Commentary

When racing lost its brightest star ...

Updated: October 30, 2009, 3:02 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

Fittipaldi, Fernandez & Papis AP Photo/Kevork DjansezianChristian Fittipaldi, Adrian Fernandez and Max Papis mourn for Greg Moore after the CART finale in Fontana, Calif., on Oct. 31, 1999. Moore died from injuries sustained in a crash during the race.
"And then one day you find
Ten years have got behind you ..."

-- Pink Floyd

For many devotees of modern Indy car racing, Oct. 31, 1999 was the day the music died. On that blackest of Halloweens 10 years ago, the sport lost its brightest young star. Greg Moore won only five races in his four years driving at the top level of American open-wheel racing, but his career was on the brink of being launched into the stratosphere when he perished instantly in a gruesome single-car crash at Auto Club Speedway during the final race of the 1999 CART FedEx Championship Series.

In retrospect, it's safe to say that CART and its tight-knit community never really recovered from the tragedy in Fontana, Calif. Over the next four years, Championship Auto Racing Teams slowly but steadily slid into bankruptcy and oblivion, before finally petering out with a whimper by early 2008, when it was known as the Champ Car World Series. Indy car racing continues under the IRL IndyCar Series banner, but the sport is a pale shadow of its former self, lacking the dominant, larger-than-life champion that Moore was destined to be.

No one man was capable of saving Indy car racing from destroying itself, but if anyone stood a chance, it was Moore. He was just 24 years old when he died, and already he had captivated millions of fans and conquered the world-class drivers he fought against on the track in the CART series. But perhaps more important was the way Moore triumphed over his rivals -- with a huge smile and a contagious spirit that created strong, lifelong friendships among his competitors.

[+] EnlargeGreg Moore/Dario Franchitti
AP Photo/Paul SancyaRace winner Dario Franchitti, right, doused good friend Greg Moore on the winner's podium after the Detroit Grand Prix in August 1999.

"In Europe, there is that background of 'You've got to hate everybody to race against them,'" said Dario Franchitti, who was Moore's closest friend on the circuit. "Then I came over here, and Greg kind of gathered everybody around and got everybody together doing different things, whether it was playing soccer or organizing a party. There was a whole group of us -- Max Papis, Tony Kanaan, Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Bryan Herta and Adrian Fernandez ... we all became very good friends.

"Greg showed us that we didn't have to hate each other. Because when we got on the track, trust me, he was as hard as anybody."

In the early days, Moore certainly didn't look the part of a future champion. He was a skinny, bespectacled kid from Maple Ridge, British Columbia, the son of a former racer turned Chrysler dealer. But he was magic in a race car from the very start, progressing rapidly through the single-seat road-racing ranks.

In the good/bad old days of big money tobacco sponsorship, Player's cigarettes backed Moore from an early age as part of the Canadian driver development program that ultimately carried Jacques Villeneuve, Moore, Patrick Carpentier and Alex Tagliani into Indy car racing. Placed with Forsythe Racing, Greg won 10 of 12 races in the old CART-sanctioned Indy Lights series in 1995 and earned a promotion to Gerald Forsythe's CART team for 1996.

His Indy car racing debut on the tricky original quad-corner Homestead-Miami Speedway layout was nothing short of sensational. Greg qualified sixth, but lost a lap when he was penalized for a pit infraction on the 70th of 133 laps. In the second half of the race, he drove through the 26-car field to unlap himself and worked all the way back up to seventh place by the checkered flag, turning the fastest lap of the race with just two tours remaining.

Vasser, who went on to win the 1996 CART championship, scored his first race win that day at Homestead. But his abiding memory is of the precocious rookie who stole the spotlight.

"I was leading and pulling away from second place when this blue car suddenly appeared in my mirrors," recalled Vasser. "My guys told me not to worry because he was a lap down, but he went around the outside of me in Turn 3 and I was glad he wasn't on the lead lap."

Moore's remarkable entry to the Indy car arena was the talk of the CART paddock.

"When Greg first came on the scene, I thought, 'What a sharp, articulate, intelligent guy,'" said racing legend Mario Andretti. "He was very professional and mature for his age. He always had something to say, but he didn't ramble on. He said something meaningful. And of course his driving was just the same. He was going to make a mark for himself, no question."

[+] EnlargeGreg Moore
AP Photo/Richard CampionGreg Moore and model Inga Drozdova warmed up for a volleyball match on Surfers Paradise beach in Queensland, Australia, in October 1998.

Despite that spectacular introduction, more than a year passed before Moore finally made it into the winner's circle. The victories, though seemingly few on paper, were legendary. The first came at Milwaukee in 1997 when he had barely turned 22, making him the youngest winner of an Indy car race at the time. A week later he triumphed again at Detroit, when the leading PacWest Racing cars famously both ran out of fuel on the final lap.

The wins most people remember came in 1998. At Rio de Janeiro, on the Emerson Fittipaldi Speedway "roval," Greg outfoxed dominant two-time CART champion Alex Zanardi while lapping a backmarker with six laps to go and pulled off an audacious outside pass on the Italian.

