Ten years on: Greg Moore remembered

Ten years on: Greg Moore remembered
Nov 4, 2009, 3:57 AM

It has now been ten years since open-wheel racing lost one of its fan-friendliest, most articulate, brightest, fastest, and incredibly well-respected drivers. But with that said, the memories that Greg Moore left the world of motorsport live on to ...

It has now been ten years since open-wheel racing lost one of its fan-friendliest, most articulate, brightest, fastest, and incredibly well-respected drivers. But with that said, the memories that Greg Moore left the world of motorsport live on to this day.

Greg Moore, 1999 Homestead-Maimi Speedway.
Photo by Jack Durbin.

Moore, from Maple Ridge, B.C., Canada, was always destined for greatness, beginning from breaking into paddocks well before he was legally allowed to. He wore the number 99 in homage to his idol and hockey's all-time greatest player, Wayne Gretzky.

In another world, the spectacled pupil could have been merely a studious disciple in the classroom. Instead, at 19, he was busy teaching veterans how to wheel an Indy Lights car wickedly fast around ovals and road and street courses en route to capturing 10 of 12 races and the series championship.

He made his debut in CART in 1996 and could have easily won in his first season, even his first race. He still emerged as the youngest winner in the series' history with back-to-back victories at Milwaukee and Detroit in 1997.

While he never won a championship in four seasons, Moore was always blindingly quick on the ovals as he carved his image in the striking light blue and white Player's/Forsythe entry. As one of the drivers' best friends away from the racetrack, Moore led what was then known as CART's "Frat Pack" of young drivers.

His breakout should have happened in 2000 after signing to race with Roger Penske's team, as the "Captain" was destined to rebound from a winless four-year drought in search of the team's 100th open-wheel victory.

His competitors, rivals, and friends still talk about the legacy Moore left in such a short time period. They shared some of their most unique memories they had with the Canadian. Dario Franchitti, who just secured the 2009 IndyCar Series championship, was one of Moore's closest friends and all kinds of memories to relate. He discussed first what Moore meant to him.

"To me, there were kind of two sides," Franchitti said. "There was the guy that was my friend, who was just so much fun to be around, and as loyal a friend as you'll ever find. There's also the personality that Greg had in the paddock, he brought everyone together. You still see all the guys who raced at that time hanging out together, as he organized it all. Everyone was segregated before that. We have him to thank for that. It takes a special personality to have that kind of magnitude."

Coming off the race in Motegi, Japan the race before the title decider, Franchitti said he and his friend and former teammate Tony Kanaan recalled when Moore provided one of the most incredible on-track displays of driving.

Greg Moore, 1999 Detroit - The Raceway on Belle Isle.
Photo by Robert Kurtycz.

"We were actually talking about him in Japan last week while standing in pit lane," Franchitti said. "(In 1999) he spun out of turn four and drove backwards down the front stretch. He had accelerated on hot tires, and shredded it. The tires went through the canvas! TK and I will be doing something together and woah, woah, imagine if Greg was here. I speak to Max (Papis) a lot about him as well."

Bryan Herta, another former teammate of Franchitti and Kanaan, raced against Moore both in the old Indy Lights series that Moore dominated in 1995 and in CART from 1996 to 1999.

"I think one of the things that I remember most about Greg is on hot days, like we'd have at Mid-Ohio, he'd wear these clunky black shoes with his jeans and stuff," Herta recalled. "On a hot day, he'd forget to pack his tennis shoes. I can still picture him riding his scooter by in shorts and these big clunky black shoes. It didn't really match or fit. He had such a good heart, sense of humor, he'd laugh about it."

Franchitti also talked about Moore's on-track prowess and some of the more superb races in his career. Although the two rarely battled for the lead amongst themselves, there were plenty of instances when Moore's skill level floored the Scotsman.

"Greg's first race at Homestead was incredible," he said. "My first memories of watching him drive came when I was still in DTM in Europe. Norbert Haug and I were there and he said 'Alright, we're going to watch the IndyCar race.' We expected the usual suspects up there, but the Player's car was passing everyone around the outside. This guy was just kicking everyone's ass! Norbert tells me, 'This is Moore, a young Canadian driver.' The story of him that year was really impressive."

"The one race I had personally that sticks in my mind, was 1999 Homestead, Greg's last win," he added. "We were going back and forth for the lead. The times we raced together on track were few and far between. But there were times in practice, and even battled in practice at Michigan. I remember when he had Jimmy (Vasser) and (Alex) Zanardi to race at Michigan, and he managed to pull a move on both of them and beat them."

Greg Moore, 1999 Portland.
Photo by John Francis.

Michael Knight, CART's first communications director in 1980 and a motorsports public relations veteran of more than 30 years, also recalled Moore's debut race at Homestead 1996 as one of those spell-binding drives.

"Greg came into CART the same year as Alex Zanardi, which a lot of people forget," Knight said. "Greg began that season with sensational races in Homestead and Brazil and that had the media saying, 'It's just a matter of when Greg will win.' The focus was on Greg and his speed was sensational."

