The 86th running of the Indy 500 on May 26, 2002, was the seventh under Indy Racing League sanction. IRL founder Tony George might have expected May's storyline to be Roger Penske's defection from CART to run the full IRL season, or the new over-the-wall pit crew helmet rule, or perhaps the recent diamond grinding of the track surface. What he got instead crippled the reputation of the series and of George personally.
It was another wet month, with seven-and-a-half inches of rain delaying or canceling practice, washing out the second day of time trials and shortening Bump Day. Race Day saw sunny skies, several crashes, passes and Robby Gordon's pit fire. But all anyone remembers is Lap 199.
Helio Castroneves led the field in his Penske Dallara Chevrolet. Paul Tracy, making his first appearance at Indy since 1995 for Team Green, a CART team, passed Felipe Giaffone on Lap 197 to take second. Using a different fuel strategy, Tracy was able to close the gap to 0.22 seconds on Castroneves, who was low on fuel because he hadn't pitted for 42 laps.
On the final lap, Tracy went to the outside of the Penske car on the backstretch. As he was completing the maneuver in Turn 3, Buddy Lazier and rookie Laurent Redon crashed hard in the exit of Turn 2. "I made the pass on the outside cleanly before the yellow came out," Tracy said in an interview years later. "The green was still out."
IRL officials ruled otherwise, declaring Castroneves the winner.
Chaos and confusion ensued. When Brian Barnhart called for the yellow in Race Control, he indicated that Castroneves was the leader. The yellow lights on the track and in the cars were then activated. Castroneves later claimed he slowed at the moment of the pass because of the yellow light in his car, but admitted that he thought it was the fuel light, not the caution.
Adding to the confusion, commentators initially stated on live TV that Tracy completed the pass. Reportedly, commentators Paul Page and Donald Davidson mistakenly credited Castroneves with the position based on an incorrect assumption that scoring reverted to the previous lap. Tracy and Giaffone, who crossed the finish line ahead of Castroneves, were not scored for their 200th lap at all.
The comedy of errors had just begun.
Team owner Barry Green challenged the call, firmly believing Tracy had completed the pass before the yellow light came on. But he knew he was in for a battle, telling Tracy over the radio that "they (IRL officials) are not going to let one of us (a CART team) win."
Tracy told reporters the team intended to protest. "I feel that I was ahead of him when it went yellow. I passed him and I saw green."
A two-hour hearing on May 27 returned the expected verdict. IRL officials insisted that Castroneves was ahead of Tracy at the time of the crash, at the time the officials called for a caution, at the time the dashboard caution lights were activated and according to scoring antenna at the entrance to Turn 3.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Barnhart informed Green that he could appeal the decision. During their preparations for the appeal, Team Green was "allowed access to all the camera angles at the point of the yellow coming on," Tracy said. He estimates that Green spent $150,000 in attorney's fees to prepare their case, about which he felt confident.
In the closed hearing, presided over by Speedway President Tony George, testimony was provided by numerous participants, officials and spotters.
Green's argument correctly stated that it was irrelevant who was leading at the time of the crash because the track was still green, that Tracy was leading when the track lights went yellow, that the dashboard light system was inconsistent from car to car and that they had not come on in Tracy's car until the pass was completed — which was proven to be true with video evidence. (Tracy's in-car camera showed a green light; Helio contended his was yellow. Even other camera angles seem to indicate that Tracy was ahead of Helio when the yellow came on: Barry Green kept in-car footage on a loop at the Team Green office for weeks.)
Penske's defender countered that positioning cars during a caution period is a judgment call by the officials. He also pointed out that the rules prohibited protests and appeals of cars passing under the yellow.
On July 2, 2002, this reporter attended the press conference at which Tony George denied the appeal, adding that the decision about the protest was not appealable in the first place.
Reaction from teams, media and fans was divided along party lines, with many CART supporters accusing the IRL of bias due to embarrassment in 2000 when Chip Ganassi Racing, a full-time CART team, easily won with driver Juan Pablo Montoya. Many suspected that the IRL didn't want another CART victory.
Hard feelings resulted. Barry Green sold his share of the team to Michael Andretti and left racing. An angry Tracy coined the term "crapwagon" when he refused to return to Indy 500 or race in the IRL (until 2009). To this day, he says he "felt that I got screwed."
He wasn't the only one. But, also inevitably, at least controversy keeps people talking about the Indianapolis 500.