Fifteen years ago, Greg Moore perished in a brutal crash during the CART Indy car season finale. He was just 24. Here, in a story taken from the November 2009 issue of RACER, friends and colleagues told Robin Miller about Greg’s blazing talent and magnetic personality.
Tomorrow, the actual anniversary of Greg’s death, James Hinchcliffe will pay personal tribute to his hero.
His favorite band was named Tragically Hip, which holds its own irony given that his time on this earth was shockingly short. But so long after his death, Greg Moore’s memory now elicits more smiles, adjectives and stories than sadness. It’s not that his good friends, family and fans won’t always mourn the fact that he left us way too soon. It’s just that time has healed the worst pain and now it’s about reflecting on the exhilaration this gifted Canadian gave open-wheel racing during his short yet brilliant run.
The five victories he scored in CART Indy cars 1997-’99 [BELOW, final win at Homestead in ’99] belied the fact he never had the strongest package or even the best team. Yet that was all about to change.
“When I think about what Greg would have done with Roger Penske’s cars, and the support of that team, it’s hard to imagine how many races he’d have won,” muses Dario Franchitti who, along with Max Papis [ABOVE, flanking Greg], Tony Kanaan and Jimmy Vasser, were Moore’s partners in bachelorhood, camaraderie and fun back in CART’s heyday.
“Greg would have won at least three championships and three Indy 500s,” declares Kanaan. “We would have been talking about him like we do Rick Mears and Al Unser Jr.”
Papis concurs. “Greg would have won everything Helio [Castroneves] has and more. And now he would be in NASCAR kicking everybody’s ass.”
Penske, who had signed Gil de Ferran and Moore a few weeks prior to the 1999 season finale at Fontana, sums up what everybody knows. “To me, Greg Moore was a young, aggressive racer with the skills that we needed,” says The Captain. “I think he was a world-class talent who could have been one of the great Indy car drivers. But, unfortunately, he never got the chance to compete at the level he wanted.”
The plaudits of Moore’s former rivals aren’t just kind words from his old gang; they’re a testament to his ability and the respect he created in his four-year career in Indy cars. The awe still remains in their voices today, just like back in 1996 when this gangly, goofy 20-year-old Canuck came bursting onto the CART scene. He had dorky glasses, a big smile and the balls of King Kong.
“He sure didn’t look like a badass – kinda like when you first saw Paul Tracy,” says Vasser [RIGHT, with Greg at a charity softball game]. “The first memory I have of Greg was in the season opener at Homestead in 1996. I was leading and on my way to my first win when this blue car suddenly appeared in my mirrors. My guys told me not to worry, he was a lap down, but I was pulling away from second place and yet here comes this rookie. He went around me on the outside of Turn 3 and I was real glad he wasn’t on the lead lap.”
BELOW: Greg’s first IndyCar win came at Milwaukee in 1997, having dominated the race along with compatriot Paul Tracy.
Franchitti, still a year away from making his open-wheel debut in North America, was competing in DTM in Germany in March 1996, but he sat down to watch that CART opener on television with Mercedes-Benz’s Norbert Haug.
“I saw this blue car passing people on the outside,” he recalls, “and you could see the car was snapping loose and the driver kept catching it and was really hanging it out. I looked at Norbert and said, “Holy s***, who is this kid?!”
We all found out soon enough. Moore had come into CART after destroying the Indy Lights field in 1995 with 10 wins in 12 races. Before that, he’d been USAC’s F2000 champ and a Formula Ford front runner from the age of 15. Through it all, he had Steve Challis as his engineer/advisor/friend.
“I had an auto shop in Vancouver called Gasoline Alley because my dream had always been to win the Indy 500,” says Challis. “Ric Moore was a customer and started talking about helping his son in Formula Ford and, a couple years later, they talked me into closing my shop and going racing with Greg full-time.
“You could see right away he got the hang of going fast and he wasn’t afraid. He was very brave and I liked that. After he cleaned up in Lights, he got a call from Player’s and Forsythe Racing and it was perfect timing. Greg was ready to move up.”
Even though open-wheel racing was divided in 1996, CART’s credibility was never higher. That potent mix of American, Canadian, Brazilian and Euro stars combined with multiple manufacturers made for an ultra-competitive environment.
As Vasser alluded to above, Moore wasted little time in impressing everyone from Andretti to Unser. After fighting back to finish seventh in his debut at Homestead, he qualified fourth at Rio and stood on the podium at Surfers Paradise, in only his third outing. A couple weeks later, he ran second to Michael Andretti at Nazareth, added another podium at Cleveland, and finished the year ninth in the points standings. His initial win came at Milwaukee in ’97, followed by another victory at Detroit, but Greg’s legacy was really defined in ’98 at Brazil and Michigan.
With four laps to go in Rio, he and leader Alex Zanardi went either side of a lapped car, and Moore cut to the high line to blast past Zanardi and into Victory Lane. At MIS, Moore used the slingshot to beat Vasser and Zanardi on the last lap.
