Paul Tracy still adamant he won Indy 500 in 2002: 'But Helio was climbing the fence. Why?'

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INDIANAPOLIS — Paul Tracy can replay every tiny detail, minute by minute, second by second, of the finish to that race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The pass Tracy made to take the lead over Helio Castroneves on the 199th lap. The yellow caution light flashing. The fans roaring.

He hasn't forgotten what it felt like to win the 2002 Indianapolis 500, crossing the finish line first.

"I'm screaming on the radio. I'm screaming in joy," Tracy said this month. "And then all of a sudden, there is this confusion."

Confusion about a yellow flag thrown on Lap 199 of the race. Confusion about whether Tracy passed Castroneves before the caution light came on after a crash in Turn 2.

"Where do I go to the winners' circle?" Tracy radioed in as he drove to victory (he thought) in 2002. The response he received was weird.

"Come back to the pit box," he was told. A befuddled Tracy asked why. "Come to the pit box. Castroneves is climbing up the fence" to victory.

"What do you mean?" Tracy said. "Why?"

More: Helio Castroneves on heated 2002 Indy 500 win: 'Wait, it's yellow but Tracy is passing me'

More: Helio Castroneves' drive for 5th Indy 500: 'Indianapolis, it brings out the best in me'

He would soon find out that, in a split-second decision by Indy Racing League officials after the race, Castroneves had been declared the victor.

But it wasn't official. Tapes needed to be reviewed, rulebooks pored over. Six hours would pass after the race before an official winner of the 2002 Indy 500 would be revealed.

Twenty years later, Tracy said he doesn't care what the history books say. He won the 2002 Indianapolis 500 and he will never diverge from that.

Even if the trophy from that race sits inside Castroneves' home.

'I cannot feel sorry for Paul Tracy'

As evening fell on IMS May 26, 2002, after the roar of engines and crowds of people had dissolved, hundreds of reporters roamed with nothing to report. Cleaning crews finished their work. Concession stands were shuttered.

Tracy stayed at IMS and waited to be declared the victor. Castroneves stayed, too, waiting to be declared the victor.

Six hours passed, minute by excruciating minute, mostly for Tracy and Castroneves. Media lingered, impatiently. No one knew who had won the race.

After Castroneves climbed the fence, he stood beaming in a red racing suit, drank the winner's milk, a wreath of green and white slung over his shoulder. But that was just a show.

Castroneves wasn't the official winner.

Not until Brian Barnhart, Indy Racing League director of operations, had watched and re-watched the finishing seconds of video. Not until he had read over every fine line in the IRL rulebook.

It was nearly 8 p.m. when Barnhart appeared before media to issue his ruling. He had found no evidence to overturn his original decision: Castroneves was the 2002 Indy 500 winner, the first back-to-back winner in 31 years.

The caution had been issued before Tracy passed Castroneves, he said. The driver in the lead when the yellow flag came out was the winner of the race. And, Barnhart said, that was Castroneves.

"We got robbed," a livid Tracy told reporters. "We got robbed."

"I cannot feel sorry for Paul Tracy," Castroneves said that night, smiling.

But Barnhart's decision wouldn't be the end to one of the most controversial finishes in the history of the Indy 500. Tracy was not going to let it end.

The crucial, final seconds

Tracy and Castroneves had bad blood between them in 2002, Tracy said.

"At that point in our careers together we had had a couple of run-ins with each other in 2000 and 2001," Tracy said. "We had some wheel banging deals. We didn't really like each other."

IndyStar reached out to Castroneves and his then-team owner Roger Penske for comment, but did not receive a response.

Beyond saying he didn't feel sorry for Tracy in 2002, Castroneves said there was no question he had won the race.

"I don't understand why they're saying (Tracy) passed me," Castroneves said. "The only reason he passed me was because the yellow came out and I lifted off (the accelerator)."

In Turn 3 on the 199th lap of the race, Tracy was in second place, alongside leader Castroneves. Both were charging for the lead when a crash occurred in Turn 2 between rookie Laurent Redon and Buddy Lazier.

