able to get the headrest out, the steering wheel off, unbuckle and jump out of the car within five seconds. It’s an FIA-mandated rule in F1 and it’s something that I’ve never seen enforced in my career but I think it’s something that should be done."
- His suggestion of plexiglass over the fencing after Wheldon was killed (when his car went above the SAFER wall and into the wire):
"It was just a thought, I don’t know if anybody’s done anything about it. I mean, I’d never looked at the fencing before and I was talking to Davey Hamilton and he said the fencing at Vegas and Texas is completely set up wrong.
"You have the wall, the fence post comes up out of the wall, and you’d think they’d have the fencing mounted on the track side but no, they have the fencing on the spectator side so the first thing that’s exposed to a car is a pole and the guy wiring and all the rest to hold it in place. The fence is on the wrong side of the pole.
"I’ve suggested it (the plexiglass). I don’t know what it would cost but if it ended up saving the life of a driver, then it’s worth the investment.
"At some point, somebody did make a big investment in safety. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway made the investment in the development of the SAFER barrier, which is virtually on every track now, so we’ll have to see where this goes."