Paul Tracy won his third race in a row this afternoon in the inaugural Motorola 300 at Gateway International Raceway (Madison, Illinois). He finished in first place in the two previous races at Nazareth Speedway (Nazareth, PA) and Emerson Fittipaldi Speedway (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). While the 28-year old Canadian was fastest in most of the practice sessions, he had to concede the pole to Brazilian Raul Boesel, who eventually finished five laps behind Tracy in 14th position. The last CART driver to win three races in a row was Al Unser Jr. in 1994 with wins at Mid-Ohio, New Hampshire and Vancouver. The win gives Tracy an 18-point lead (85 points) in the tight PPG Cup Championship battle over Alex Zanardi, who has 67 points after a fourth place finish in today's race. Scott Pruett (61 points), Michael Andretti (54 points) and Greg Moore (44 points) now occupy third to fifth place in the CART/PPG series standings, with only Andretti picking up championship points today in the Motorola 300.
Tracy took in lead in the last minute of the race by passing fellow Canadian, Patrick Carpentier. He fought his way back to the lead in the last quarter of the race after pitting on the green and rejoining the field well back from the leaders. Part of this success must be attributed to to the fact that Tracy was the only driver that completed the distance with only 3 pit stops, compared to four or more trips to the pits for his competitors. The win moves Team Penske to only one race victory away from 100, with the next race also occurring on an oval (The Milwaukee Mile) well-suited to the highly-competetive Penske-Mercedes package and Tracy's aggresive driving style.
Tracy shared the victory podium with Patrick Carpentier (2nd) and Gil de Ferran (3rd). For Carpentier and Bettenhausen Motorsports (Reynard-Mercedes), it was their best finish of the year and gives Carpentier a significant boost over Franchitti and Salles in his quest for the top rookie award in 1997. The third place finish of Gil de Ferran (Reynard-Honda) moves Walker Racing into 7th place in the PPG cup standings.
Eight different drivers led the field during the 300 mile race, and there were 11 lead changes during a race run under threatening skies throughout much of the day. There were also eight caution periods, although the only major incident was when Scott Pruett (Brahma Sports) lost control of his Reynard entering Turn #1 and hit the wall, virtually destroying his car by the heavy impact. He was not injured by the incident but was quick to offer comments to reporters on the G-forces he experienced during the crash. Both Bobby Rahal and his team mate Bryan Herta also made rapid exits from their Reynards after rapid rises in cockpit temperatures due to a fire and cooling water leak, respectively.
This race reinforced the dominance of the Penske and Reynard chassis over the Lola, as well as the fact that Mercedes Benz has made a lot of progress in the first six races of 1997, with the drivers of Honda-powered cars no longer domininating the podium as in 1996. Unfortunately, the Motorola 300 also has provided more evidence that the Toyota engine is both unreliable and underpowered, with only one of their four cars (Hiro Matsushita, Arceiro-Wells/Panasonic) actually running at the end of the 300 miles.
Most drivers offered favorable comments on the new Gateway facility. It definitely provided a challenge with its different radius corners and, under racing conditions, initial concerns related to the limited passing opportunities appeared to be unjustified.
The next race in this series is the Miller 200 at the historic Milwaukee Mile (West Allis, WI) on June 1. SpeedCenter will provide full coverage of the weekend, including a photo gallery as soon as possible after the event.