"I finally got the run I needed and I made the pass around the outside," Tracy said. "I acknowledged there was a crash behind us but we're coming to the finish of this thing. By the time the yellow light came on the track, I was half to three quarters of a car length ahead."

Tracy said transponders captured that.

At the end of the race, IRL officials ruled Castroneves had the lead when the yellow caution flag came out. League rules state that "racing ceases immediately upon display of the yellow flag and/or yellow light."

"Clearly, at the last timeline at the end of the backstretch in the entrance of Turn 3, car 3 (Castroneves) is clearly ahead of car 26 (Tracy) and that is well after the impact had taken place in Turn 2," said Barnhart during the news conference.

Jake Query was a reporter working for Channel 6 in the pits that race day in 2002. It was his job to talk to drivers as they fell out of the race and to do post-race interviews.

Query said he thought for a while it would be Felipe Giaffone, who was leading in Lap 171, that he would be interviewing as race victor. Then, he was told to slide down to Castroneves' pit. As soon as he got there, he was told to slide down to Tracy's pit. And then back to Castroneves.

"It was like musical chairs," said Query, a turn announcer for IndyCar and one half of the "Kevin & Query" morning sports radio show on 107.5-FM The Fan.

When Tracy came in, he told Query he had won. "Yeah, I made the pass and then the caution came out," he said.

Query was the first one to talk to Tracy's team owner Barry Green, who told him, "We're going to appeal it."

When Dario Franchitti came in, Query asked him what he saw. "And I'll never forget it. He looked at me with as much conviction as I have ever seen Dario have and he said, 'What I saw was my teammate win the Indianapolis 500.'"

The race brought heated opinions on both sides. And it raised questions about how the final decision of the 2002 Indy 500 winner was made.

"After hours of looking at film and studying other data, the best IRL officials could do was adopt a shaky stance of an incompetent NFL referee," wrote then-IndyStar sports columnist Bob Kravitz. "'We couldn't find conclusive evidence to overturn the call, so the original call stands.'"

Officials couldn't prove Castroneves had won but, they couldn't prove he hadn't either.

"It was fair to conclude from some of the data that Castroneves was ahead of Tracy when two other drivers crashed, causing a caution," Kravitz wrote. "That was based on frame-by-frame examinations of the sequence. The problem is that isn't what matters. What matters, according to the rulebook, is when the yellow light went on and where Tracy was in relation to Castroneves."

In theory, Kravitz wrote, the yellow should flash as soon as there's an accident but it's "more than possible there was lag time between the crash and the decision to call for the yellow."

Within an hour of Barnhart's decision on race night, Green filed a protest with the league, to be heard the next day.

Green said he had evidence to prove Tracy was ahead of Castroneves, a split second ahead, when the race turned yellow.

'Green sees red: I'm shocked'

On Monday, May 27, 2002, the day after the race, Tracy's team made its case.

Tracy had already swept around the outside of Castroneves before the caution came on, Team Green said. ESPN provided a frame-by-frame shot that supported the theory.

Defending IRL champion Sam Hornish, Jr. was behind Tracy and Castroneves when the pass occurred. He radioed to his crew that Tracy had forged ahead of Castroneves before the yellow light, IndyStar reported in 2002.

Again, it was ruled that Castroneves had won.

"I can't see one reason why we didn't win the race," Green said at the time. "We used the IRL's data to break it down, ESPN's tape on SportsCenter, testimony from Dario (Franchitti), Sam Hornish and a couple of spotters and, clearly, Paul was in front when the yellow came on in Turn 3."

Again, Tracy and Team Green were not going to stand by and watch what they believed was an Indy 500 victory slip away. They took it to the next level, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to appeal the decision to then-IRL president Tony George.

On June 17, 2002, in what Tracy calls "a kangaroo court" his team made its case to George, an IMS attorney and a third panel member.

"We presented all this evidence that I was ahead," Tracy said. "We presented pictures, video, timelines, track transponders, all property of IMS which is locked away in their production facility. Then it was Roger's turn to state his case."