"I knew it was going to be close," Moore said then, humbly. "It was going to be either a hero or a zero move."

"He finds grip where there isn't any," responded Zanardi.

Four years later, after being presented with the Greg Moore Legacy Award, Zanardi paid tribute to his late rival.

"I would say we were really similar in the way we were driving -- both very aggressive," Zanardi said. "I think we both were never content with the result. Always wanting to do something more ... we were very, very competitive."

A couple of months after the Rio victory, Moore beat the much more powerful Ganassi Reynard Hondas of Zanardi and his teammate Vasser at Michigan Speedway in one of the most competitive Indy car races in history, with 62 official lead changes.

"By that point his equipment wasn't the best and Mercedes was really starting to struggle, but he was making the best of it," recounted Franchitti. "The move on Zanardi [in Brazil] was unbelievable. It was such an aggressive, assertive move. And when he snookered Jimmy and Zanardi at Michigan ... they were trying to play the team game and he beat them both. That was astounding. Not only was he a great driver, but he was as smart and crafty as they come.

"I think Greg was the best guy I ever raced on an oval," Dario continued. "He was unbelievable in those [CART] cars. You can slide a modern [IRL] Indy car around a bit; there's a certain sort of yaw you can drive it in, where it's not too much of a problem. But the old Champ Cars, they would slide, and if they slid once and you didn't catch it, if you allowed it to snap again, it would bite you. And Greg could just hang that thing out there all day! He just drove the thing on the edge, and I don't know of anybody else that did that."

The last win, perhaps appropriately, came in the 1999 season opener at Homestead, the site of so many of the memories Moore created. This one was workmanlike rather than spectacular. "There are some times when you don't have the fastest car, but you have the breaks," he said afterward. "This was a real team effort."

By then, Moore had become extremely disenchanted with the decline of the Mercedes-Benz engine program; with his Forsythe Racing contract set to expire, he explored his options. That's when Roger Penske came calling -- again. Moore had tested Penske's championship winning Indy car all the way back in 1994, and "The Captain" kept an eye on Moore's progress through the years. With his team in a prolonged three-year slump, Penske looked to Moore and Gil de Ferran -- along with a switch to the dominant Reynard-Honda-Firestone package -- to bring Penske Racing back to glory.

"When you look at these two drivers, they've got experience, they've won races, and they're at the top of their game," Penske said upon unveiling his 2000 driver lineup. "We're counting on both Gil and Greg to work with us to meet the challenge of the close competition of CART racing. I was one of many who was pursuing these drivers."

It was an absolute privilege to know Greg. It's always nice to remember him, and he's never far from my thoughts. I can't believe it's been 10 years, and I hope the younger fans don't forget him or who he was.

-- Dario Franchitti

Unfortunately, the world never got the chance to see what Moore could do with top-notch Penske equipment because he died before he ever got the chance to race in the iconic red and white cars. But since 2000, Helio Castroneves has won 22 CART and IRL-sanctioned Indy car races, including three Indianapolis 500s, in the car Moore was slated to drive. De Ferran won an additional nine races, including Indy, as well as two CART championships in that same period.

"I can't imagine how bad he might have made us look if he'd had a Honda," reckoned Franchitti. "We've all speculated about that, we've definitely had that 'Can you imagine ... ?' conversation. And we always just sort of shake our heads and say, 'We would have all been fighting for second place.'

"I don't know how many races, championships or 500s he would have won, but it would have been a lot. It would have been quite something, and I think he would have rewritten the record books. That talent in those cars would have been something special. And it would have been lovely to see it."

"Greg would have won at least three championships and three Indy 500s," said Kanaan, another of Moore's closest friends on the circuit. "We would have been talking about him like we do Rick Mears or Al Unser Jr."

Franchitti links Moore with another driver who didn't pile up a huge number of wins and yet captivated the world with his charisma outside the car and outrageous style on the track.

"He was kind of like the Gilles Villeneuve of our series, I think," Dario related. "He just had that kind of quality out of the car and in the car. Some people have got 'it,' and you can't really explain what 'it' is, but he had 'it.' That drew people to him out of the car. Then you put him in the car and you watch what he did with it ...

"He affected so many people in a positive way, and when [the fatal accident] happened, it changed things for a lot of people, it changed racing for a lot of people -- I'm not alone in that," he continued. "He was such a bright light. It's kind of a cliché, that he lived every day, but he did. From the time he got up, he was flat out. Right away the phone was ringing. You're still coming to, but there's Greg saying, 'Right! What are we doing? We're going mountain biking! We're doing this, we're doing that! We're going skiing!' There was never a dull moment.

"It was an absolute privilege to know Greg," Franchitti said. "That's one of the good things. He was a one-off, and I'm talking about as a human being. At first it was difficult to even think of him. But as time went by, we could all talk about him, and in my house there are pictures and paintings everywhere, of him and the boys and those times. Those two years, '98 and '99, were I think the most fun years that I've had. It's always nice to remember him, and he's never far from my thoughts. I can't believe it's been 10 years, and I hope the younger fans don't forget him or who he was."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.