SAN JOSE, Calif. – After nearly two decades as an open wheel racer, Canadian Paul Tracy figures its time to sit in a race car with fenders.
The 2003 Champ Car World Series champion has struck a deal with NASCAR team owner Richard Childress to test a stock car over the next two weeks with the eventual goal of competing in the Nextel Cup race at Michigan International Speedway on Aug. 21.
Tracy will get behind the wheel of a stock car for the first time in his career on Tuesday at Concord (N.C.) Speedway in an ARCA car prepared by former stock car driver and now driving instructor Andy Hillenburg.
Tracy then will head to MIS the day after the Brickyard to test the No. 33 Chevrolet for Childress. If everything falls into place, Tracy will make an attempt to qualify for the race at MIS, which he'll have to do based on speed.
Regardless of the outcome of the next three weeks, the colorful and at times controversial open wheel star – known not only for his driving ability and accomplishments but also his willingness to speak his mind, his run-ins with officials and his near-Indy 500 win in 2002 – isn't ready to say he's moving to NASCAR.
"There are things I want to try in my career and there is a window of opportunity that gets smaller and smaller the older you get," Tracy said this weekend at the Grand Prix of San Jose, where he finished second to Sebastien Bourdais. "There's an opportunity in the future, maybe for me in NASCAR, but I've got to go and try it first and see if that is what I want to do."
Tracy's interest in NASCAR dates back to 1999 when a friend showed him an article in a NASCAR publication that quoted Childress as saying he'd like to see Tracy in a stock car.
"I called him on the phone and thanked him for saying that," said Tracy, adding that he met Childress later that year and has kept in touch with him since.
Tracy isn't the first open wheel driver in recent years to dabble in the world of stock cars. Several have unsuccessfully attempted the transition into NASCAR, including past Champ Car champion Jimmy Vasser, Scott Pruett, Christian Fittipaldi and most recently Mexican driver Michel Jourdain Jr., who ran in the Busch Series this year.
Vasser drove two Busch races for Braun Racing in 2003, a year during which he raced in NASCAR, the Indy 500 and in his regular Champ Car ride.
"It's great racing, very competitive," Vasser said. "I was intrigued by the challenge of finishing my career there and a new racing challenge when I did a few races.
"I think I did well enough to show that I could compete at that level, but at the end of the day, I just get more satisfaction out of the Champ Car. It's the purest of all the cars that I drove."
Vasser added that making the commitment to NASCAR, with its 38-race schedule and transient lifestyle, wasn't exactly what he was looking for. Instead, he refocused his efforts to Champ Car, where he is expected to end his driving career this year.
Fittipaldi drove in 16 Cup races in 2002-03, mostly for Petty Enterprises. His tenure was brief and uneventful and he's since returned to racing stock cars in his native Brazil while also running an occasional sports car race in the U.S.
Most recently, Jourdain drove 18 races for ppc Racing in an unsponsored Busch car this year, rarely finishing in the top 20. He has since lost his ride, although Ford racing boss Dan Davis continues to look for other opportunities for Jourdain in an effort to attract Latino interest in the sport.
There have been a couple of success stories in recent years, however – namely Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon.
Stewart, who was the Indy Racing League champion in 1997, spent three years driving Busch Cars part-time before moving into his stellar Nextel Cup career.
Gordon left a mediocre open wheel career in 1997 to focus on stock cars, and eventually – and somewhat ironically – drove for Childress. Gordon now owns his own team.
Both of those drivers made the jump to NASCAR earlier in their careers than Tracy. At 36, Tracy doesn't readily agree with the old adage "you can't teach an old dog new tricks," though he admits it won't be easy. Still, past performances of other drivers who have tried to make the jump isn't necessarily the right measure of Tracy's potential.
"I'm not trying to put the other guys who have tried to do it down, but the guys who have gone to try and do it there are the guys who were 'out' here [in open wheel], couldn't get a ride here," Tracy said. "They were struggling to be competitive here."
Tracy knows that being successful in any racing series means having good people and good equipment – something he won't have to worry about with Childress.
"I wouldn't do it unless I could just focus on my driving and not have to worry about whether the engine is good, is the team working hard, do we have enough sponsorship?"
Tracy expects to talk with his old friend Gordon before he makes any decisions regarding a permanent move to NASCAR.
"He's a guy I could go to ... he's not going to pull any punches," Tracy said. "He'll give me advice on what to do. He's always been of the opinion that I should come and do this. He's been that way since he's left here."
Even before he turns his first lap, Tracy knows there will be criticism – from both sides of the racing fence. Some Champ Car fans and media think he's selling out by looking at what is by far the most popular form of motorsport in the United States.
"[NASCAR] is like the World Series or the Super Bowl every weekend," Tracy said. "Trying to compare [Champ Car] with that ... it's not comparable. You can't compare the kind of crowds they get. Their venues are built to seat 100,000-plus people.
"Everybody wants to focus on the negative," he continued. "I just want to go try it and see what it's all about."
Tracy is realistic about his role with Childress should he successfully make the change.
"I know it's going to be different, I know it's not going to be easy," he said. "I know the drivers there are good. The teams are good. A lot of it now is engineering and aerodynamics and power.
"My weekend at MIS is not about me trying to go there and show what I can do. It's really to try to help the Childress team somewhat."
Tracy isn't ready to make any official announcements.
"Check back with me in a couple of weeks," he said. "I'm going to drive a car a couple of times. I want to go do the race and then, think about what I want to do."
- Richard Childress
- Champ Car