How the hell did we just qualify for this year's Indy 500? We've posted the 35th-fastest qualifying speed, we've been bumped not once, not twice, but three times – and couldn't have attempted to re-qualify because our driver Sebastian Saavedra is in the hospital for an MRI on his back and our car is a smoldering heap on the floor of our garage in Gasoline Alley.
Yet at one second after 6 p.m. EST, at the end of Bump Day qualifying, here I am at the end of pit lane, jumping around and yelling like a maniac with Bryan Herta Autosport co-owner Steve Newey and Colin Dyne, the CEO for our sponsor WilliamRast. We're in! The scene's surreal. And in the midst of our celebration I catch from the corner of my eye Paul Tracy stepping out of his car, unable to beat the clock and make a final attempt at getting in the race.
As happy as I am to have our car make the race for our first Indy 500, I wish it hadn't come at P.T.'s expense. Paul is a contemporary of mine, we've raced together many times and, over the years, I've truly grown to like and admire the guy. I consider him a friend, yet don't feel I really know him. I'm not sure anyone can peel back all the layers: Paul is an enigma. You can't argue with the stats – 31 career Indy car wins (some would argue for a 32nd in the 2002 Indy 500), 25 poles, 4,238 laps led – but that only tells half the story. Never one to back down from a challenge on the track or a little controversy off it, Paul is absolutely the guy I want to sit down with for this Racer2Racer.
BH: Shall we talk about your most recent experience?
PT: When your team bumped me out of the Indy 500?
BH: Hey, technically your team let us back in!
PT: Hmm….Yeah, I guess we bumped ourselves out which is the biggest mistake we could have made. I'd been sitting there on the timing stand figuring what we'd do, and for the longest time, no one was doing anything good – 219mph, 220mph. As the line formed to go for qualifying runs, we got in line, and all of a sudden, one of the Conquest cars, Romancini, posts a 224.7. So we thought, “Jeez, the track's picked up big time.” Sarah Fisher does 224.6, and we figure Sarah and Jay Howard have got to be close on setup, so he's capable of doing the same and bumping me. So I get strapped in, and I don't see what's going on, or the timing board.
BH: So you didn't know you were still in the race?
PT: No. There was a lot of yelling and screaming going on. Then, all of a sudden, the team says, “Go! You've got to qualify.” I assumed I'd been bumped. Well, the car just wasn't there; it was horrible. As soon as I'd get into Turn 3, heading for the white line, the tailwind would push the whole car into a slide. I stayed flat all four laps, but that wasn't enough.
BH: It actually broke my heart that you didn't get in…
PT: Yeah, sure it did!
BH: No, seriously. That was the most exciting run of the month. And I was impressed with how you handled the whole thing. Was that down to experience?
PT: Well, believe me, I was plenty mad when I got back to my bus, and since then I've had a few goes at Jimmy Vasser on the phone about it, but what can he do? He can only say, “I'm sorry, we didn't do a good enough job” so many times.
BH: So now you've got Watkins Glen and the two Canadian races locked in for this year, but you're looking around just like any other professional driver for a full-time ride in 2011.
PT: It's not easy. I wasn't able to make the jump when the Champ Car/IndyCar merger happened. I was under contract to Forsythe and couldn't get released, but he disappeared and I couldn't get out of the situation until it was too late to get a ride. So I sat out for most of 2008, and all I've been able to do since then is pick up onesy-twosy rides, which is frustrating.
BH: But you don't need to do this. You do it because you love it. You've already won 31 Indy car races, you can make a strong case for having won the Indy 500 and you won the CART title.
PT: It depends what you mean by “need.” I don't need to do it for financial reasons. But I need to race to keep my sanity. Whenever I'm not doing it, all I think about is doing it. I haven't been able to find anything that satisfies me like racing an Indy car…And believe me, I've tried a few things. I've raced trucks, I've got a 170mph boat, a 1300hp sand rail – all this crap that doesn't give me the same adrenaline rush. Driving racecars is what I've done my whole life and I'm not ready to turn it off yet.
The weird thing is, although I'm not racing full time, I'm more busy than when I was full time. But I don't get the same sense of accomplishment.
BH: I can relate to that. As a team owner, I don't think I've ever worked so hard in my life, but I guess I'm channeling that energy, and I'm enjoying the process. That's probably what's keeping me from going crazy.
PT: Exactly. People have asked me on Twitter why I don't start a team for myself, but I don't have that interest. Like you said, it's a full-time job.
