Paul Tracy, young, fast and brave, showed up at his Penske Racing transporter for the CART Champ Car race at the Long Beach Grand Prix in 1993 wrapped up in bandages and limping. On his way from Phoenix, where he'd thrown away a victory by crashing with a two-lap lead late in the race, Tracy decided to stop at the famous Adams karting track in Riverside, Calif.
"I was already in the doghouse from Phoenix," Tracy said. "I went to the Adams track on Tuesday and flipped it. The kart landed on top of me. I was bruised everywhere when I showed up at Long Beach."
Tracy was in his first full season driving for Roger Penske, replacing the legendary Rick Mears. The four-time Indy 500 winner had retired unexpectedly the previous December. Tracy had been signed by Penske in 1991 to be a test driver and had driven two partial Champ Car seasons. This was his big chance and it wasn't going well. Tracy feared the worse.
"I had to make something happen," Tracy said.
Tracy qualified his Penske-Chevy in second position, lining up to Nigel Mansell on the front row. Mansell was the reigning Formula One World Champion and had made a dramatic switch to CART in the offseason. He won the season-opening race at Surfers Paradise, Australia; like Long Beach, a race through the streets.
Long Beach's races, then and now, start on Shoreline Drive, a long, arching straight where speeds reach 200 mph at the end. Tracy -- and this is where that brave part comes in -- outran Mansell to the first turn and out-braked him to take the lead.
Tracy was running away from Mansell when a tire puncture sent Tracy to the pits, from which he came out seventh. He drove back into the lead and won by 12.6 seconds over Bobby Rahal. Mansell was third.
"I think I had to win," Tracy said. "I think my job was on the line."
It was the first Champ Car victory for Tracy, who has gone on to win 30 more. Four have come at Long Beach, where Tracy was a fixture was a fixture with CART and then Champ Car during the open-wheel war that raged from 1996 to early 2008. He was left out in the cold when Champ Car, on the verge of bankruptcy, negotiated a deal with IndyCar for a buyout of selected assets. That included the contract for Long Beach, America's most revered and oldest (it began in 1975) street race. Tracy's car owner, Gerry Forsythe, decided to fold his team rather than join IndyCar.
After missing from the course the past two years, Tracy returns to Long Beach this week, driving for an owner named Penske. It's not quite full circle, but close. Jay Penske is Roger's youngest son and owns Dragon Racing.
"It's a painful race to sit out," Tracy, 42, said. "It's one of my favorite races. I'm excited to get back behind the wheel at Long Beach. It's been a great venue four me. Your first win is always your first win and I've been lucky enough to win more. It's one of the biggest races in the country."
Tracy has been scrambling to find rides the past two years. After Long Beach in '08, where he finished 11th in Champ Car's final race, Tracy drove only one IndyCar race that season, at Edmonton, where he finished fourth.
Tracy drove in six races in '09 and five last season. He has five races with Dragon and the Indy 500 with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing scheduled and hopes to add more with Dragon.
"I had signed with Forsythe for five years and thought I'd probably retire at the end of it," Tracy said. "This would have been its last year. But doing a handful of races the past couple of years has almost kind of preserved me in a way. I'm not burned out. I still have passion for it. I haven't been flying around promoting races, making sponsor appearances.
"I still have the desire to do it. My desire is greater because it was taken away from me."
Penske, a highly successful entrepreneur in Internet and other ventures, formed his team with partner Steve Luczo to run the Indy 500 with Ryan Briscoe in '07. It ran six races in '08 and the past two full seasons with Rafael Matos. Former Indy 500 and Honda Formula 1 Sporting Director Gil de Ferran took an ownership stake a year ago and responsibility for running the day-to-day operations.
In December Tony Kanaan signed on, but sponsorship didn't develop and de Ferran Dragon released Kanaan and announced it was folding two months later.
"Shortly after Jay split up with de Ferran -- Gil decided to pull out because he didn't want to run a partial schedule -- Jay flew to Las Vegas (where Tracy lives) to meet me," Tracy said. "Jay said, 'I can't throw in the towel on this thing and run up the white flag. I'm not a quitter. My dad wouldn't give up and I'm not going to give up.'
"I had some sponsorship, and Jay has brought some in and we've had help from a marketing guy. We've got a primary sponsor for Long Beach in Ralph's supermarkets and some associates. It's not a full season, but Jay's team is staying in business and I'm driving good cars. We're trying to make it happen. We're trying to put more races on the board. My plan is to build a relationship with Jay and build our sponsorship base and parlay it into a full season next year with the new cars."
Penske was able to retain Dragon's employees, including veteran team manager John Cummisky and engineer Eric Zeto.
"I'm excited about it," Tracy said. "The team has a great group of guys and I know the equipment is good. It's all you can ask for."