ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – As he crossed the line to take the green flag for Sunday’s Motorola 220 at Road America, Paul Tracy’s Honda engine was silent and the 25-car field was screaming past.
Just over an hour-and-a-half later, Tracy’s Team Kool Green Reynard was the first car to take the checkered flag after a remarkable and inspired drive. Adrian Fernandez was second and Kenny Brack third in a high-speed, high-attrition race that did not feature a single full-course yellow.
“The sensor that cuts the engine for a stuck throttle went out and the engine stopped,” said Tracy, who earned his 17th career Champ Car victory and second of the 2000 season after qualifying seventh. “I thought, ‘Shoot, it’s over.’ But the team was able to identify the problem through the telemetry, and they told me how to fix it. I basically had to re-boot the electronics and bump-start the car.
“By the time we figured it out and I got going again, I had lost 35 or 40 seconds. I came out of Turn 2 and couldn’t see anyone on the long straight. But I didn’t get angry and I didn’t get depressed. I just got going.”
At the front of the field, Alexandre Tagliani took the lead from pole man Dario Franchitti, but by the end of the first lap, both Marlboro Penske entries were out of contention. Helio Castroneves, who started sixth, was knocked off the road by Adrian Fernandez and Michael Andretti, though he was able to resume to finish ninth. And Gil de Ferran, the other front row starter, trundled into the pits with a gearbox failure.
Tracy ended the first lap in 23rd place, and he immediately got down to business. “I was amazed that nobody hit me at the start, he related. “Then Barry Green came on the radio and said, ‘Don’t lose patience – keep your cool.’ At that point, we committed to a 3-stop race, and I got into a rhythm, or a zone. I kept going faster and faster, and I think some of the guys I started to pass made it easy for me because they thought I wasn’t on the same lap.”
While Tagliani pulled away in the lead, Juan Montoya made an opportunistic start to cross the line fifth on the first lap after he started from 12th on the grid. Montoya passed Michael Andretti for fourth on the second tour and latched onto the tail of Fernandez. The leaders made their first pit stops between Laps 15 and 17, and Montoya ended up holding a 4-second lead in his Target Toyota/Lola.
The Colombian was all over the place in practice and qualifying, but he looked to have the measure of the field on Sunday, building an 11-second lead before a broken shift cable sidelined him after 30 of the 55 laps. It was the seventh time this year that Montoya retired from a race while running first or second.
Another key retirement had already occurred on Lap 19, when FedEx Championship Series points leader Andretti was eliminated by a bad CV joint. “What a disappointment – this one hurts,” said Michael, whose championship lead was cut from 19 to 13 points. “We were able to go a lap longer on fuel and I thought we were looking good, especially when Gil went out. It helped that he dropped out, but there are now a lot of other guys that can gang up on us in the point standings. The fans should like the tight points race, but it’s not as fun for us.”
With Montoya out of the way, Tagliani resumed the lead over Tracy, who continued to be the fastest man on the track. Paul assumed the lead when the gearbox on Tagliani’s Player’s Ford/Reynard failed on Lap 38. “This is the second time we’ve had this problem and hopefully it won’t happen again,” said the crestfallen French-Canadian.
Once in the lead, Tracy was able to easily maintain his pace to the finish. He won by 7.45 seconds over Fernandez, as only 10 of the 25 cars made the finish, with seven on the lead lap. Paul did receive one final scare when he ran out of fuel in Turn 2 of the cool-down lap.
“I didn’t know we were that tight on fuel,” Tracy related. “I was still running 1 minute, 43-second laps at the end. They didn’t tell me to slow down.
“This was definitely one of the best and hardest wins of my career,” he added. “There were no yellows, and no pit strategy to play things into our hands. We had to race to win here, to come from the back of the field on sheer speed. It’s always satisfying when you’ve done something with the all the odds stacked against you.”
Fernandez ran in the top-five all afternoon and earned another healthy ration of championship points for his runner-up finish. “I had a great start, but I was really surprised how quickly Montoya came through the field,” noted Fernandez. “That made us change our strategy, because at the pace we were running, you can’t save fuel. I think it would have been closer, but I got held up pretty badly by Oriol Servia. All I could do was push hard, and we guaranteed our result by not changing tires on the last stop.”
Brack had a smooth ride to third in his first race at Road America in almost exactly seven years. “People were worried about how we would perform on road courses this year, but I think we’re doing well,” said the Swede. “We were sixth at Portland and second at Cleveland, and we’ve actually scored better on road courses than ovals. I gave Paul a break today. The other Kool car (Franchitti) outbraked itself at Turn 5, and I thought it was a lap down so I let it by. It was actually Paul, passing me for position. But the Shell team did a great job anyway, coming from ninth to third.”
Roberto Moreno resuscitated his championship campaign by finishing fourth in the Visteon Ford/Reynard despite not having the use of third gear for much of the race. Fifth went to Jimmy Vasser in the Target Toyota/Lola, followed by Memo Gidley, who earned a career best finish in John Della Penna’s DirecTV Toyota/Reynard. Max Papis was the last finisher on the lead lap.
Sunday’s result expanded the battle for the Vanderbilt Cup from a two-man to a six-man show. With six races to go, Andretti now leads Moreno by 13 points, de Ferran by 19, Fernandez by 22, Brack by 23, and Tracy by 25.
“We’ve definitely got a shot at the title,” Tracy said. “We’re going to good tracks for me. We’re also going to some strong tracks for Michael – he’ll be fast at Vancouver and at Fontana – but I think our team has really thought about what we need to do. We’ve refocused and we’ve managed to break out of the cycle we were in. We really put it all together this weekend.
“Even with all the bad things that happened throughout the weekend – the qualifying crash, the engine cut-out at the start – we’ve managed to overcome it and come out OK. Most people would give up, and we’re not ready to give up yet.”