Just two months ago, Greg Moore graced this space as part of a fanciful look at the new millennium. It was entirely appropriate that Greg was the central figure; heck, why would anyone think twice about who to feature in a story about a Champ Car race in 2008?
That’s because Greg Moore was always the future of Champ Car racing. Or at least, he had been ever since he burst upon the CART scene in ’93 as a precocious 17 year-old driving for a family-run Indy Lights team. Those were the days when Tasman Racing ran roughshed over the Indy Lights series, with Bryan Herta and, later, Steve Robertson, Andre Ribeiro and Eddie Lawson seemingly winning at will.
But here was a remarkably composed, talented and just plain friendly kid who couldn’t even rent a car, giving mighty Tasman fits – with more than a little help from his friends, including Steve Challis and his omnipresent, omni-supportive father, Ric.
We all know the rest of the story; how Greg became Indy Lights’ youngest winner before sweeping to the most dominant season in Lights history with Player’s/Forsythe Racing – denied in his bid to win 12 of 12 in ’95 only by a symbolic race in Detroit and a ham-fisted Pedro Chavez in Vancouver.
It was a prelude to a Champ Car career destined for greatness. Greg set fastest lap in his debut, nearly won his second outing and led seven more races in his rookie season. When he finally scored back-to-back wins the following year, he was still barely old enough to drink the victory champagne. He would win three more times in ’98 and ’99, before signing to drive for Marlboro Team Penske in the 21st century.
There are those who say Greg changed in the process, that he became a touch full of himself. Sure, he wasn’t the same wide-eyed prodigy who drove the purple Viper Lola/Buick in ’93. He was more guarded, more protective of his increasingly limited free time, more serious, for he’d begun to realize how good he could be and to accept the enormous responsibility accompanying that understanding.
“I think (Greg) is just now beginning to realize that he is as good as he is,” said Player’s/Forsythe vice president Neil Micklewright last year. “He has such an abundance of natural talent that it didn’t always occur to him in the same way it wouldn’t to a virtuoso piano player… that, ‘OK I can do this.’ I don’t think it occurred to him until maybe the end of last year that maybe everybody can’t do this. I think he has perhaps gained more respect for himself and his own abilities, and that he is trying more concertedly to channel those abilities to gain the maximum benefit.”
And yet, Greg Moore remained fundamentally the same person who used to practice in his go kart until his hands bled, who “out-reflexed” Paul Kariya as a youth hockey goalie, and who took it like the proverbial man when his team sat him down for a session in his rookie season after his youthful exuberance go the better of him.
I recall my last formal interview with Greg in mid-’98. It had been a while since I’d done anything but “hit and run” interviews with him in pit lane or the paddock, and I was prepared to be confronted with the “new” Greg Moore, Champ Car star. More than an hour later I was wondering what had gotten into me. Greg was, as ever, candid, thoughtful and (I keep returning to the word) friendly. For as much as Greg matured professionally, the essentially good kid who used to peer out from behind those wire rim glasses (pre-radial keratotomy) never changed.
What could have been more fitting than for CART’s eternal “driver of the future” to join up with Gil de Ferran to lead the sport’s most storied team back to greatness in a new century?
As a former English Literature geek, I studiously avoid the casual use of the word “tragedy,” but I have no reservations in terming the events of October 31 tragic. Here was a handsome and gifted prince of good character joining a proud and once great team that had fallen on hard times. Together, Moore and Marlboro Team Penske were poised to go into the new millennium in what, if not sooner, surely later, was a partnership destined to bring the sport to new heights.
Now it’s al gone in one awful moment, one made all the sadder given that it came during the final event for CART chief steward Wally Dallenbach, a man who had done so much to make the sport safer, as both a driver and an official. Then came word that another heroic sports figure and part of the racing community – Walter Payton – succumbed to cancer less than 24 hours after Greg’s accident.
The sport will go on, of course. It must; but not because of anything so trite as the fact that Greg and Walter would have wanted it to. No, it goes on because it is made up of like-minded people; not all as gifted, certainly, but people for whom life without as demanding a calling as racing would merely be a pale existence, not life with all its joy, challenge and, yes, tragedy.
Even though it will go on, the sport will surely be lessened; and its future, once so certain – despite all the hateful politics of the day – is now a terrible mystery.