Greg Moore: Part 5, from the heart.
“In honour of their collective ‘bad’ days, Greg renamed his Hard Rock party “The Vancouver Losers Club.”
After many requests from our growing number of readers, some brilliant rewarding comments, responses and reactions, here is the final part of the Greg Moore series which after the recent tragedies, I held back. But if there is any reason needed to have a laugh at a picture of three drivers in a prison cell in Alcatraz, this is it.
This is the original column I wrote for Autosport magazine in a tiny, dark hotel room at Diamond Bar, California at 4am on Monday Nov 1, 1999, a few hours after Greg Moore lost his life at Fontana. Here is that column, as published in the following Thursday’s issue, from the heart in ’99 (’99….kinda ironic isn’t it?), written largely in tears that morning 12 years ago. It’s a sad subject, but so many fond memories of a brilliant time in my career, and as you can tell from the previous stories (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4) for so many others too.
“Tragic loss”, Autosport , November 4 1999
Sunday was supposed to be a day of celebration. Whatever the outcome of the 1999 championship battle between Juan Montoya and Dario Franchitti, the post race party was going to be fun. I know, because Greg Moore had told me so. And if Greg was involved, you knew it would be fun, as did pretty much all of his rivals in the Champ Car series.
Still only 24 years old, Greg’s personality meant that he had already earned a lot of respect off the track from his peers. On the track, many felt he was one of the best, if only he had the right car to race, which he was going to have next year having signed a lucrative contract with Marlboro Team Penske.
But he knew how to live life too, and that’s what’s made him a popular guy. Every year after his home race in Vancouver he would hire a venue at his own expense, and pay for all the food and drink, and invite his rivals and 200 or so friends to have a post-race party. He would make them all pay to get in, and all the money went to one of the charities that he quietly supported . Everyone was a winner. It was always an event not to be missed.
After last month’s race, the party was in Vanvouver’s Hard Rock café. Greg had taken it to a new level, hiring a band as well. In an age when the sport is so competitive, and rivalries abound, it says a lot about him that there were 14 drivers at the party, especially as the next race was only a few days away…
There they were, letting their hair down, swapping stories of the race and, above all, having a laugh. And this was all because Greg had asked them to party, when normally they’d be eating pasta and drinking orange juice and focusing on the next week’s race.
After a while the band had extra members. Patrick Carpentier was on drums, Kenny Brack and Cristiano da Matta on guitar, even Franchitti was on maracas. They weren’t the tightest band in the world (by any stretch of the imagination!) but it was great to see.
In that day’s race, pretty much all of the guys had had a bad day, especially Franchitti. Going into the race, the Scot was leading the championship, but a misjudged overtaking move put him into the wall and out of the race. Worse, his main rival for the title, Montoya, went on to win, leaving Dario with a major hill to climb if he was to become champion.
In honour of their collective ‘bad’ days, Greg renamed his Hard Rock party “The Vancouver Losers Club”. One exception got past the front door: that day’s winner and new championship leader, Juan Montoya.
Later on, Greg ‘bought’ a round of tequila slammers for his rivals and many others. It was, he said, the only way forward! It was a VERY big round, and pretty much everyone in the room took a shot, except Montoya. Not that he didn’t want to, it just wasn’t the right time.
“When the championship is finished at Fontana,” said Juan, “You can get me as drunk as you want!”
Two days later, as we travelled from Vancouver to Monterey, I spent two days with friends in San Francisco, playing ‘tourist’ before getting to the next weekend’s race. We headed to Alcatraz, and on Pier 39 amazingly we bumped into Greg, Juan and Tony Kanaan. There were no managers, no hangers on or helmet carriers. Just three top flight racing drivers being mates, and, errr, tourists! And best of all Tony was clutching a prized possession: a photo of the three of them taken behind bars in a make-shift Alcatraz cell. Priceless.
I don’t want this to sound self-indulgent. Many people knew Greg Moore better than I did. But I’m happy to say that I did get to know him pretty well.
At times like this it’s difficult to understand why racing drivers want to do what they do. I guess that’s the magic and attraction of the sport: you can appreciate it, but you can’t comprehend it.
