Monday, May 27, 2002
Conspiracy or not, Tracy has a point
By Robin Miller
INDIANAPOLIS -- There is a grassy knoll in Turn 2 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And there is frame-by-frame footage of what many may perceive as the assassination of Paul Tracy's chances to win the 86th Indianapolis 500.
That's the conspiracy angle of the greatest spectacle in racing, which has seldom finished as late, as unsatisfying or as confusing as it did Sunday afternoon.
Tracy crossed the finish line first, but Helio Castroneves drank the winner's milk and the usual crowd of 300,000 went home thirsting for more evidence that the right guy pulled into Victory Lane.
What could have been a clear-cut decision for Tracy dissolved into a muddled result that didn't become official until five-and-a-half hours after Castroneves climbed the fence for a second straight May.
But the personable Brazilian may have to wait awhile before he can comfortably celebrate since Tracy's owner, Barry Green, has filed an official protest that will be heard Monday and can be appealed again to IMS president Tony George.
The eye of the storm is whether Castroneves still had the lead in Turn 3 when the caution light came on with less than two laps to go for an accident between rookie Laurent Redon and Buddy Lazier in Turn 2.
Indy Racing League rules state that "racing ceases immediately upon display of the yellow flag and/or yellow light."
Brian Barnhart, IRL director of operations, ruled in Team Penske's favor during the heat of the moment and again after three hours of examining the evidence.
"Clearly, at the last time line at the end of the backstretch and the entrance of Turn 3, car 3 is clearly ahead of car 26 and that is well after the impact had taken place in Turn 2," said Barnhart during a brief news conference.
On the flip side, Tracy claimed he'd already swept around the outside of Castroneves before the caution came on and ESPN provided a frame-by-frame shot that supported his theory. Defending IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. was behind the action and radioed into his crew that Tracy had, indeed, made the pass prior to the yellow light.
"I can't see one reason why we didn't win the race," Green said. "We used the IRL's data to break it down, ESPN's tape on SportsCenter, testimony from Dario (Franchitti), Sam Hornish and a couple of spotters and, clearly, Paul was in front when the yellow came on in Turn 3."
Naturally, the political ramifications of this decision immediately come to mind.
Had Tracy been allowed to stay in front, it would have been the third consecutive win for a driver and team from rival Championship Auto Racing Teams. More bragging rights for a series currently fighting for its life and one more year the IRL can't promote the Indy 500 winner at the rest of its schedule.
"I think I got screwed but I don't want to dig too deep into the politics," said Tracy, whose six years with Penske netted 11 wins but was far from warm and fuzzy. "There's politics in every form of motorsports and I hope it doesn't come to that."
Roger Penske is viewed as the IRL's savior after dumping the series he helped start (CART) for the all-oval IRL this season. And while Gil de Ferran and Castroneves are road racers with CART pedigree, officially they are now IRLers.
"You hate to see a good race end like this and I don't blame Team Green for trying everything they can," Penske said. "It's unfortunate a situation like this comes up and then people take sides."
Of course people always take sides in motorsports, especially in this bitter seven-year struggle for open-wheel survival. They either love IRL and hate CART or vice versa and there is no middle ground.
And while Barnhart is George's right-hand man and a former mechanic for Penske, he's never given any indication of treating CART teams unfairly during the past three Mays. Unlike past decision-makers in Indy car racing, Barnhart understands the territory he's presiding over, for the most part.
This issue seems to be about perception. The video replay shows Tracy a few feet ahead of Castroneves when the yellow light appears to become visible for the first time in Turn 3. Barnhart says it's inconclusive whether the light was green or yellow.
But Tracy and Green were seeing red late Sunday night and you could hardly blame them.