Fascinated by cars since boyhood, he would often spend entire days at a local kart track in Toronto. At age 16, in 1985, he became the youngest ever Canadian Formula Ford Champion. He also holds the record as the youngest winner of the single seater Can-Am series in 1986. Paul Tracy worked his way up through the racing ranks and in the United States he won the 1990 Indy Lights Championship, setting a record with nine wins.
He made his CART debut in 1991 driving for Dale Coyne Racing, then signed with Team Penske as a test driver, taking part in three more races that season. His first full year of Champ Car competition came in 1993 and he made the most of the opportunity. He won five times with his first win coming at Long Beach. In 2003 Tracy made his off-season move to the Player’s/Forsythe team for the 2003 season. He became the first driver in 32 years to win the first three races of a season, scoring victories in St. Petersburg, Monterrey, and Long Beach. He led 658 laps, earned six poles, and ten podiums on the way to his first-ever championship.
Now Tracy spends his time at Black Label Baggers specializing in custom motorcycle parts and customizing bikes.
1. During your time in ChampCar, you raced against- and beat- some of the all-time greats: drivers like Nigel Mansell, Emerson Fittipaldi, Michael Andretti, and Sebastien Bourdais. What would you credit your success in racing to?
I think just my desire to win was really strong, and I wasn’t willing to settle for second place. I was probably one of the worst losers that there was. So if I was in second place, I was completely unhappy about it regardless of who beat me. Whether it was (Nigel) Mansell, or Michael (Andretti) or Al (Unser) Jr., or Emerson (Fittipaldi) or Sebastian (Bourdais), I always wanted to just win and that’s all that mattered to me.
2. As the “Chrome Horn”, you were labeled as ChampCar’s unofficial “bad boy” for several years. Did that reputation bother you? Was it fun to have such a reputation?
I was okay with it. I didn’t mind being the guy who wore the black hat. I didn’t mind being the bad guy, and that’s maybe what the sport lacks a little bit today at least in IndyCar. Everybody is everybody’s buddy now and there are no real major rivalries anymore. There are no Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s, no Paul Tracys, no Michael Schumachers- guys that will do anything to win and they’re the villain. This sport right now is lacking a little bit of that. I think especially now with NASCAR, with Tony Stewart, he’s a bit of a villain. Now that he’s retired, in IndyCar and NASCAR everybody’s kind of this nice guy.
3. Do you think that’s vital to the sport’s popularity?
I think so. I think there’s a transition right now going on in TV and sports, and there’s no question television ratings have been declining. IndyCar has actually been going up, but it’s nowhere near where it used to be. The trend is going in the right direction, which is good. I think just in general, at least in the auto racing world there seems to be a lack of rivalries and something that people want to tune into because they don’t know what’s going to happen. Right now, you can turn on an F1 race and pretty much know that the Mercedes team is going to win. It was intriguing to watch those two this year. (Nico) Rosberg and (Lewis) Hamilton, they didn’t get along very well. So that kind of made it interesting, you know? Hamilton, he doesn’t care. He’s a three-time world champion, and he feels he can do what he wants. Certainly at the last race (the 2016 Formula 1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix), he was playing some games and trying to win himself another world championship and his teammate didn’t like it. So that made the race very interesting to watch at the end.
4. Through your career, you’ve raced in a variety of different disciplines, from open-wheel to endurance racing to stock cars. What sorts of challenges do these different classes present for oils and lubricants?
I think it’s all really the same for the for the oil manufacturers to produce an oil that’s not going to break down. The viscosity isn’t going to go away. It’s going to control heat. Especially in NASCAR, because those cars overheat. They get overheated very quickly by just getting something on the grille. F1 cars and IndyCars are pretty well managed; you don’t really get overheating problems. In NASCAR, you get that all the time. You get a piece of trash on the grille, and the temperature of the engine has shot up to 260 degrees. You’ve got to have oil that can withstand and cope with that kind of temperature. You cannot have the motor fail. It’s important.
5. Can you give an example how Royal Purple makes a difference in your cars or bikes?
…In the Harley stuff, there was always a temperature issue. They’re an air-cooled bike so the temperature is very hot on a Harley, from 250 to 260 degrees (Fahrenheit) in oil temperature. I had tried every single oil out there… My bikes are turbocharged as well so that gives extra heat. The bikes would always run between 245 and 255 (degrees Fahrenheit) with every brand of oil, and then I came across Royal Purple. I thought, “I’ll give this stuff a try.” This was about four years ago, and my oil temperature dropped to 225 to 230 which is a significant change. I’ve stuck with it ever since and I’ve started using it in my car, my sand rail and all my other stuff.
