Tuesday, May 28, 2002
Tracy, Scheckter lead stars
By Jack Arute
Now that Helio Castroneves is the "official" winner of the Indianapolis 500 it's time to award Indy's four stars of performance:
Paul Tracy becomes a footnote to one of the most interesting 500s in recent memory.
After struggling in practice and wrecking his primary car, Tracy came back to qualify his rebuilt Dallara in the 29th spot.
Steady pit work and on-track performance rewarded Tracy with an opportunity to win his first 500 in five tries. It was also the first time the Canadian finished the 500 miles, his previous best finish coming in 1995 when he completed 164 laps for a 24th-place posting.
Tracy never led a lap in this year's 500.
"With three laps to go, I radioed in and said I just don't have the car to attack right now," Tracy said. "I was kind of feeling it was going to be a third-place effort. And then I saw that Felipe (Giaffone, running second at the time) made a little mistake, got some understeer, and he had to get out of throttle to avoid hitting the wall; then I had an opportunity there. Then all of a sudden, I was right on top of Helio."
He was about to get the lead for the first time when the caution flew for Laurent Redon and Buddy Lazier on lap 198. Like many others before him, Tracy came close and might have won if the race stayed green to the end. Now he must wait for another opportunity.
This rookie took everyone by surprise leading the most laps. The fact he ran up front was not surprising. The second-generation driver has been a front runner since his IRL debut in March in Miami. It was the way he commanded things.
Despite a methanol-guzzling Infiniti powerplant, Scheckter led four times for 85 laps and looked like the sure winner until his crash -- while leading --on lap 172.
Immediately after his hit on Indy's SAFER barrier, Scheckter radioed crew chief Owen Snyder: "I'm not sure what happened. The car had an understeer, but the way it shot out I think something broke."
Scheckter had come full circle at Indy. He was forced to sit out the first couple of days of practice -- a penalty for overaggressive driving at Nazareth, Pa. -- and turned that "time out" around by captivating us with his speed and guile when it counted -- on race day.
Not every rookie has an easy go his first time out at Indianapolis. Few have as much extra attention come his way equal to what George Mack had to endure in his first Month of May on Gasoline Alley.
Mack is an African American. As such he received a lot of scrutiny from non-racing media.
"The first question everybody wants to ask," he told me early in the month, "is what's it like to try and become the only the second African American to race in the Indy 500? I always answer their question with one of my own. 'Am I black?'"
Black, yes, but more importantly a rookie driver, rookie team and a crew of veterans and newcomers trying to find a slot in the richest and most prestigious race in the world. Mack survived. First it was engine problems. Then a mysterious aliment the produced vertigo and nausea. But Mack braved his G-Force into the field in the 32nd -- next to last -- position.
His family came in race day from California. While trying to get in the "zone" for his 200 laps, rapper and actor Ice T stopped by. Mack tried to hide tension beneath a cool facade and did a pretty good job of it.
Once Mary Hulman George commanded a start of engines, though, Mack got in his zone and went to work.
"Spider-Man is my hero," Mack said. "He's calm, cool and collected."
That was Mack in the 500. His drive was unspectacular. Seldom did he run with the leaders. Instead, he soldiered his way through his first 500-mile race, earning a 17th-place finish. The only rookie who finished higher was Alex Barron, and Barron has far more cockpit time in an Indy Car than Mack.
The IRL's operations vice president and race chief steward gets a star for his hard work throughout the month. His ruling on Tracy's appeal delighted some and disappointed others. But Barnhart used the same approach to the appeal that he used when other issues surfaced throughout the month.
Barnhart and his team examined more than just frame-by-frame video to determine whether Castroneves or Tracy won the 500. They poured over telemetry data including wheel turn, throttle and track position. They took testimony from other drivers, poured over raw electronic scoring data and made a decision based upon every piece of available evidence. They did not rush to judgement.
When teams had problems working on race set up due to the new IRL rule regarding tire allotment for the event, Barnhart devised a method to satisfy both the teams and the intent of the rule.
When concerns arose about early race tire wear because of the track diamond grinding, Barnhart abandoned the rule requiring teams to start the race on their qualifying set of Firestones. Teams were given the option to use new tires, negating the need for an early caution to inspect tire wear.
The start of the race was clean and error-free because Barnhart hammered his drivers over and over again about "to finish first, you must first finish."
Barnhart has earned the respect of Indy's drivers and he honors that respect by always trying to provide them with the best racing opportunities.