Fifteen Years after Fontana

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Motorsport is a cruel game that has left so many unfinished stories abruptly cut off before they ever really get good. Too many of them, in fact. But the fatal accident that claimed the life of Greg Moore fifteen years ago is one that leaves a profound, gaping void in the world of racing that is still felt today.

I touched on this briefly in my article written shortly after the Japanese Grand Prix and the near-fatal accident of Jules Bianchi. I never saw Greg Moore’s fatal crash. In fact, that was a year where I’d kind of lost interest in racing. As a child, I was a young kid of many aptitudes. That year, it just so happened that it was baseball and video games and professional wrestling. That year, racing had to go to the back-burner. Anyway, it turns out that I was out trick-or-treating with my mother the afternoon and evening of October 31st, 1999. The afternoon and evening in which Moore, starting his final race with Forsythe Racing after four seasons, spun his car at the exit of Turn 2 of what is now called Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, and at high speed, flipped violently and slammed into the inside-retaining wall, causing instantly fatal head and chest injuries. Greg Moore was only 24 years of age. The race continued on as if nothing had happened, even after his death was announced before half-distance. For most, including race winner Adrian Fernandez, now regrettably a winner of two races marred by the death of a fellow competitor, and newly-crowned rookie champion Juan Pablo Montoya, the news of Moore’s death was not broken to them until after the advertised 500-mile distance of the season finale at Fontana was complete.

I was lucky I wasn’t able to watch that. Instead, I decided to go out, around the neighborhood, seeing friends and neighbors as I walked around asking for candy in a silly costume. The privilege of youthful innocence. But eventually, I learned that Greg Moore had passed away. And not on SportsCenter or RPM2Night or the CNN Evening News. I was getting a haircut when I flipped through an issue of Automobile Magazine and got to a full-page spread that chronicled the year in racing in 1999. And towards the end, or at the end, a blurb appeared that kind of stunned me: “October: Racing World Loses Greg Moore.” As a kid, my first thought was that he’d just retired at the young age of 24 to do something else. Then the awful reality crept in of what that phrase actually meant. Greg Moore was gone. This was a driver I knew in the few years that I’d been watching CART, in its 1990s glory years. “That shouldn’t happen to a driver like him,” I thought.

The first racing fatality I can remember was that of Scott Brayton during practice in the 1996 Indianapolis 500. But I didn’t really know who Scott Brayton was. I didn’t know about his decade and a half as an Indycar journeyman from Boulder, Colorado, nor about the fact that he was the polesitter for that Indy 500 and the one the year before, nor about his status as the veteran face of the newly-created Indy Racing League, which I didn’t even know was a thing that existed at the time. All I knew was that he was somebody that was killed leading up to the Indianapolis 500. It was kind of sad, but it didn’t really affect me emotionally at the time.  That issue of Automobile was written before the staff could do a full tribute to Moore, but with enough time to memorialize Gonzalo Rodriguez, the 27-year-old Uruguayan rookie who had dazzled the international racing world in International Formula 3000, came over to CART on a partial schedule for Penske Racing, but was then killed in a grotesque practice crash at Laguna Seca. I didn’t learn about just how talented Rodriguez was until maybe…well, sadly enough, this year, the fifteenth anniversary of his passing. So while that was also sad, it wasn’t really a huge shock.

But Greg Moore was a name and a face that I’d recognized that wasn’t there any more. And that, I believe, was the moment, in the barber shop waiting for my haircut, when I really learned about how dangerous this racing thing really is. In addition to feeling the first glancing blow of heartache that now comes to me every time a prominent racing driver is killed or gravely injured.

Moore’s death fifteen years ago today is one that is the centerpiece of a web of tragedy, avoidable circumstances, and events that took place after his death that, if he had not died, would have drastically altered the entire landscape of motorsport as we know it today, from October 31st, 1999 all the way to October 31st, 2014.

Basketball fans will remember with great sorrow that the death of Boston Celtics’ second-overall draft pick Len Bias on June 19th, 1986, was a horrific loss that also, less importantly in perspective, marked the beginning of the end of that team’s dynasty as the 1980s wound to a close. The death of Greg Moore fifteen years ago had a similar effect.

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This car, in this familiar Marlboro livery, fielded by Penske Racing, powered by a Honda powerplant and constructed by Reynard Motorsport, and carrying Moore’s signature number 99 which he used as a tribute to hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, never raced. But it should have, and it was all set to do that before Moore’s death – and if it did, so much changes from the moment it takes to the track.

