Paul Tracy, 2003 CART champion, self-proclaimed winner of the 2002 Indianapolis 500 (let's not get into it), and one of the top open-wheel drivers of the past decade, has found himself on the sidelines since the open wheel reunification of early 2008. A combination of a lack of sponsorship and the withdrawal of his old Champ Car team, Forsythe Racing, with which he had a long-term contract, have held back the Canadian-born, Vegas-based driver.
With teams beginning to test in preparation for the 2010 season, Tracy has taken his rage to the masses. He appeared on Wind Tunnel with Dave Despain last Sunday night, and now he's using his Twitter account to rant about the state of open wheel racing in North America.
"(Ana Beatriz), in a 3rd car at Dreyer & Reinbold. It's so great to see guys from North America get a chance in the IZOD IndyCar Series," Tracy wrote on Wednesday. "And they wonder why no one watches IndyCar racing anymore."
"4 drivers from this continent at the first test," he continued. "I think there (are) 3 wins for all of them put together. As guys like (Graham) Rahal, (Buddy) Rice and me get to stay home and watch. If that's what you fans want, enjoy."
Today, Tracy delivered some of his most harsh words, condemning the political factions that have scorched the open wheel landscape since IndyCar ran its first race in January 1996. "Open wheel fans have been foolishly loyal over the last 15 years, as both series have dragged open wheel to the bottom of the ocean. But we have held our breath long enough. And I (implore) every fan to take charge of what you love and want from IndyCar!!!!!!!!!"
Tracy cited the departure of Philip Morris from Team Penske as both a sign of the times and an example of the difficulty a driver faces in seeking out sponsors. He wrote, "Just saw pictures of the new Penske cars, if RP does not have a primary sponsor with all his connections, that should tell you how hard (it is) to sell sponsorship in the IRL. People say just go find a sponsor and you will have a ride, if it was that easy then Penske would have one." Team Penske only has Verizon Wireless money behind one of its three cars in a primary role. Verizon also sponsors Penske cars in other racing series.
Tracy has a point. While his performance has tailed off a bit since his 2003 CART title, he remains one of the most exciting drivers to watch in North America. His antics in Champ Car before that series' demise kept the series interesting, from his injury jumping sand dunes on an ATV, to the "French helmet" controversy. He has fashioned himself the bad boy of open wheel racing over the years, and when he gets behind the wheel of a decent car, he has the talent to back himself up.
Unfortunately, in this market, talent isn't as important as sponsorship dollars. As Tracy noted, Graham Rahal finds himself without a ride, and he was one of the best drivers in IndyCar last season. 31 wins and 25 poles over the years haven't piqued the interest of any major sponsors except for GEICO, and they are only interested in fielding Tracy for Indy and the races in his home country.
While the "Chrome Horn" may not be on track until this year's running of the Indianapolis 500, we will certainly be hearing from him in the meantime - and the powers that be may be hearing from fans on his account. Tracy has pushed fans to write to IndyCar management, expressing their dissatisfaction with the ride-buying present in the series and the lack of North American drivers.
Whether or not the letter-writing campaign or Tracy's other antics will lead to a full-time deal is still up in the air. But in the meantime, if fans don't enjoy the racing itself, they can certainly look to Tracy for entertainment - behind the wheel or not, he'll put on a show.