6. Your 2003 title for Forsythe was one of the most dominant in ChampCar history. What factors played in to that year’s overwhelming performance?
For me, it was the first time really in my career where I really felt like I was the number one driver on the team. Everything was focused on me with the championship. I was able to hand-pick my team at Forsythe, hand-pick my whole crew from crew chiefs to mechanics to my engineer. I could pick what car I wanted. The flip side of that was that with Player’s, it was their last year of sponsorship and I had to win the championship for them. They had been in the sport a long time and were getting out because of the tobacco laws. They hired me to come in and win a championship. They said, “Whatever you want pay-wise and whoever you want as crew, just tell us. But you’ve got to win the championship.” I got everything I wanted, but it was up to me to get the job done. Thankfully everything went really well. We won seven races and eight poles and won the championship. It was a lot of pressure that went along with that, but it was a great time.
7. Did you feel the pressure lightening as the season went on and you gained momentum?
It kind of ebbed and flowed. I started off the season with three wins and then I had a couple of bad races. Bruno (Junqueira) closed in, and then I won a couple more races, and then a couple of bad races. Then Bruno closed in again and I finished off the year with a couple of wins. It kind of went up and down though it started really well. There were a couple of points in the season where he closed in closer than I would have liked simply because I had some mechanical failures and I crashed out of a couple races. That allowed him to close up.
8. Is there one car or vehicle in your racing career that you could point to as your favorite? If so, why?
I think one of the prettiest cars I ever drove, and obviously a great performing car was the 1994 Penske. But probably my favorite race car to drive- it suited me to drive it, it handled the way I wanted it to, was the 2002 Lola. I had started driving for Team Kool Green and we had switched cars from Reynard to Lola after the season had started. We were in that car for Forsythe through 2003-6. I had a lot of success in that car and won a lot of races.
9. Is there any race or road car you wish you had the chance to drive? Or any series you wish you could have raced in?
Not really. I’ve tested a Formula One car and driven an endurance car. I’d like to go to Le Mans at some point in my lifetime. I don’t know if that’s going to be possible now, but I would have liked to drive a top flight prototype car. I never really got a chance to. I drove Daytona Prototypes, but they’re not really like the Audis and Porsches and stuff like that. I’d like to do Le Mans in a Ferrari or Porsche, like a GT class. That’s on the bucket list but I don’t know if it’ll ever happen.
10. Tell us a little about your personal garage. What sort of cars and bikes are in your own collection?
I’ve had a whole fleet of Harleys and stuff like that. I’ve got a couple of old hot rods, a 1951 Mercury and a 1963 crew cab Chevy dually. Right now for my sports car, I’ve got a 2016 Z06 Corvette.
11. When you’re not at the track, what do you do to unwind? What sort of things do you enjoy doing?
I go to the gym every day, and then I go down to my business where I sell motorcycle parts. I see what’s going on and make sure everything’s running smooth. Once the racing season starts, I’m pretty much on the race circuit for IndyCar. I’ve got to be at all the races to do television. So during the racing season I’m gone three to four days a week.
12. Have you enjoyed your move up to the commentary box in recent years? What are some of the challenges? Any big surprises with the new job?
It was interesting, because I didn’t really want to do it at first… I thought once you go in the TV booth you’re retired. So I kind of resisted it for a while and then I had dinner with one of their producers. The guy said, “Hey, if you come on, look at what Townsend (Bell)’s doing. He comes on TV, he’s at the races. He’s networking, he’s talking to people, his face is out there and if you’re sitting at home you’re forgotten about. You have an opportunity to come on TV.” You can do this as long as you want to do it. Look at David Hobbs, he’s 77 years old. It’s a job you can do for a long time, get paid well and it keeps you in the public eye. It keeps you out in front of your fans. So I thought about it and I thought I’d give it a try. I actually liked doing it.
13. Is there any driver, open-wheel or otherwise, that you look up to? Anyone who inspired you to go racing?
All of them have inspired me in some way, even though at the time they were maybe enemies. Whether it was (Sebastien) Bourdais or (Juan Pablo) Montoya or (Alex) Zanardi or Michael (Andretti), I was so fiercely competitive with all of them, but simply because I needed to figure out how to beat them and be better than them. I felt that they were better than me so I look up to all those guys. They were tough to beat and hard to race against and I’m glad I could make it difficult for them.