It’s hard to imagine them as anything but a racing dynasty today, but Penske Racing had seen better days since the mid-1990s. When Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi were both knocked out of the starting lineup for the 1995 Indianapolis 500, the race in which the aforementioned Scott Brayton took his first pole position, it marked the beginning of a slump at Roger Penske‘s Indycar/CART team. By 1999, they were, at best, a mid-field team of perennial underachievers whose time had passed them by. Unser Jr. was knocking on the door of old age and hadn’t won a race since 1995. Andre Ribiero quit racing just one frustrating year into his Penske contract. Their in-house constructed chassis were lagging behind the Reynards and Lolas as badly as their Mercedes-Benz engines were lagging behind the Ford Cosworth and Honda engines especially on tracks that weren’t ovals. Soon, they would be surpassed by Toyota. For 2000, they made a list of sweeping changes. Reynard engines, Honda powerplants, and on August 6th, 1999, in Detroit during the weekend of the Belle Isle Grand Prix, the signing of two new, young drivers – Gil de Ferran from Walker Racing, and Greg Moore from Forsythe Racing.

The whirlwind series of moves at Penske coincided with Moore’s own need to change scenery. While Forsythe was the only team he’d ever raced for going back to his dominant championship run as Indy Lights champion in 1995 at just 20 years old, and through his entire CART career, they too were losing traction and hamstrung by the same poor Mercedes engines Penske had. So heavy and undriveable were they that the power advantage they had over the Fords and Hondas and Toyotas was only useful on ovals, where Moore won four of his five CART races from 1997 to 1999. With Penske overhauling their structure and going to a more reputable engine supplier and finally switching to customer chassis, they could ultimately provide more resources for him to succeed in the long term than that of Gerry Forsythe‘s squadron of blue-liveried cars (plus the rather red McDonald’s-sponsored entry of Tony Kanaan).

But in the interim, Penske had a murky present to bridge the gap to their brilliant future. To plug away into a seldom-used second entry (and also to occasionally substitute for an injured Unser), Penske ran through a gauntlet of young hopefuls. Alex Barron was one of the last drivers of Dan Gurney‘s legendary and innovative All American Racers team which, by 1999, had been relegated even farther down the order than Penske did. He struggled. Tarso Marques, still only 23 years old, was hoping to use CART as a place to rejuvenate his once-promising career after it had hit a rough patch driving for Minardi from 1996 to 1997, and what better place to do it than driving for Roger Penske – just not at that time. But then at Detroit, when Penske’s plans for the future were unveiled, they trialed one last driver. Already a winner in three International F3000 races, including hallmark victories in Spa-Francorchamps in 1998 and Monaco in 1999 driving for Team Astromega, beating the likes of future CART and Indycar stars like Montoya, and Bruno Junquiera, and Justin Wilson in doing so, Gonzalo Rodriguez outqualified and outraced Unser on his debut, scoring a points-paying 12th place finish on his debut, and on the lead lap no less – while Unser was 15th, a lap down, and not in the points. That performance along with his great form in F3000 immediately had Rodriguez on the shortlist for potential Rookie of the Year candidates in 2000.

But by then, both young men, Moore and Rodriguez were gone. But sometime after Greg Moore’s death was announced and sometime before the start of the 2000 season, Penske now had a hole in their driving roster. They had to scramble to find an “Option B”. They eventually found one in a promising 24-year-old Brazilian who was also a product of Indy Lights just as Moore was, who had turned in a handful of solid drives for under-funded teams like Bettenhausen Racing and Hogan Racing, who was also a free agent from the moment his heavy and undriveable and frail Mercedes engine went kaboom on lap 111 of that awful race in Fontana.

If Greg Moore lived through that fateful day, there is a good chance that he is a driver who wins three Indianapolis 500s and goes on to be the winner on a dancing-themed reality show. While, in the year 2014 A.D. of that alternate timeline, Helio Castroneves probably reflects on his open-wheel career that ended all too soon, initial promise that was never realized thanks to a lack of a breakthrough opportunity like the one he received in the real timeline at Penske in 2000, leading into a slide into obscurity. There is no climbing the catchfence, there is no tax evasion trial caused by the hastily-rewritten contracts signed over to Castroneves (and if there is, it’s certainly not as big a deal as it was in 2009), Indycar fans aren’t agonizing over him still not being a series champion. Instead, perhaps, it is Greg Moore in his place doing accomplishing all of those things, maybe even more, while Castroneves, equally talented but bitterly unlucky in this case, walks the career path of a true journeyman.

