COUNTERPOINT: Paul Tracy

Counterpoint, IndyCar commentary — By on March 31, 2011 8:27 am
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This article was originally posted to INDYCAR Nation on March 24th, 2011. To view More Front Wing’s exclusive INDYCAR Nation content as soon as it’s released, sign up for INDYCAR Nation today at indycarnation.indycar.com.

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In this edition of Counterpoint, Paul and Steph debate the importance of Paul Tracy to the future of the IZOD IndyCar Series.

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PAUL’S POINT:

There are a lot of things that would be nice to have. Given the chance, I would love to have a new car (or two). I would love to have my house and my wife’s student loans paid off. I would love to be able to play golf at 6:00AM every morning before I start my work day. I would love to have all these things, but I don’t really need them.

In the same manner, many fans would love to see Paul Tracy back in the IZOD IndyCar Series. They would love to see him in a full time, competitive ride battling the likes of Helio Castroneves, Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal, and Dario Franchitti. INDYCAR itself would also love to have PT on the grid. But INDYCAR doesn’t really need Paul Tracy to be in a car.

When a team in any sport is rebuilding, it builds upon a stable core of young talents that are committed to helping their team grow in the long run. They understand early on that winning probably won’t come this year, and it might not even come next year. Within time, however, the hope is that their determination and cohesiveness will pay dividends and the team will start to gel. What you don’t do is bring in a brash, hot-headed veteran that is in the final years of his career in an effort to bring attention to the team. There is certainly a place for a veteran in a rebuilding process, but the veteran is most effective as a guiding mentor, not a lightning rod who doesn’t even take the time to learn the names of the people working around him.

Such seems to be what is happening in INDYCAR, or at least what a large faction of fans would like to see happen. While the IZOD IndyCar Series has a great core of established veterans like Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti, and Helio Castroneves and a solid nucleus of raw, young talent such as Marco Andretti, Simona de Silvestro, and Graham Rahal, many fans are clamoring for the 42-year old Tracy with expectations that the IICS cannot survive or thrive without him. The fact is that INDYCAR has survived without Tracy and will continue to do so.

When INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard recently told SI.com’s Brant James that if the Canadian’s appearance at races could sell enough tickets, Bernard wouldn’t have to resort to a $5 million bonus race, it set off a mini firestorm amongst those people who claim PT is one of the few drivers that does connect with fans and does actually sell tickets. However, wasn’t Paul Tracy with CART and Champ Car when those ships sank? How much ticket revenue, media coverage, and TV viewership did Tracy bring to those series?  Obviously not enough for them to survive. While Tracy is a polarizing (and therefore compelling) story to the hardcore fans, the hope that he would move the needle with respect to the uninitiated fan seems unlikely, farfetched at best.

Though attitudes towards Tracy have softened in recent years (particularly after failing to qualify for last year’s Indianapolis 500), there was not a more divisive figure during the open-wheel split than Paul Tracy. You either loved him or you hated him, but very few people were indifferent towards him.

Such is the greatest argument for supporting the theory that IndyCar needs Paul Tracy in a car this year – that one way or the other, people care about him. The great Dale Earnhardt was well known for saying “Cheer me or boo me. If you’re making noise, I’m making money.” That theory worked for NASCAR because Earnhardt had no intentions of stepping down. Even Tracy must admit, though, that he likely only has a couple decent years of racing left in him. Do you really want to rebuild a fan base on a driver that, while colorful, has a history of antagonizing and disenfranchising many of the fans the IICS is desperately seeking to win back and will then likely be gone for good in a couple of years?

The other argument most often tossed about regarding the necessity for Paul Tracy being in the IICS is that the Canadian races in Toronto and Edmonton cannot succeed without him. New flash, folks — they are going to have to. Even if Tracy does land a full-time ride this year, the races in the Great White North are going to have to eventually stand on their own and sell tickets without Tracy being a participant. He simply can’t just keep racing eternally, and gone are the days when 40-somethings can expect to run competitively with the 20-somethings.

Sources have reported that Tracy was given the opportunity to embark on a farewell tour throughout the 2011 IICS Season and declined the opportunity because he did not want to limit himself to only one more year of driving. To quote one of my favorite movie lines of all time, “Son, your ego’s writing checks your body can’t cash!”

