In my early years of becoming somewhat obsessed with with racing, no season captured my imagination more than the 1999 CART season. Fiery rookie in Juan Pablo Montoya was showing up the emerging talents of Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves (whose name used to be hyphenated, Castro-Neves), Tony Kanaan and mature and highly competitive experienced drivers in Paul Tracy, Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr. still going at it, er, well, little Al was in a bit of a slump, then again so was Penske as an organization, but I digress.
That season had it all. Intense, exciting close racing with frequent passing, a championship battle down to the wire and many unexpected turns of events.
I was a fan of the sport as a whole, Montoya was undoubtedly exciting to watch and his devil-may-care attitude was not the favorite of some, but he certainly shook things up. I’d appreciated the Unsers and Andrettis from growing up hearing those names. And many other drivers have their moments where they make you like them a bit from either something on track or hearing their stories off track.
Greg Moore was definitely one of those drivers. Fierce competitor and had shown some great car control skills and a relative lack of fear on the fastest ovals, but behind the scenes, he was the guy organizing parties for his fellow drivers after races and just in general enjoying life and friendship with his cohorts who also happen to be his competitors.
Marshall Pruett and others have written some great stories about him and behind the scenes shenanigans. Moore’s loss was pretty devastating to me, one that made CART not quite the same for me ever since that fateful season.
The race that would end up claiming his life, Halloween day 1999, California/Fontana/Auto Club Speedway, a 500 mile race in 900 hp land-born missiles with insane draft battles thanks to the Handford Device rear wing. Drivers could average well over 230 MPH over a lap, in the draft behind another car, it was not unusual for them to sling past 250 MPH down the straights. Real hairy chested stuff.
Moore broke his hand in the paddock the Friday before the race and sat out qualifying, letting someone else qualify the car for him, but he would start at the back if he did end up driving for the race regardless of where the substitute driver qualified.
He did a couple lone installation laps Saturday after qualifying, just to see if he could drive the car without too much pain, and decided to go ahead and do it.
Started the race on Sunday from the back of the field and was passing 4 cars around the outside by turn 1. That was Greg Moore. Only 10 or so laps into the race, all by himself, he brushed the outside turn 2 wall and the car slid across the infield grass, the sidewalls of his tires caught the pit exit pavement and flipped the car 90 degrees, resulting in the top half of Moore’s car slamming into the concrete wall at speeds likely still North of 200 MPH. It was not pretty. Not a sight I wish to relive seeing at this point. The image is still pretty well burned into my memory.
Most Halloweens, for whatever reason, I can’t help but think of it as Greg Moore remembrance day. It happening on Halloween makes it easy to remember, I suppose. It was a horrific way to end what was otherwise a spectacular, exciting season. Moore’s was also the second death that season. Only mere weeks before, rookie Gonzalo Rodriguez crashed at Laguna Seca, went off the top of the corkscrew with what sounded like the throttle jammed on. Slammed headfirst into a cement barrier and then the car somersaulted over the barrier. It was a crash where wearing a HANS device might have saved his life.
But Moore’s wreck, there is no coming back from that unless drivers are in an impenetrable closed cockpit. Absolute freak wreck.
Marshall Pruett released this today, a video commemorating the Canadian.
Also, Amazon Prime has a documentary entitled “Gonchi” which is covering the life and behind the scenes of Gonzalo Rodriguez, who apparently had struck up a friendship with Montoya in F3000 (now called F2, fomerly GP2... ). I recommend watching it as well. It’s mostly a retrospective, a lot of interviews with family and friends well after the fact.
Sorry, didn’t mean to bum everyone out on Halloween, but I feel a little better putting out a remembrance of who was one of my favorite drivers and personalities 20 years ago.