BH: OK, well let's look back now. It was Road America 2001, the track was still damp from earlier rain, and for whatever reason, you and I had started near the back of the pack. We'd passed about eight cars already and you were right behind me, but there was still a river running across the track just after the kink. Max Wilson was just ahead, and he goes into this river but before he disappears into the spray, I see him check up, so I'm forced to as well.
Of course, you and I get together and spin – we're still doing about 170mph, but now you're facing me, about the same distance as we are on this couch, and we're sliding along the wall. We've got clear visors, we're looking at each other…and while we're still in the middle of the accident, with grass and mud flying everywhere, you give me the head-nod, – “Hey, whassup?” I'll never forget that! It was the craziest thing.
PT: That's pretty funny! What I recall of the accident was afterward, the pair of us trying to figure out how the hell to get back to the paddock. We were traipsing through the forest, up this long, muddy hill, and the rain had turned everything into a bog. We were covered in crap by the time we got back to civilization. Ah…Just another day with P.T.!BH: Would you say, like many drivers do, that Road America's your favorite track?
PT: [Long pause] I don't know. It's a great track, and early in my career I excelled there. But later, I won a lot easier on street courses, for whatever reason. One of my favorite tracks – I don't know why this is – was the revised version of Vancouver. They ditched the one with the hairpins at each end – I couldn't get around there for some reason. When they redesigned it, I got three wins in five years. And then Surfers Paradise I was always quick at. The rougher and more slippery a track was, the quicker I was.
BH: The tracks I think you'd do well at are high-banked short ovals like Iowa, Kentucky, Richmond. They're really fun.
PT: I've not yet had that chance. The ovals I was fast at were like Loudon, Nazareth, Phoenix and Milwaukee. Never really had high-banked stuff.
BH: But in a perfect world you'd be running full time next year?
PT: That's what I'm striving for but the simple fact is that you have to bring money. In 1990, I won the Indy Lights title, beat records, won nine races, but I made my Indy car debut as a one-off with Dale Coyne at Long Beach in 1991 because no one else was interested.
BH: So the Indy Lights champion couldn't get a ride…
PT: Yeah, the thing's come full circle! My dad took a new mortgage out on our house, against Mom's wishes, to get that race with Dale, and I qualified OK – top 15 – and then the engine blew up a few laps in. I was walking back through the paddock, and Dan Luginbuhl of Penske came by and said, “Hey, Roger wants to see you in the trailer after the race.”
So, me and Dad went over and Roger asked what my plans were and if I was planning to run Indy. We said we wanted to but needed a sponsor. Roger said, “Wait until I call you.” A bit vague but we took him at his word. So he called, and wanted me to be test driver and we went to Detroit and signed a contract. It wasn't a very good one, but…
I went to Meadowlands where they announced me as test driver and then went straight to a Mid-Ohio test, maybe only 10 days after signing.
BH: And, of course, back then there was a lot of testing – especially with Penske who built their own car in those days.
PT: Right. They had their own car and their own gearbox, so I was testing all the time. I remember one time – I think 1996 – when we didn't have a good road course car and Roger made us stay until we reached a certain lap time. It was a six-day test in the middle of summer, and when that track gets hot, it doesn't get any faster. Eventually, I managed to pop in a time on a one-off lap, but…
Roger's philosophy then was, “Keep trying different spring rates, different shocks, different wing angles and keep running until you get it faster.” I think we tried every different toe combination and camber combination. These days, everyone comes back and analyzes it and makes judgments based on simulations.
BH: We used to do 30-40 days of testing at Team Rahal, I remember.
PT: And at Penske, we'd do 70-75.
BH: Right, and that's what's so hard for rookies now: they don't get that seat time, don't get to learn the different setups, the different tracks, or what 200lbs of spring does to a car, and so on. It's really tough, especially on the two-day weekends.
PT: We used to go to Phoenix, do three days on the PIR oval, then three on the Firebird road course, and then three on Firebird East. A lot of it was tire testing, too. As a fellow Goodyear runner, you must remember showing up and having 15 different constructions of tires to try. They'd want a qualifying run, then a long run on each set.
BH: Yeah, your arms would be falling off afterward. At the start of each season we'd go to Sebring, and those cars were really physical and fast then. And even though you'd been training in the winter, you'd still not been in a car for a couple of months, so that first test back…You'd be dying for the team to give you a diff change or anything to get you out of the car for a couple hours!
PT: That wasn't even an option at Penske: they'd bring me two cars, so if they wanted to do something major to one, they'd just put me in the other!
BH: Changing topics, are you a good teammate? You always seemed to get along with teammates – even Dario Franchitti when you guys were running into each other.