“I think Greg was the best guy I ever raced on an oval,” states Franchitti. “He was smart, brave and could drive the car unbelievably loose. I can’t imagine how bad he might have made us look if he’d had a Honda.”
While Vasser, Zanardi and Juan Montoya captured four consecutive championships for Chip Ganassi Racing with Reynard-Hondas, Moore managed to win races and hang tough with a Reynard-Mercedes.
“The Mercedes engine was very powerful but it was such a handful because it had no driveability,” says Papis. “That’s why it was only good on ovals.”
TOP: On his way to second at Milwaukee in ’99. ABOVE RIGHT: Dominating the 1995 Indy Lights season, heading for victory at Long Beach. ABOVE LEFT: With friend and fan Lenny Kravitz. BELOW: Greg expressing his joy at Juan Montoya’s track ethics, Michigan ’99.
Moore’s mastery of ovals is well documented – “The outside line was his friend,” as Vasser puts it – but you might be surprised to learn how he finally got comfortably on left-turn-only tracks.
“To be honest,” says Challis, “Greg was having problems on the ovals after two years of Indy Lights. He was brave but he didn’t drive the car correctly and always wanted the rear end stuck. I told his dad we needed to take him ice racing so he could get the feel of running loose.
“Well the first race we were dead last and an older girl with curlers in her hair to make sure her helmet fit tighter ended up beating Greg. He was devastated, and didn’t sleep well that night, but the next day, it finally clicked. He started winning everything and that coincided with his breakthrough on the ovals.”
Aside from his talent, the other great things about Moore were his spirit and love of life. It’s what kickstarted the day and turned out the lights.
“My God, we had so much fun!” recalls Kanaan. “We went boating, sailing, chasing girls, and just doing silly stuff. None of us had any money but that was such a great time because we were living a life people would love to have.”
“Greg was the youngest but he was still the instigator,” says Franchitti. “He was the voice and soul of the party, and he had that go-and-grab-it attitude toward life – every day.”
Papis recalls waking up on the grass at Siebkens pub in Elkhart Lake following a bender, sharing bus trips and bringing his pals to his home in Italy. “Ayrton Senna had stayed with me when we were kids, and Greg said he had to sleep in Senna’s bed because that was his hero. I still think about all the crazy things we did and I’m so thankful I got him to Italy.”
Vasser, who hosted Moore at his Las Vegas home (much to the concern of Ric Moore) remembers his pal was responsible for the best of the good times. “Greg was the one who started the Sunday night driver parties and got everyone together,” says the 1996 CART Indy car champ. “He was the leader of the Rat Pack or Brat Pack or whatever we were. It was a very special time.
And Moore left his friends with some indelible feelings. “He was a super good guy and a good friend and I still think about him every day,” says Challis. “We didn’t know it at the time, but it was the time of our lives.”
TOP: Victory at the season opener of the ’99 season ahead of Michael Andretti and Dario Franchitti. ABOVE: On his way to fifth at Portland in 1997. BELOW: The high line was his friend but it all went horribly wrong for Greg just moments after this picture was taken.
Kanaan, meanwhile, isn’t sure the mold wasn’t broken. “I’m not saying this just because he’s not here, but I don’t think we’ve found a person like Greg since. He was a real good guy, and had everything going for him. He was going to conquer everybody.”
Vasser simply says: “He was a racer through and through, and a super person, but he would give you no quarter on the race track, and even raced his friends harder.”
Papis, who kept a recording of Moore’s voicemail that he still listens to, learned a valuable lesson from their friendship. “Greg said you can beat the opposition with a smile on your face. I never knew that before I came to America and met him. I thought you had to hate your opposition. But nobody could get mad at Greg; it wasn’t possible. I miss racing with him, talking with him and laughing with him.”
Franchitti [ABOVE with Greg and Tom Kristensen] has pictures of Moore and the boys all over his house, and appreciates the connection they had with each other that remains to this day. “I hope the younger fans don’t forget him or who he was,” he says. “You just don’t meet people like Greg – he was a one-off. And I’m talking about as a human being.”
Greg Moore résumé
Born – April 22, 1975, Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Canada
1989 – Won North American Enduro Kart Championship
1990 – Won North American Enduro Kart Championship
1991 – 4th in Formula Ford 1600 and Esso Protec Rookie of the Year
1992 – USAC Formula 2000 West Champion and Rookie of the Year
1993 – 9th in Indy Lights Championship
1994 – 3rd in Indy Lights Championship (3 wins)
1995 – Won Indy Lights Championship with 10 wins from 12 races
1996 – Graduated to CART Indy car with Forsythe. Scored three podium finishes on his way to 2nd in the Rookie standings and 9th overall
1997 – 7th in the championship, with two wins – Milwaukee and Detroit. The first one made him the youngest ever Indy car winner at that time. Scored three other podium finishes.
1998 – 5th in the championship with two more wins, at Rio de Janeiro and Michigan (the U.S. 500), four other podium finishes and four pole positions
1999 – Took his final win and his final pole at Homestead, the season opener, and scored two more podium finishes. Signed to drive for Team Penske for 2000, but was killed in a crash at Fontana.