Perhaps, also, this all takes place in the same alternate timeline where, on lap 199 of the 2002 Indianapolis 500, Laurent Redon and Buddy Lazier don’t spin and crash at the exit of turn 2, which doesn’t force a caution to effectively end the race, that isn’t thrown at the moment where CART star Paul Tracy passes Penske driver and fellow Canadian Greg Moore, now in his first full season in the IRL, for the lead of the race, and doesn’t lead to the end-of-race controversy that opens the wounds between CART and IRL loyalists that leads to the final years of the North American open-wheel split, that now doesn’t happen as both sides opt for an amicable unification of the championships the next year on the back of a grandstand finish at that Indianapolis 500 between Moore and Tracy on the 10th anniversary of Unser Jr. vs Scott Goodyear and the 20th anniversary of Gordon Johncock beating Rick Mears by less than a car-length. Could the death of Greg Moore really have cost CART and IRL a chance to unify on friendlier and healthier terms? Not directly, but it could have helped.

Those fans who were so loyal to Champ Car and CART then, many of them, including myself, cringe at the possibility of Greg Moore having defected off to the other side. As we all know, of course, Moore never reached that point in his life where he’d have to choose between staying with Penske or staying in CART. The sad thing is – Moore was so gifted a driver on short ovals and superspeedways that, even when the mass exodus of 2002-2004 of CART drivers and teams to the IRL went down and the newly-christened Indycar Series was injected with new, young talents like Kanaan, Dario FranchittiScott Dixon, and Dan Wheldon – Moore would still be winning races and championships at a steady and staggering clip. This is a driver who was only average at oval racing until an off-season venture into ice racing during the winter of 1993-94 allowed him to get used to driving “loose” which in turn allowed him to develop his high-line riding style of oval track expertise. And he was by no means terrible on road courses either – he was actually recruited for spot starts for Mercedes-Benz’s factory GT1 team back in the 1997 FIA GT Championship, and the McLaren Mercedes Formula 1 team had him as a candidate to race for them in 2000 or beyond, when and if Mika Hakkinen or David Coulthard were let go. True blue Champ Car Guy as he was, Moore actually may have been better off jumping ship if he was forced with the choice at some point in his career, and not entirely because it would allow him to remain with Team Penske and their wealth of resources.

And if he still were here today, Moore wouldn’t turn 40 years old until next April. More than likely, if he’s still here, he’s still one of the top drivers in the Indycar Series of today, now the strongest it’s been since the late 1990s in terms of overall competition and racing quality. He’d be racing wheel-to-wheel with the young Canadian who idolized him, James Hinchcliffe. He’d be mixing it up with the likes of Ryan Hunter-Reay and Will Power and Simon Pagenaud and still competing against his old Forsythe teammate Kanaan.

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Instead, it was all erased in one horrifying and gruesome outburst of violent vehicular carnage. Which leads me, briefly, onto a subject pertaining to global racing in 2014. I don’t want to use this tragedy as a launching pad for my own rants even if this essay is a deeply personal one. I just feel this has to be shared while we’re at this junction.

This incident that killed Greg Moore fifteen years ago makes the growing backlash by racing drivers and journalists against the use of tarmac runoff on circuits rather uncomfortable to read and listen to.

I get the school of thought that mistakes should be punished to a degree. I get that abusing track limits can also lead to careless accidents caused by drivers rejoining the track with reckless abandon. I get the nostalgia for the old Nurburgring and the need and want for more demanding circuits. I get that paving over large expanses of grass and gravel kind of negates the natural beauty of the circuits they’re installed upon, turning them into one giant featureless parking lot. But the likelihood that a car can be forced into a spectacular rollover by leaving the track at high speeds is the biggest reason why grass and gravel run-off is being done away with. A spectacular rollover like the one that killed Greg Moore on October 31st, 1999.

I can voice my frustration at this narrow-minded outlook on runoff areas and the clamoring to see driving mistakes “punished” – that from my vantage point treads dangerously close to the logic of the toxic “race fan” who brags about only going to a race wanting to see a crash – all I want if I chose to. Instead, I turn it over to Indycar legend Mario Andretti, quoted sometime shortly after the tragic race in Fontana, giving his opinion on the turf-lined infield at California Speedway:

“They want pretty green grass for the TV shots? Well, then paint the goddamned asphalt green!”

Even though Moore spun at over 230 miles per hour, kept the throttle pressed down through his spin, and sustained an impact of 154 Gs, Dr. Steve Olvey, the brilliant head doctor of CART who was first to arrive at the scene of the ghastly crash, determined correctly that the inverted angle of impact caused by the car launching onto its side after tripping over the only paved bit of access road in the infield and flipping through the grass, was the sole reason why Moore did not survive the accident. If the entire infield at what was then called California Speedway was paved over as it was starting after that race, Greg Moore spins off, but doesn’t flip over. In fact, he may not even so much as glance the infield retaining wall, and there is no accident to begin with.

