Paul Tracy says IndyCar drivers too ‘vanilla,’ need bad guys to market sport

TORONTO — Paul Tracy has never been one to pull his punches.

The “Thrill from West Hill” was famously involved in two dust-ups with fellow drivers Alex Tagliani and Sebastien Bourdais, going so far as to criticize them for leaving on their helmets during the confrontations.

While roughly 12 years have passed, the 49-year-old from Toronto— who racked up 31 wins in IndyCar during his career — has no regrets about how he handled the incidents. In fact, he believes the series’ current drivers are too “vanilla” and “corporate,” unwilling to help stir up the rivalries necessary to market the sport.

“I was OK with being the guy that wore the black hat in this series for a long time,” Tracy said in a phone interview earlier this week.

“That’s kind of what the series is lacking, I think, in terms of trying to promote the series — everyone wants to be the good guy and no wants to be the bad guy.”

Tracy, who will be providing commentary for NBC’s coverage of this weekend’s Toronto Indy, said a couple of clashes involving driver Alexander Rossi, including one with Canadian Robert Wickens, haven’t been properly tapped for their entertainment value.

“(Rossi has) made some aggressive moves, he’s pushed and shoved some guys around, but he doesn’t want to wear the black hat,” said Tracy.

“He wants to be a good guy, but on the race track he’s pretty tough.”

Wickens was leading after 69 laps during his IndyCar debut at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in March until Rossi’s attempt overtake him sent him spinning. The 29-year-old from Guelph, Ont, later downplayed the incident, saying he should have foreseen the manoeuvre.

A second run-in with Rossi at Road America last month prompted a more harsh response, with Wickens calling him “ruthless.” In Lap 1, the American driver and Wickens crashed wheels, with the latter being sent into the grass.

But Wickens maintained the two, who are friends off the track, don’t need to hate each other enough to have a rivalry.

“We’ve had on-track incidents. We’ve spoken our minds in the press, but we kind of get on with life and move on,” he said Wednesday.

Tracy said he spoke to Wickens last week and suggested that the IndyCar rookie adopt a more Don-Cherry-esque, or vigilante approach, to injustices on the track.

“I said, ‘Listen, if you’re tired of getting pushed around, you’ve got to push back,’” he said.

“Doesn’t matter what sport you’re in — whether you’re playing football, basketball or hockey — if a guy is going to shove you around and you let them, they’re always going to shove you around.”

Wickens admitted current drivers are forced to be a “little more vanilla,” but said Tracy was active when North American motorsports had higher budgets and he was given more rope to express his fiery personality.

“If one sponsor doesn’t like what you do and they pull out, you don’t have a ride anymore,” said Wickens.

“Back then he had all the tobacco money and they had like unlimited budgets, you could be different, you could be the person you want to be. And I’m not saying I’m not the person I want to be — I’m still being who I want to be — I’ve never fought anyone in my entire life. I think I’ve sparred a couple times at the gym with the helmets and stuff on, but I think that’s as far as I’ve ever gone,” he added with a laugh.

But Tracy insists a driver’s performance alone isn’t enough to generate fans.

“This is more than just racing around the track. A lot of these guys need to realize some of this is entertainment and … you’ve got to play up on that to create interest,” he said, citing the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. and F1 legend Michael Schumacher as drivers who were known for their strong personalities.

“And I think a lot of these guys just don’t want to do that.”

Mike Shulman, The Canadian Press

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