|Bad-boy Paul Tracy|
Soap operas are popular because they have drama. The UFC has heroes and villains. WWE became the dominant sports entertainment company in the 1990s with good guys against bad guys.
In auto racing, NASCAR has drivers who wear white hats and black hats. Even Formula One gets the fans' juices going, with people who like Nico Rosberg disliking Lewis Hamilton, and vice-versa.
Not so in the Verizon IndyCar Series, which is starting a three-day run Friday at Exhibition Place. The main event, the 30th anniversary Honda Indy Toronto, is scheduled for Sunday afternoon just after 3 p.m.
That's why, says one of the great black hats in the history of the sport, Paul Tracy of Toronto, the series is not attracting the attention it should nor growing at a rate he thinks is possible.
Tracy, a.k.a. the Thrill from West Hill, a.k.a. the Chrome Horn, knows all about being a villain. Whether it was knocking wheels early in his career with sometimes-F1 driver Alessandro Zanardi, or almost resorting to fisticuffs after collisions late in his career with more-recent rivals Sebastien Bourdais and fellow Canadian Alex Tagliani (once, he even nearly came to blows with his car owner, Barry Green), Tracy was always in the limelight and in the headlines.
Retired from IndyCar racing, but preparing to suit up this weekend to race twice in the Robbie Gordon Stadium Super Trucks Series, which is one of six support series on the Honda Indy program, including the Saturday headliner, the NASCAR Pinty's Series for stock cars, Tracy has definite ideas on what IndyCar has to do to improve both.
|Never one to mince words, Tracy says Marco Andretti is too slow to wear the bad-guy hat|
"They don't have any contrasting personalities in the series," said Tracy, who will do double duty this weekend — racing trucks and providing color commentary on the NBC Sports Network's coverage of the Honda Indy (seen in Canada on Sportsnet). "They're all a bunch of happy-go-lucky good guys."
Tracy knows of what he speaks. Once, after he'd collided with teammate Dario Franchitti and was grabbed on the arm by car owner Green, triggering an exchange of angry words and gestures, the Black Hat was called on the carpet the next day by tobacco sponsor Brown & Williamson, which supported the famous Team Kool Green that employed him.
The result? A salary increase and a contract extension for the Toronto driver because of the attention the confrontation brought the cigarette company.
Another time, he told Quebec reporters that French drivers Bourdais and Tagliani were too afraid to take off their helmets and fight him like men. The response was overwhelmingly negative. Tracy managed to save the day by riding around in the drivers' parade before the race the next day wearing a wrestler's mask and cape and imitating moves made by body builders.
"They have great personalities in IndyCar but all the personalities are good guys," he said, noting that the racing is the best around but it's the notoriety that's lacking, unlike NASCAR.
"Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are the good guys but they also have the (Brad) Keselowskis and guys like that. Some people like Smoke (Tony Stewart) and some people don't. IndyCar doesn't have that.
|Tracy calls Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi too vanilla.|
"E.J. Viso (a former driver) was a loose cannon. He had a couple of screws loose. He was pretty fast; he'd run up front and he was unpredictable. Of the guys still there, Marco (Andretti) would have potential to be a bad guy; Marco could wear the Hat but he's not going fast enough for anybody to worry about.
"Rossi? (Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi) is too vanilla; he doesn't say anything. There really isn't anybody who's a polarizing figure. The only fast guy who could potentially do it is Graham (Rahal, son of inaugural 1986 Toronto Indy winner Bobby Rahal). Graham speaks his mind and he'll say what's on it but generally he's not perceived — even though he drives hard and races hard and doesn't give anybody any quarter — he's not perceived as someone who's dangerous, that you have to watch out for."
Tracy said he's enjoying his time doing commentary for NBCSN and would be open to other challenges beside IndyCar. Like F1, perhaps?
"Yeah, I'd love to do it," he said. "I'm open to doing whatever they put on the table. I'm enjoying doing it. Obviously they have contracts and things; they have continuity. You can't just throw somebody into the booth. But I will do everything they want me to try."
Tracy's presence, in part, is one reason the U.S. network has seen an increase in viewership this season (Sportsnet figures unavailable). A spokesman said that through five races carried by NBCSN, viewership is averaging 408,000, up 26 per cent from last year. He added that NBCSN is coming off its most-watched IndyCar season ever, averaging more than 500,000 viewers per race in 2015 and that the finale at Sonoma averaged more than 800,000 viewers.
Tracy, and I, had started to talk about the Honda Indy and the series championship before he went off on his tangent.
"The series right now is heating up," he said. "Things are starting to happen and even though (Simon) Pagenaud's got a big lead, (Will) Power, (Scott) Dixon and (Josef) Newgarden are starting to take it to him. Now he seems to be racing for points and when you do that, you can run yourself into trouble. It's kinda like trying to run the clock out in a sports game."
Tracy pointed out that Newgarden won the Honda Indy last year and that Power and Dixon have also won in Toronto.
"Pagenaud could win there," he said. "There's going to be a fight up front. (Helio) Castroneves will be fast, I think Rahal will be fast and (Juan Pablo) Montoya's always a factor. There are three guys fighting for the championship who are all at the top of their game and racing in Toronto (Pagenaud, Newgarden and Power)."
Tracy suggested it will be a three-way fight for the title.
"I think it's really going to shape up between Pagenaud, Dixon and Power. Newgarden — who's definitely raised his stock ten-fold — will be a long shot. I think he'll be fast and in contention but I don't think that team (Ed Carpenter Racing) has the muscle of Penske and Ganassi."
Tracy wouldn't be Tracy, of course, if he didn't get into it with somebody and that somebody this weekend is teenage Toronto driver Russell Boyle, 16, who told the Star in an interview this week that he intended to kick the legendary driver's butt in not one but both truck races.
Said Tracy: "I think he'd better think about that. Let me just say this and you can put this on the record in the newspaper: The kid, Russell Boyle, is a great kid and he has a lot of talent. But his dad is 10 times worse than my dad (Tony) ever was."
And Russell Boyle's father's reaction to that?
"And just where did Paul Tracy wind up? asked Phil Boyle. "Indy cars. I'd say Tony Tracy did a pretty good job and that's what I'm trying to do for my son."
The sparks will start flying in the first Stadium Trucks race Saturday at Exhibition Place, just before the NASCAR Pinty's Series race at 3 p.m. Norris McDonald/TheStar