CHAMPCAR/CART: Hunter-Reay wins amazing Surfers race, Tracy champion

In a strange and spectacular race, rookie Ryan Hunter-Reay broke through for his first CART Champ Car win in Surfers Paradise, Australia. Despite a trouble filled race that saw him fail to score a point, Paul Tracy locked up the 2003 Champ Car championship when Bruno Junqueira hit the wall on lap 36.

Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Photo by David Magahy.

Hunter-Reay led a Reynard sweep of the podium, followed across the finish line by fellow rookie Darren Manning and RH-R's veteran American Spirit Team Johansson teammate, Jimmy Vasser. The win was set up by the final round of pit stops when Hunter-Reay, Vasser and Manning pitted from just out of the top five on lap 31 to switch from rain tires to slicks. Just after the three drivers returned to the track, Alex Tagliani spun in the first chicane and stalled his Rocketsports Lola to cause the sixth full-course yellow period of the incident-filled race. The rest of the lead lap cars went in to exchange their treaded Bridgestone tires for slick ones, leaving the three lined up directly behind the pace car.

Three restarts were needed to get from that juncture to the end of the race, but each time Hunter-Reay timed his restart perfectly and kept his lead intact. He slipped once under braking which allowed Vasser to pull alongside, but the driver of the "Jimmy" car couldn't finish the pass on the "Ryan" car and it was clear sailing from there for Hunter-Reay.

Paul Tracy.
Photo by David Magahy.
And Tracy's championship? That was no less exciting. Tracy started third, behind the two Newman/Haas Racing teammates of polesitter Sebastien Bourdais and Junqueira. On the first attempt at a race start, Bourdais lagged behind his teammate (Tracy's only remaining rival for the championship), holding Tracy behind him, but the green flag was not shown.

On the second attempt, the green waved and Junqueira again got a good start. Tracy pulled alongside and a bit ahead of Bourdais approaching the first chicane, and contact between the two cars sent Tracy into a spin. Behind them, Adrian Fernandez' avoiding swerve sent him into Oriol Servia's car and Servia hit the wall to become the race's first retirement.

Tracy didn't hit anything and got restarted by the CART Safety Team while the field lined up behind the pace car and he trailed the line for the race restart. Then it was classic PT time. Tracy took 13th place from Vasser on lap 4, 12th from Mario Haberfeld on lap 5 and moved around Manning into 11th one lap after that.

Meanwhile, at the front of the field, Junqueira looked to be in good shape to carry the championship battle over to the Champ Car season finale next week at the California Speedway. He was leading easily, with Bourdais protecting him from the rear. It didn't last long.

On lap 12, rain started hitting the track. Junqueira got to the wet surface first and recovered from a sickening slide with a quick course correction. His teammate wasn't so lucky. Bourdais couldn't make the same correction and pounded the wall hard, scattering the track with debris.

As soon as the yellow waved, all the drivers ducked into the pits for rain tires, but the skies opened and the red flag put a stop to things for a while. Unlike the debacle last year at this same race, the downpour was short and the race would continue under sunny skies. The short storm did include hail, however!

Tracy promptly continued his progress up the order, passing Manning when they got stacked up behind a spin by Mika Salo. This put Tracy back into the top ten.

That's as good as it would get in the race for Tracy. He was running in a tight pack, behind Michel Jourdain, Jr., Alex Tagliani and Roberto Moreno and ahead of Manning when things went all wrong. First, Tracy hit the back of Moreno's car on the straight, lifting the Brazilian's rear tire with his front wing. In the next turn, Tagliani and Moreno both left their braking a little late. Tagliani ran a bit wide to keep from rear-ending Jourdain. Moreno then locked up his rear tires and spun, hitting Tagliani and causing him to spin. Tracy found himself nose to nose with Tagliani, stopped with Manning just behind him.

Darren Manning.
Photo by CART/LAT Photographic.
Tracy backed up onto Manning's front wings and tried to power around Tagliani's stalled car. Unfortunately his rear wheel climbed over Tagliani's front wheel causing damage to the suspension of Tracy's Lola. After the PF Racing team made repairs, Tracy was three laps down in 16th place.

While Tracy was hitting trouble, Junqueira kept ticking off laps in the lead, earning the bonus point for leading the most laps. If Junqueira maintained his pace and position, he would go to the Fontana finale only eight points behind Tracy and have the Vanderbilt Cup in sight.

But the momentum changed again! First, Junqueira lost the lead to Jourdain, then he ceded second place to Fernandez as his rain tires deteriorated on the drying track. When the podium-finishing Reynard drivers made their decisive pit moves, Junqueira found himself in seventh place - but not for long. On lap 36, he locked up his tires on a wet spot of pavement and hit the wall hard, destroying his Lola.

Even though Tracy's problems left him out of the possibility of points, he clinched his first CART championship with Junqueira's retirement. Tracy was overcome with emotion when he was handed the Vanderbilt cup after the race, and he had to sit down on the sidepod of his racecar. He gathered himself and began to celebrate with his crew and representatives of Players, the tobacco company that brought him together with Gerry Forsythe's team for this championship run at the government-mandated end of the company's racing sponsorship.

Tracy summed it all up well, saying: " it was definitely very exciting and I guess in my 13-year career you could never ever say that anything that I have to do with has been boring, so from that standpoint, I guess that's the way my whole career has gone. It has been very exciting at times and always spectacular and today was no exception. Just kind of the way my whole career - the way that the race played out today is basically a summary of my whole career, you know, big highs and big lows."

For Hunter-Reay, his first win was an obvious thrill and he came up with perhaps the best description of the event: "It was a crazy day for sure!"