All professional athletes must make the difficult decision regarding when it is time to hang it up and call it quits. Some go out gracefully and leave memories only of their greatness. Rick Mears retired from racing when he was still on top, knowing that he could still win a race. Too often, though, athletes hold on too long, and the end of their career becomes a stain on an otherwise mostly unblemished career. No sadder story comes to mind here than Brett Favre, who had the chance to quit while he was still revered. Three years later, Favre’s days as one of the greatest quarterbacks in history seem long, long ago.

Paul Tracy now has to make that choice — to go out on top or hold on too long. It’s his decision. Either way, INDYCAR can and will survive without him.

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STEPH’S POINT:

Dalbey was the one who suggested that we use this subject for a Counterpoint article. I can’t believe the topic is even up for debate.

For starters, let’s take a look at the starting grid for the 1992 Indianapolis 500, shall we?

Well, would you look at that. Of those 33 drivers, exactly one is still interested in driving in INDYCAR full time: Paul Tracy.

Take a look at the names of some of the drivers he was competing against at the time (and sometimes besting): AJ Foyt; Mario Andretti; Michael Andretti; Al Unser; Al Unser, Jr.; Emerson Fittipaldi — and that’s just for starters. It’s impossible to generate that kind of resume anymore. If that fact alone doesn’t suffice for establishing Paul’s worthiness based on talent alone, I don’t know what will.

But more importantly, the fact that PT comes from that era and that he’s still around today means that he just flat-out garners a whole lot of attention. His very presence in an INDYCAR field elicits very strong emotions from fans and the media alike. He’s one of the top household names on this continent in motorsport, right up there with Danica (who by all accounts appears to be leaving INDYCAR shortly) and Helio (who gained his fame as much from winning Dancing with the Stars as for his on-track performance — some would argue more so). Fans love him or hate him for his fearless attitude on and off the track; journalists love him because he opens his mouth and good copy cascades out like a waterfall. He could tweet about his favorite breakfast cereal and there’d be a thread on TrackForum about it within minutes. People care about what Paul does — about everything he does.

The great power that PT holds is that he’s an extremely polarizing figure. There’s no place for neutrality when it comes to Paul Tracy — you either revere the ground he races on or you hate him with the force of a thousand suns. Having Paul at a race instantly adds eyeballs to the event, not only because his supporters will tune in to see how much of the field he can muscle his way through but because his detractors will tune in to see if they can find something new to criticize.  And like it or not, there is still a significant number of people out there who pay attention if Paul is at a race but don’t if he isn’t. It’s possible that those people can be captured and convinced to continue watching if there’s enough other up-and-coming talent to intrigue them, but they won’t be brought in at all unless PT is there to bring them in first.

By the way, the ever-present he’s-too-old argument is a complete waste of time. PT is 42 right now. The following drivers were 42 years of age or older when they won the Indianapolis 500: Mauri Rose (42), Sam Hanks (42), AJ Foyt (42), Johnny Rutherford (42), Emerson Fittipaldi (42 for his first and 46 for his second), Arie Luyendyk (43), Gordon Johncock (45), Bobby Unser (47), and Al Unser (47). I dare anyone who wants to make this argument to walk up to AJ Foyt and tell him that he was too old to be driving in 1977. As long as PT is still competitive — and anyone who’s seen him drive the wheels off of sub-par equipment in part-time gigs over the last couple of years would have a hard time arguing that he isn’t — then age is no valid basis for keeping him out of a race car.

In fact, the only thing that has kept PT from being a race car on a regular basis since 2007 is that sponsors don’t want to touch him because of his off-track image. Paul is brash, he wears his heart on his sleeve, and he’s never been particularly good at the business side of the game. He hasn’t yet been matched up with a sponsor that can handle him since he’s not capable of being the product-shilling drone that many corporations are looking for. However, if PT were ever to find the right sponsor — one that’s happy to get all kinds of attention for backing a driver who’s edgy and rebellious and not at all politically correct — that company would be very well-served by Paul and would gain the business of a whole lot of grateful fans who are tired of race car drivers having their personalities buried by PR reps who don’t realize that they’re slowly killing the sport.

Of course, PT isn’t essential. No driver is essential. (No, not even Danica.) Stars come and go, and open-wheel racing has somehow managed to soldier on. But while the background work is being done to increase the profile of the Series over the long-term, there’s only one short-term way to raise the profile of the Series overnight with the resources currently available — to move the needle, as seems to be the catch phrase these days — and that’s to ensure that PT is in a car.

Fans know it. Will Power knows it. But most importantly, Dalbey knows it, too — he’s already conceded this argument. I’m not sure why he chose to debate the point in the first place.

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