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Paul Tracy, of Canada, looks down the pit lane during practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Monday, May 16, 2011. (Darron Cummings/AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Paul Tracy, of Canada, looks down the pit lane during practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Monday, May 16, 2011. (Darron Cummings/AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Indianapolis 500

Top-10 Canadians at Indy 500: Paul Tracy Add to ...

Paul Tracy is the IndyCar active wins leader with 31, a Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) titlist, and one of the most successful open wheel racers Canada has ever produced.

He's also proof that the Indianapolis 500 doesn't make things easy for anyone.

Over the years, Tracy's experience at the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" has been anything but great, with three mechanical failures and a crash ruining his first four starts. Then, when things finally went right at the famed 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, IndyCar officials robbed him of what would have been the biggest win of his career.

"It has been tough on me and it's been a place that's really just given me a tough deck to deal with. I mean every set of cards I get there is always no good," said Tracy.

"And it hasn't gotten any easier: The competition level is so close and it's as hard as it's ever been."

In the 2002 race, Tracy passed leader Helio Castroneves one lap from the chequered flag just as a caution came out for a crash.

While the replays clearly showed Tracy ahead before the yellow flew, the Indy Racing League (IRL) ruled that Castroneves was the winner of the race, which ended under caution. Politics trumped sportsmanship in the decision since Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART, later Champ Car) regular Tracy was driving in the race as a one-off appearance, while Castroneves drove for the IRL's Penske outfit. It was the height of the acrimony of the open wheel split caused when the IRL formed in 1996 as a rival to CART.

In the end, the officials ruled Castroneves won because he was ahead when the caution period was called by race control, even though the IRL rulebook stipulated the racing continues until the yellow is displayed on the track. That inconvenient fact meant Tracy was the winner, but officials ignored it anyway.

"The day was great - we had a car that we won the race with, but then everything that went down after that was disheartening," said Tracy, of Scarborough, Ont., who was classified second in the race.

"But it is what it is and I have a couple more tries at it, so we'll just keep swinging. That's all you can do."

After the 2002 controversy, Tracy skipped the 500 for the next six seasons and only went back a year after the IndyCar Series swallowed Champ Car in 2008. In his return, Tracy put up his second top-10 finish, taking a well-deserved ninth in only his second career start in the Dallara-Honda IndyCar.

This year, as things got down to the nitty-gritty on Bump Day last weekend, Tracy went into the pressure-cooker with a different outlook, and one that came from an unlikely source: Fellow competitor and two-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti of the Ganassi team.

"I was watching an interview with Dario on TV and he was asked about the pressure of Indianapolis. He said: 'Look this place is all pressure and you have to either enjoy it or it will drive you crazy'," Tracy said.

"I thought about that and I know I've always thrived under the pressure of racing in Canada and my hometown in Toronto. So, I went out to qualify and decided I would just go out and enjoy it and do my best four laps."

It worked. Tracy will start 25th in Sunday's race in the No. 23 Dreyer & Reinbold car. The race marks the 100th anniversary of the first Indy 500, although it's actually the 95th edition. The race was not run during the years the U.S. fought in the two world wars.

Even without the added stress of drivers pushing each other in and out of the 33-car field, qualifying for the 500 is never for the faint of heart. Tracy insisted that's because the series allows drivers to use as little downforce as they want as they try to find that extra 10th of a second needed to make the field.

Tracy suggested it's akin to getting between the pipes without any goalie pads and then facing 100 Al MacInnis slapshots zinging in at more than 160 kilometres per hour.

"You are just waiting for something bad to happen. When you rip off four laps and you are on the knife's edge the whole way, you are glad it's over and you don't want to do it again. That's how it feels," he said.

"The closeness of the cars from front to back now is so tight. Two miles an hour is the gap today and that's only 0.15 seconds per lap - you walk down a sidewalk at three or four miles per hour."

Tracy knows exactly how it feels to get the short end of that equation after the Speedway bit him again last year. His team gambled on Bump day and withdrew a time that already had him in the field but then he wasn't able to respond with a better four-lap effort and ended up watching the race from his couch. Had they simply kept the time he had, Tracy would have made the field.

Now that he's back in, Tracy plans to bide his time in the race and hopes to be there when it matters.

"You can't be overly patient and go a lap down for no reason. You have to fight to stay on the lead lap and can't dilly-dally because before you know it the pack will come around and catch the back," he said.

"You have to pick your spots and not put yourself in a situation where you get your wing knocked off, you crash, or bang into somebody in the pitlane. On the other hand you have to go as fast as you can without making any mistakes. It looks easy from the outside, but the cars are sliding and going sideways at 220 miles per hour. It's not fun at that speed."

Despite the troubles he's had at the famed Brickyard over the years, Tracy hasn't soured on the Speedway. He was filled with anticipation as the month-long action got started early in May and it only increased as the race on the U.S. Memorial Day weekend approached.

"There's really no other race like it - it's completely different from my hometown race, which is important to me personally, but the Indy 500 is a huge international event and you can read the level of stress people are under just by looking at their faces," he said.

"Any other race you go to, you go out and qualify and you know you are going to make the field. In Indy, there are no guarantees."

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