PT: I think so. I never have anything to hide. My setup is open to anyone else to use: I really learned that from Rick Mears and Emerson Fittipaldi. When I came to Penske, their books were open to me, so I've tried to be the same. Al Unser Jr. was the complete opposite! When he had a setup that he thought was magical, he'd do everything in his power to keep it from me. My feeling is that if someone goes faster than me using my setup, I need to do a better job and go faster again.
What about you? Who do you think you learned the most from? You had a time when you were one of four drivers on Michael Andretti's team.
BH: Yeah, I learned the most there, with Tony Kanaan, Dario and Dan Wheldon – so much information and, at that time, the team really worked well. It was so much fun and everything was totally open. I could overlay three other guys' data and see Tony's killing us in Turn 2 but Dario's fast in Turn 4, and I could sit down and ask, “Hey, what are you doing in Turn 5?” etc. That was a great process.
PT: I can see that. I think with younger kids, though, it's a little bit different. Nowadays they rush to their cell phone to tell everyone on Facebook how they did in a session instead of sitting down with their engineer to tell him!
BH: Right. And, at the same time, there are a lot of engineers who rely more on the data than on their driver's feedback. As good as that data is, it can't tell you what the car felt like out there. I specifically remember saying to some race engineers, “Well maybe you should get the simulation program to drive the car, because I effing can't.” The aero manual is a tool, not a bible.
One more thing: is there a race that stuck out as your best – so far, of course!
PT: [Long, long pause] Road America, the last time I won there . I started seventh, I had an ignition failure coming to the green flag, and I went to last and by the time I got the ignition recycled and came around on the first lap, I was 50sec off the leader. That race stayed green from flag to flag – no yellows at all – and I won the race. I was flat-out the whole time and won by 6sec and ran out of fuel at Turn 2 after the checker!
My first Indy car win, Long Beach in 1993, was pretty memorable, too, because I'd had two big issues going into it.
The week before, at Phoenix, I'd lapped everyone twice, and then I'd crashed. Roger Penske had come on the radio, and told me to cool it because I'd been making all these risky passes, down low and up in the gray. Well, when you get used to just stuffing it in, you just keep in that mental zone and you can do no wrong. But now, easing up, I got inside Jimmy, and he started to turn. Well, whereas the previous five times I lapped him…
BH: Ha! We'll make sure that little bit makes the edit!
PT: Before, I'd have just kept my foot in and passed him, but this time I saw Jimmy move down, thought “Oops, shit!” and got out of the gas. Of course, the car went around and into the wall. Obviously, no one on the team said anything to me afterward: just gave me the stink-eye.
I left the track with Mark Smith and Mike Berg and drove to L.A. to stay at Mike's parents house. Mike said, “Oh, let's go to the go-kart track – Adams – and we'll get some shifter karts lined up.” So we did – this was the Tuesday before Long Beach, and I had to be there by Wednesday.
So there we are, flying around the track. I have my race suit but no gloves – not clever. Anyway, you know how Smith gets pretty intense and we end up locking wheels and go end over end in sixth gear at the end of the straightaway. I go flying up this hill and he goes flying into bushes at the side of the track. He ends up with a hairline fracture on his tibia, and I'm black and blue on whatever skin I have left in between the road-rash. My elbow's down to the bone and my hands are raw. And, of course, I'm just thinking, “I have to be at the track tomorrow – and I'm already in deep shit with Penske.” Mark needs to be there too, because he's racing for Arciero.
So there's a few panicked phone calls. One of them is to Troy Lee, who gives us Jeff Spencer's details – he's a motocross trainer – and we drive to his place in Pasadena. He gives me ointment to put on myself, while he does ultrasounds on Mark's leg. We're there until midnight. Anyway, we get to the track the next day and Marlboro's PR girl, Susan Bradshaw, is shocked. “What happened?” she asks me, so I tell her I went mountain biking and slid down a hill. That's our story.
BH: Because I guess at that point it could have been all over, just like that.
PT: Exactly: I mean, I sure wasn't on a big contract for Roger, and I hadn't won any races for him. But I qualified on the front row alongside Nigel Mansell, and went and scored my first Indy car win.
BH: Does Roger know the real story?
PT: Well, he knows now. You can't keep a secret too long from Roger.
Indeed, RP has eyes everywhere.
I really enjoyed reliving some old war stories with the “Thrill from West Hill,” many of which could not even make this article due to space constraints. Paul's fire burns bright as ever and I truly hope someone makes room for him on their team full time next year. Heck, maybe I'll even have to work on a ride; it would be great to go wheel to wheel with my pal again….