Instead of what really happened on lap 9, Moore spins out onto the paved infield, comes to a stop, drives on, catches up to the field under yellow, and finishes the race.

And that’s if he opts to race that day, instead of handing the seat over to his substitute driver.

Substitute driver? Well, you see, Moore drove the race in a hand and wrist brace. He needed it after sustaining significant injuries to his right hand the weekend before in a moped accident. Moore was already well out of title contention and on his way out anyway, but this was a race he still had a chance to win with the heavy, frail, undriveable, but still quite powerful Mercedes-Benz engine in the back of his car. And he opted to race, even if he had to start from the back of the grid because he couldn’t take part in qualifying, even if he had to storm back from dead last on the grid to win, he was more than likely damn well a threat to win in his final start for Forsythe.

But just in case his hand and wrist weren’t fit to race or even go the whole distance, Forsythe hired a substitute driver. Who, as it turns out, is the last connecting thread of this web of tragedy in the autumn of 1999. A driver who had already developed a reputation for delivering fine performances as an injury substitute over the last three seasons. Roberto Moreno could have driven the last race instead in the #99 Forsythe car. Three years in a row, in fact, Moreno, nicknamed the “Super Sub”, had to spell for an injured Christian Fittipaldi at Newman/Haas Racing. Earlier in 1999, he also had to substitute for an injured Mark Blundell of PacWest Racing. In those 20 races he recorded four top-5 finishes, eight top-10 finishes, a best finish of second at Laguna Seca, and one fastest race lap. So good was he that for 2000, he was offered a seat at Patrick Racing, once the home of former champion and fellow Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi. In his two seasons with Patrick Racing, the 41-year-old career journeyman recorded his only two CART victories, and in 2000 he was 3rd in the championship, behind only champion Gil de Ferran and teammate Adrian Fernandez.

But that offer only came to Moreno because, like Castroneves at Penske, he was Pat Patrick‘s “Option B”. Because his original choice was suddenly made unavailable just 24 hours before Moreno recorded that 2nd place finish driving for Newman/Haas at Laguna Seca. 24 hours prior, on September 11th, 1999 – the day Gonzalo Rodriguez, contracted to Patrick Racing for the following season just as Greg Moore was contracted to Penske, died whilst driving for Penske at Laguna Seca.

Think about this whole mess long enough and your head will start to spin, and your heart will start to writhe in pain.

Motorsport fans in Canada still grieved over the death of Gilles Villeneuve seventeen years prior during qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix, and while his son Jacques‘ accomplishments in Indycar and Formula 1 avenged that loss, it is the elder Villeneuve that is still more fondly remembered today, especially as the younger Villeneuve’s accomplishments fade with time and the lack of any real success after becoming World Champion in 1997. Gilles is to Canada, what Ayrton Senna is to Brazil, what Michael Schumacher is to Germany, and what Gonzalo Rodriguez aspired to be for Uruguay. The death of Greg Moore thus created a new and equally terrible void in Canadian motorsport, created out of the loss of a life at only 24 years old and the unrealized potential of a driver yet to reach his career zenith, that still looms large today, even with Hinchcliffe’s popularity today and the promise of young Ferrari F1 prospect Lance Stroll off in the distant future.

And it took from me, at age 9, of the idea that if you’re fast enough and popular enough, as Moore was to me in 1999 – that you are totally invincible at the wheel of a race car. A point driven home in the later years with the deaths of Dale Earnhardt, Dan Wheldon, Marco SimoncelliAdam PettyDaijiro Kato, Peter BrockMichael Park, and Allan Simonsen in the years to follow.

Greg Moore is a driver still missed by the driving peers, the fans, the mechanics, the engineers, the bosses, the countrymen, and the writers who knew him well at the time. And especially by his family. I still miss him, and he wasn’t even my favorite driver when he was active. I still sometimes reflect on the idea of a motorsport community in 2014 with Greg Moore as an active member of its ranks. It would be different. But it wouldn’t leave a great story so abruptly and wickedly unfinished.

Enough about his death. I’ll leave you in sharing this clip of the high point of Greg Moore’s life in racing. The 1998 U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway, one of the fastest and longest-serving oval tracks CART had to offer. Greg Moore’s fourth career victory, and the pinnacle victory of a career cut too short.

See you on the other side, Mr. Moore.

Greg Moore/CND

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