Tony George, then IRL president, makes his decision July 3, 2002, after an appeal by Paul Tracy and Team Green claiming Tracy won the 2002 Indy 500, not Helio Castroneves.
Tony George, then IRL president, makes his decision July 3, 2002, after an appeal by Paul Tracy and Team Green claiming Tracy won the 2002 Indy 500, not Helio Castroneves.

Penske's lawyer took the stand. Castroneves wasn't there. Penske never said a word. His lawyer pulled out the rule book, Tracy said.

"And he points to this one line of the rule book that said if the chief steward (Barnhart) makes a judgment call on the position of a race car for yellow flag, it cannot be protested," Tracy said. "We left feeling pretty good about our case."

But Tracy and Green didn't feel good on July 3, 2002 when George made his final ruling from the appeal and declared Castroneves was still the victor.

"Green Sees Red," the headlines in the IndyStar read the next day.

"I'm shocked at the decision and I'm shocked at the reasoning," Green said in a hastily called news conference at the team headquarters two hours after George's ruling was made.

In the end, George went with the one line rule in the book, Tracy said. George said that "by rule, the placement of the cars after a caution is a judgment call of the officials and therefore not subject to appeal."

"The impression left after the announcement was that Green had spent considerable time and in his words 'many hundreds of thousands dollars' on an appeal he had no chance of winning," wrote then-IndyStar racing writer Steve Ballard.

"I think I got screwed, but I don't want to dig too deep into the politics," said Tracy, in 2002. "There's politics in every form of motorsports."

'It was a Civil War'

There were many variables to that race in 2002 and the polarization of the controversy was magnified by the heated Indy Racing League-Championship Auto Racing Teams split, said Query.

"I don't think you can overstate how divided race fans were over the split," he said. "It was in the middle of an era that greatly muddied open wheel racing. It was a Civil War, undoubtedly."

Late racing columnist Robin Miller wrote "there is frame-by-frame footage of what many may perceive as the assassination of Paul Tracy's chances to win the 86th Indianapolis 500," in the IndyStar. "That's the conspiracy angle of the greatest spectacle in racing, which has seldom finished as late, as unsatisfying or as confusing as it did Sunday afternoon."

Had Tracy been allowed to stay in front, it would have been the third consecutive win for a driver and team from rival CART.

"More bragging rights for a series currently fighting for its life," Miller wrote. "And one more year the IRL can't promote the Indy 500 winner at the rest of its schedule."

Penske was viewed in 2002 as the IRL's savior after ditching the series he helped start (CART) for the all-oval IRL. While Castroneves was a road racer with CART pedigree, he was by 2002 officially an IRLer.

When the 2002 Indy 500 happened, it was at the of a yearslong, bitter battle in open-wheel racing. Fans either loved IRL and hated CART or vice versa. "And I was the face of the (CART) Champ Car World Series," Paul Tracy said this month.
When the 2002 Indy 500 happened, it was at the of a yearslong, bitter battle in open-wheel racing. Fans either loved IRL and hated CART or vice versa. "And I was the face of the (CART) Champ Car World Series," Paul Tracy said this month.

"You hate to see a good race end like this and I don't blame Team Green for trying everything they can," Penske said in 2002. "It's unfortunate a situation like this comes up and then people take sides."

But it had been a bitter 7-year struggle for open-wheel survival. And fans either loved IRL and hated CART or vice versa.

"And I was the face of the (CART) Champ Car World Series," Tracy said. "Penske had just left CART Champ Car to go to the Indy Racing League.

"And I come into the race and this is what happens. I win, but I lose."

Twenty years have passed and while Tracy is still adamant he won the 2002 Indy 500, he doesn't hold that against Castroneves.

"I don't have any ill feelings toward Helio," Tracy said. "When I was on air (as racing analyst), I was one of his biggest cheerleaders.

"I disagree with the decision. Helio thinks that he won and I think that I won. At the end of the day, he does have the trophy. I don't have the trophy, but I knew what it felt like to win that race. I knew what it felt like to win an Indy 500."

Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: dbenbow@indystar.com.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indy 500 winners: Did Paul Tracy or Helio Castroneves win 2002 race?