Some athletes look like what they do. Michael Jordan, with his shaved head and lithe limbs, has the aerodynamics to soar above the basketball rabble. Silken Laumann, with her broad shoulders and muscular legs, seemed bom to row. But looks can also deceive. Take Paul Tracy, who drives the open-wheeled race cars made famous by the Indianapolis 500. His sport, deafeningly loud and absurdly dangerous, is full of people who look the part, like his teammate, Emerson Fittipaldi, a suave Brazilian, or dashing Danny Sullivan of Aspen, Colo. These are guys who laugh in the face of death and make grown women cry. Tracy, fresh-faced and bespectacled, looks like he spends a lot of time at the library. Then again, what matters is not how racers look but how they drive. And when he is folded into the cocoon-like cockpit of his red and white No. 12, Tracy drives as fast as—and often faster than—anyone in the business.
These are heady days for the 24-year-old from West Hill, Ont., a suburb of Toronto. Only a couple of years ago, he was out of
The Penske pit crew working on No. 12; Tracy: ‘he is only going to get better’ money and nearly out of the sport. Now, he drives for Penske racing, an esteemed organization that this year bestowed upon young Tracy a crack team and a leading-edge car. At first, he admits, he had to pinch himself, but he did not let good fortune get in the way of good driving. In his first full season on the Indy circuit, Tracy has won races at Long Beach, Calif., in April, Cleveland and Toronto in July, and Elkhart Lake, Wis., in August. Going into the final three races of the season, which concludes Oct. 3 in Monterey, Calif., he had an outside chance to overtake Fittipaldi and series leader Nigel Mansell for the 1993 driver’s title. Nigel Beresford, a Penske engineer and Formula One veteran, says that Tracy’s success is not dependent on the Penske team alone. “Paul is such a prodigious talent that I think he sometimes makes us look good,” Beresford said, standing in the pits before the Vancouver Indy last month. “He’ll come off the track and explain any problems he is experiencing with the car, and you’d think it would show in his lap times. But it doesn’t. He is that good.” Though young by Indy standards, Tracy is a veteran. He began racing go-carts at the age of 8; in summer, his father, a building contractor, would drop him off at the track on his way to work and pick him up on the way home. At 16, Tracy moved to cars and shocked his much older competitors by winning the Formula Ford series. At 17, he moved up and won the Can-Am class. In 1988, he graduated to the class immediately below Indy cars, now called Indy Lights, and won the first race he entered. In 1990, he won nine of the 14 Indy Lights races and won the driver’s title. The adjustment to Indy cars, however, was slower. It took a few crumpled cars and bruised limbs to convince him to put the brakes on his aggressive driving style. “I’m the kind of guy who learns from my own experience,” he explains.
Timing, of course, is crucial in racing. In May, 1992, Scott Goodyear of Toronto drove his Mackenzie Lola to within .043 seconds of victory at the Indianapolis 500 and racing immortality; but his car has not been as competitive in 1993, and he currently has no sponsor beyond this season. Tracy knows the feeling: in the spring of 1991, he seemed to have hit a dead end. Three years of Indy Lights, he says, “had drained our family’s finances totally.” He had no viable offer from a team or sponsor, so his father decided to borrow $50,000 to rent a ride with a low-budget team at Long Beach. “Going into that race in Long Beach,” Tracy says, “I was thinking, Why are we wasting this money? We have no chance to do anything with this team.’ ” But he got the most out of a bad car, qualified respectably and, despite his engine blowing 15 laps into the race, struck gold. “I was sitting on a curb in the pit area when Roger Penske rode by,” he recalls. “He said we were doing a good job.” After the race, Tracy was invited to Penske’s trailer for a chat. A few months later, he signed with the team as a test driver.
Penske, 56, whose racing interests are the high-profile tip of the $2.8-billion transportation conglomerate he heads, says he sees nothing unusual about investing so much in someone so young. He looks for drivers who have won, who are consistent and who can handle the sponsors’ demands that are as much a part of racing as the smell of burnt rubber. “Paul really has fit those criteria perfectly,” Penske says during a rare quiet moment on race day in Vancouver, “and from now on, he is only going to get better through experience.”
Actually, Tracy is not totally at home on the schmooze circuit. He and other drivers attended a street barbecue thrown by sponsor Hugo Boss outside a Vancouver clothing store. The theme was western, complete with country music, a mechanical bull and Vancouver’s young and beautiful attired in lizard-skin boots and fringed leather jackets. The older drivers mingled comfortably with their hosts. But beyond the handshakes, Tracy steered clear of the backslapping and small talk. And as soon as he made his required speech, he left. “He’s getting better at it,” says Susan Bradshaw, the publicist who keeps him pointed in the right direction off the track. “But it isn’t easy.”
He does, however, seem comfortable with the contract he signed as a rookie—for an undisclosed amount—which runs through 1995. “It would be nice to get a big raise, but this is what I signed into when I was hurting and had nothing,” says Tracy, whose family expanded last May when his wife, Tara, delivered baby Alysha. “And besides, in the two years I have worked for Penske, I’ve been able to buy my own house and support my wife and daughter.” Someday, though, he hopes to make good on some old debts. “I know that my Dad doesn’t expect to be repaid,” he says, recalling the family’s sacrifices. “I think for him, just seeing me do well makes him happy.” Considering Tracy’s record, his father will likely be happy for some time to come.
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