Race wins have come fewer and farther between for Paul Tracy over the past couple of years. But the feisty Canadian is still the biggest draw in the Champ Car World Series.
The 2007 season has been one Tracy would rather forget. With one race to go, he's 11th in the standings, with a victory at Cleveland the sole highlight. "PT" hasn't even made the headlines with an outrageous quote or a wrestling match with another driver.
While some say he has lost focus or desire just a month or so away from his 39th birthday, Tracy appears relaxed about the situation. He's convinced that team owner Gerald Forsythe is prepared to give him the tools with which to challenge for a second series championship in 2008 to match the one they claimed in 2003.
That's a fundamental change from the start of this year, when Forsythe played hardball and resisted fielding a second car on his own nickel until the 11th hour.
"It was everybody's opinion that we should run a two-car program, but Gerry was adamant that he didn't want to do that," Tracy recounted. "He felt that we could do it on a one-car program and concentrate on my car only. Then right at the last minute he threw a second car in with a week to go before we went to Vegas. That kind of started the scrambling effect of trying to find quality people to do the job."
Still, on the surface, the campaign started well enough for Tracy as he took a third-place finish in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas. But a week later during practice for the Long Beach Grand Prix, Tracy sustained a fractured spine in a low-speed accident and missed two races.
"It just threw the whole thing into a tailspin," Tracy said. "The team fielded [Oriol] Servia in my car in those couple races I was out, but we basically went into a standstill mode during the break. When everybody else went out testing and developing the cars, we sat at home. We basically shut our shop down for eight weeks, waiting for me to come back.
"When I came back we were definitely a little bit lost in terms of where we had to have the car developed. We really chased our tails using race weekends as testing days trying to get caught up."
The Forsythe team's struggle to get the new Panoz Champ Car chassis to handle well was masked by Tracy's victory at Cleveland. PT broke two front wings and dropped to last place at the start before perfect pit-stop tactics allowed him to edge rookie Graham Rahal for his 31st career win, tops among active drivers.
"Cleveland has always been a pretty good track for me, so we ran pretty well there in the race," Tracy said. "I kind of lucked into the win, but we'll take it.
"But through the summer months we basically struggled with car setup," he continued. "It doesn't take very much to be not very good. We could never get the car where I was happy with it until right before Europe when we hired Tom Brown to come in. He left PKV Racing and came to work for us, and now we're just starting to get where we should have been at the beginning of the year."
Having missed out on half a dozen available test days while Tracy was injured, the Forsythe team tried to set the Panoz up like the Lola chassis used from 2003 to 2006. They were fundamentally off base in terms of setup basics such as rake, roll center and castor.
It's interesting to note that Tracy and several other veteran Champ Car drivers found it more difficult to transition to the Panoz than less experienced pilots, who reckoned the Panoz had a more stable rear end.
"Setups from the Lola did not work -- they were terrible," Tracy said. "We spent way too long going down that path, and we didn't have any testing to figure out what we were doing wrong.
"This car is more like a Reynard. The sweet spot is small, and if you're off a little bit, you're off. It's a more finicky car, but we just have to work harder at it. It seems like Newman/Haas got it figured out and we didn't really catch up until this last race at Surfers, when we were legitimately back on the pace in every session. We contended for the pole in both qualifying sessions and had a good race until we ran out of fuel on the last lap."
I have a nice gig here. I'm comfortable, I enjoy the car and I enjoy the people. For me, it's not the time to bail out.
-- Paul Tracy
Forsythe eventually capitulated and ran two cars all year, with the second seat shared by Mario Dominguez, Oriol Servia and David Martinez. Tracy has plenty of positive feedback about having Servia as a teammate.
"While it's fresh in our mind, the first thing our engineers like us to do is take a map of the track and write down what the car does under braking, what it does on entry, in the middle of the corner, and what it's doing on power down," Tracy said. "Our comments around the lap were almost word for word, the closest I've ever had from a teammate. That reinforced in my mind, 'Hey, we've both got the same problem here.'
"We worked at it and worked at it to fix it and we're getting better now. Tom Brown has really helped us out where we have been going wrong."
With 2007 pretty much a lost cause, Tracy is looking forward to coming back leaner and meaner in 2008. He has a history of rebounding strongly from off years.
"As of right now, [Forsythe] is committed to a two-car team, and there is some talk of possibly a third if somebody comes along with some funding," Tracy said. "Obviously this year has been very frustrating, but I've had a lot of great years. I kind of go in cycles between good years and bad years. This year has been pretty crappy, but it's not like I've lost focus or don't want to do what I'm doing. I'll just go at it again next year."
Tracy made a halfhearted attempt to break into NASCAR a couple of years ago, but he opted instead to sign a long-term contract with Forsythe's Champ Car operation. He's also not sorry that he didn't follow the many Champ Car drivers and teams that jumped into the Indy Racing League.
"It would be great to go try NASCAR or Formula One, but I enjoy what I do and I enjoy road racing," Tracy said. "This is the only series that allows me to race in my home country of Canada three times.
"I have a nice gig here," he added. "I'm comfortable, I enjoy the car and I enjoy the people. For me, it's not the time to bail out. I can't complain about the money that I earn. I make as much as anybody else out there. It's not really about that -- it's about enjoying what you do."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.