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Veteran's Day

Never mind the youth movement. Paul Tracy starts the season by winning the area's first CART event.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 24, 2003

[Times photo: Skip O’Rourke]
Cars race down the straightaway, right, past packed grandstands in downtown for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Several days a week, Paul Tracy pedals his road bike through the hot, dry desert near his Las Vegas home and heads for the steep inclines of a nearby mountain range. The scenery is breathtaking.

Tracy looks at his feet.

Pumping, pumping, pumping.

The monotonous miles roll by and Tracy, in between checking his heart rate and average speed, has time to ponder whether this road might lead to the CART championship that has eluded him for so long.

"Sometimes you're out there by yourself and you're thinking, 'What the Christ am I doing out here?' " said Tracy, who trains vigorously year-round. "I call Jimmy (Vasser) and Michel (Jourdain Jr.) and they're out partying at some nightclub, and I'm pedaling a bicycle down the street for three hours. 'Man, why am I doing this?' "

For days like Sunday. Tracy was the runaway winner of the inaugural Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, beating Jourdain by 12.136 seconds before a crowd estimated between 30,000 and 35,000.

A traditional slow starter, Tracy is off and running in his quest for a title.

"It's a great feeling," said Tracy, who made his debut with the Player's/Forsythe team. "It justifies all the work the team has put in and justifies all the sacrifices I've made. It's very satisfying."

Rookie pole-sitter Sebastien Bourdais looked like the man to beat early in the 105-lap race, pulling out to as much as an 18-second lead. He turned the race's fastest lap at 105.161 mph on Lap 29, just before a scheduled pit stop.

Meanwhile, Tracy was stuck.

For nearly 20 laps he tried to take second place away from rookie Tiago Monteiro. Tracy grew more frustrated as his team radioed to him that Bourdais was pulling away.

"I was ready to launch the chrome horn at him," said Tracy, indicating he was tempted to bump Monteiro out of the way. "Then he locked his brakes up, ran wide and I got by him. Then I ran away from him like crazy."

Tracy was in the lead to stay.

Bourdais returned to the track and was running seventh, still a strong contender, when he made a rookie mistake.

Too aggressive on cold tires, he scraped the outside wall in Turn5 and crept back around to pit road with a flat left rear tire. He lost six laps to the leaders while his team made repairs.

"I'm pretty disappointed for the team because I did the mistake," said Bourdais, a Frenchman who turns 24 Friday. "I made a very small mistake, but the consequence was very big."

Tracy took control.

"Once Bourdais was out, we just had to be smooth," Tracy said.

Tracy led the rest of the way, staying out front even when the leaders made their final green-flag pit stops on Lap 76.

Only once in the final 25 laps did Tracy's lead dip below four seconds. In addition to 20 points for the victory, he earned one bonus point for leading a race-high 71 laps.

"I hope we don't fall on our face the next race," Tracy said, smiling. "Normally, it takes me four or five races before I get any points. You're 60 or 70 points behind at that point."

In his 13th season, Tracy, 34, is the series' active leader with 20 wins and 13 poles. But his best finish in the championship is third, three times, most recently in 1999. But he is not the same racer he used to be.

A few years ago, he finally found a form of exercise he enjoys after meeting four-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. He has lost 35 pounds and sees a difference in his conditioning as well as his ability to concentrate behind the wheel.

He trains hard during the offseason and even takes his bike to races. Thursday, he logged 43 miles around the 1.806-mile circuit, getting to know each of the 14 turns.

"That's a long time to sit there and think about things," he said.

About all the years he drove for championship-caliber teams such as Penske and Newman/Haas. About the past two seasons with Team Green, in which he finished a disappointing 11th and 14th, respectively, in the standings. About his role as one of CART's leading veterans at the dawn of a new era for the open-wheel series.

About where the road will take him.

"Winning this race is significant to me," said Tracy, a staunch CART loyalist. "It's an inaugural event, and it's nice to be a first-time winner at a track like this. It's an enjoyable moment."

One he hopes to repeat when the series returns to action March23 at Monterrey, Mexico. Victories are the building blocks to championships, and a title is all Tracy lacks.

"I can say that I've probably met all of my goals for individual events, races that I'd like to win," he said. "I've won just about everything but the championship. Hopefully, that will come."

That's why he keeps pedaling.

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