Imagine that you were one of the last drivers to see Dan Wheldon as medical staff frantically wheeled him into the on-track medical centre at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that fateful afternoon, October 16, 2011.
Wheldon’s death that day was devastating.
Especially to Paul Tracy who saw his friend and fellow driver being frantically worked on by medical staff as the gurney careened through doorways and down cold, fluorescent lit hallways to waiting additional medical personnel.
“I saw things that day I wish I hadn’t,” says Tracy on a recent visit to Toronto as he participated in the celebratory 25th Anniversary of Rick Hansen’s Man in Motion world tour. “Much of the accident was a blur, flying parts, debris going everywhere, cars literally flying… and the smell of burning. And then… after… seeing Dan. Laying there being wheeled in. I pretty much knew that was it…” he turns away, voice trailing.
For the record, Tracy’s preference is to see more limited fields – 24 cars, just like the Indy 500 in days gone by. That way, you are racing because you qualify; you deserve to be there.
Regardless, that day was life-altering. Many questions are yet to be answered. Some drivers are still distraught. In spite of on-track rivalries, many, especially the veterans are tight. Phone calls filled with long stretches of silence. Text messages and emails that say so little – but also say way too much.
That day has forced many drivers to look inward. To reluctantly face demons. What to do? Was this a result of a too short track and too many cars? Driver error? Opinions and theories vary. There may never be any absolute resolution. Many will take the long off season to think things through.
Paul Tracy has already done that. Alone. With his wife, Patty. And with his two children, Alysha and Conrad.
The last few months he was working hard toward finding a full-time ride for the 2012 season. He’d had enough of being a part-time driver.
That terrible accident reinforced his resolve. His driving career would not end with a whimper; he would end his professional driving days behind the wheel.
With the support of his family, Tracy is working the phones. Taking meetings. Going through “… the whole grip and grin routine.”
“I may be 42 years old, but I still believe that there is a place in racing for drivers with experience. Look at Dario (Franchitti); he’s a little younger (than me) yet the man has won four championships – three back-to-back. Knowledge and skill counts for everything.”
Paul Tracy refuses to deal in what ifs, as in what if he doesn’t get enough sponsorship to run what he calls his “farewell tour” of IndyCar racing next season. Remember, this is a man who has accumulated 31 victories in 20 years of racing in the big leagues.
“We’ve been talking to a few teams,” Tracy said. “Ideally I’m looking for a team that already has some sponsorship money; what I can bring will be enough to put them on the track for a full season.”
Tracy does have a long-standing partnership with Honda Canada through its Honda Dealers network that provides enough sponsorship for him to race at the Honda Indy Toronto and the Edmonton Indy. While that may sweeten the pot as he goes looking for a deal, it also handicaps him; next season the IndyCar Series adds Chevrolet and Lotus as engine suppliers and it is believed that at least two of the teams Tracy has talked to will use those power plants.
“Honda has been a great supporter of mine and I would like that association to continue,” he said. “Ideally I would like a deal with a team that runs Honda engines.”
Meantime the Thrill from Westhill is putting all his future marbles into one basket; he’s not looking beyond 2012 in his racing life. Asked about his life after racing Tracy quickly and firmly replied, playing with the ubiquitous can of Diet Coke, “I haven’t even thought about it. I still have work to do.”