Franchitti also had Moore to thank for the introduction to his future wife, Ashley Judd. It happened by chance, he related. "It was a combination of Greg and Jason Priestley, as they were concocting this whole thing," he said. "So Jason was getting married at the time, and they organized the whole thing. We had to get from our last race Rio (Brazil) to Los Angeles, and the rest is history."

The 1999 season was particularly gut-wrenching for CART and for what would have been Moore's future employer. Team Penske struggled in the final year with its own designed chassis, the lamented PC27B penned by John Travis that never finished better than seventh.

Adding tragedy to misery on track, things got worse when Penske's newest driver, F3000 race winner and promising Uruguayan rookie Gonzalo Rodriguez was killed in only his second-ever CART weekend as his car took off and catapulted over a catch fence at Laguna Seca's infamous Corkscrew corner.

Moore was hit in the pit lane the Saturday of the Fontana weekend while riding a scooter. It injured his right hand and Forsythe had signed Roberto Moreno on standby (a trademark of "Pupo's" career), but Moore was determined to start regardless. Moore hit the proper speeds in a test the same day and had already gained nine spots in nine laps in Sunday's race before the accident.

Greg Moore, 1998 Laguna Seca.
Photo by Kenneth Barton.

The accident was one of those that you can't stomach to watch more than once, and to the television coverage's credit, ESPN announcer Paul Page dared not identify who the driver was until after the accident. Nor was a replay shown, which was a classy move but also a sign that we had witnessed something very dire. Herta recalled the horror of that day from the driver's seat.

"I don't know if I've ever shared this story," he said. "It was very early when Greg crashed. You get so, blase I guess, that so often you see these crashes that look bad and the guy gets out and is fine. You just assume everything's alright."

"But they did something there, and I don't know if its' right or wrong, I tend to think it's wrong. They have a big flag right in the front straight away and they moved it to half mast. I knew right away what that meant. It was a bad thing, and a hard thing, because now I'm out there racing, and you're trying to put that aside. A lot of the guys didn't notice the flag, but I noticed it."

"Scott Roembke was on the radio, I asked Scott, 'How's Greg?' There was a pause, and he said 'Bryan, we lost Greg.' I didn't want to race that day. It was like somebody dropped a ton of bricks on you. You have to keep going and it's the worst thing in the world. The best quote I ever saw was the simplest and most eloquent, from Mario Andretti. He said, 'Sometimes, unfortunately, motor racing is this too.' It just sums it up as a really unfortunate consequence of what we do."

This marked a tragic end to the 1999 season, and it mattered not that a gripping title battle between Franchitti and series rookie Juan Pablo Montoya ended in a tie with Montoya winning on a tiebreaker. It mattered not that Adrian Fernandez (who by pure coincidence had also won the 1996 race at Toronto when Jeff Krosnoff was killed) scored the win or that Max Papis and Christian Fittipaldi flanked him at the post-race press conference.

Greg Moore and his dad Ric Moore at Michigan International Speedway, 1999.
Photo by Jack Durbin.

The grief was palpable for a long period afterwards, but from that point it was the legacy and the mark Moore left on the series and the world of motorsport that began to grow. Immediately after the season, CART retired his number 99, so Moore had equaled his hero in that regard.

The Greg Moore Legacy Award was born in 2000, given to a driver "who most typifies Moore's distinctive combination of on-track talent and dynamic personality." Past recipients are Helio Castroneves (2000), Dario Franchitti (2001), Patrick Carpentier (2002), Sebastien Bourdais (2003), Ryan Hunter-Reay (2004), Oriol Servia (2005), and Justin Wilson (2006-2007). The Legacy Award was restored in Firestone Indy Lights competition for 2009 and series champion JR Hildebrand is this year's recipient.

"Greg was a shining star in open-wheel racing, although he never raced "in IRL, so one thing they struggle with is how to reconcile all "those things," Herta said. How do you incorporate history? There are "memorials for Scott Brayton, there's a Tony Renna award. I don't know "how you rectify it."

In his time in the series, Moore found a way to relate and connect to everyone in some way, shape, or form, myself included. As a bright-eyed 10-year-old, I sat across from him at the Long Beach airport after an uncompetitive weekend when Montoya won his first CART race.

I showed him a hand-drawn race report I had done previously -- from his win at that year's season-opening victory at Homestead -- and he was impressed. So much so, he told me, "That's really cool you're doing that. It's great to see your interest level."

Moore had no reason to bestow those words, as I was just a young fan going up to him at an airport after a tough weekend. He could have been rude, disinterested or just humoring me, but that wasn't the case at all. I could tell he appreciated it and I was captivated by a big name race driver who had a vested interest in someone younger.

"In hearts and minds of fans, Greg captured the imagination with a unique driving style and that's the most important thing," Herta said. "The award would be nice, but to carry the legacy forward is to remember what he brought to the sport."

"Those friends that you make, they last a lifetime," Franchitti summed up Moore's legacy. "That was the thing with Greg -- he connected with everyone. That was part of what made him such a great individual."

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