This morning I stood in Greg’s pit for the warm-up session. We weren’t sure if he would race, having broken his hand and had 15 stitches after being knocked off of his paddock scooter the day before. I watched as he struggled to get his red glove over the specially-made brace on his wrist. I thought to myself that he must be mad!
After the session finished he came up to me (with a salute, and a welcoming “Mr Hallbery!” like he always did), and I told him, jokingly, that I wouldn’t race around Fontana at 230mph with two good hands, let alone one that was broken and had stitches in it. He looked at me, and gave me that “I’m here to RACE” look.
So here we were, the championship battle between Montoya and Franchitti, the final race of the season, and the fastest track of the year, which always provides superb racing.
Because he had missed qualifying with his hand injury, Greg had to start from 26th and last position. But that didn’t bother him at all. It just posed a bigger challenge. On the grid as they were getting into their cars, he saw fellow Canadian Paul Tracy who would start 17th after also having problems. Greg’s last words to PT were: “See you at the front.”
Ten laps into what should have been the most exciting 250 laps of the season, nothing else mattered. By lap nine, Greg was up from 26th to 12th. He passed another five cars at the start of lap 10 – three in one go. He was in his element, having fun, and enjoying every moment, kicking up the dust as he ran high above the banking against the wall. Then, exiting Turn Two he lost control, and it was a sickening sight. His car became airborne, and hit the concrete wall at unabated speed.
Matters quickly overtook those of us who were watching. The news quickly filtered through that Greg’s injuries were ‘life threatening’, and shortly before the end of the race a bulletin from the medical centre confirmed that he had not survived.
I was numb, but I still had a job to do, just like everyone else in the Champ Car series. And Dario and Juan still had a championship to win.
As I write this now, hours after the race I feel so sorry for them. Their battle was the stuff of theatre. Each have massive respect for each other, and were desperate to win the title. By the end of the race, they even ended up with equal points, Juan becoming champion because he had won more races than Dario. But they were also both very, very good friends with Greg.
Personally, I’m torn with memories, but that night of the “Vancouver Loser’s Club” will stick with me forever.
As friends, Dario and Greg couldn’t have been closer. What could have been one of the greatest days in Dario’s life turned out to be the saddest. As he said after the race: “Absolutely NOTHING else matters today.”
In time, Dario and Juan will savour their battle for the 1999 Champ Car Championship, but it will take time. They were all friends, which is a priceless commodity in top-line motorsport. They are all racers, and with Greg already signed to Penske for 2000, it was a pretty sure bet that he would have made it a three-way championship fight. They’d have loved the competition – then had a laugh about it afterwards.
I’m sure tonight, Juan, Dario, the ‘Vancouver Loser’s Club’ – and the rest of us – raised their glasses to Greg. Sadly for us, WE are the losers.
Post script, 2011. There are so many things to add. I wrote the above on spec at around 4am after the crash, having finished my regular work, which naturally I found really hard to concentrate on just a few hours on after the news of Greg. But I had deadlines to meet. I just wanted to get it written. When I read it back now, I still wonder where some of it came from. I was on auto pilot by then.
The following year at the Vancouver Champ Car race, Dario put his car on pole, won the Greg Moore Memorial Trophy, and his prize cheque was presented by Greg’s Dad, Ric. But best of all, Greg’s best friend Al Robbie, Awesome Roscoe from Australia (who organised the Miss Surfers Paradise contest – which the drivers were naturally delighted to be judges of, for obvious reasons) – Dario and fellow racer Jimmy Vasser continued Greg’s tradition. They hired a club, put the money behind the bar, and called it the “See Ya Up Front” party. They invited Greg’s parents, Ric and Donna. It was a true celebration of someone who contributed so much, in such a short life. Gone, but without doubt certainly not forgotten.
My very special thanks for this whole series to @dariofranchitti, @maxpapis, @tonykanaan, Michael C Brown photos, Michael Levitt/LAT photos, Tim Wright/LAT photos, and especially everyone at Autosport and Autosport.com from the 1990s that meant I had the pleasure of being a small part of that gang, report on Champ Car racing, start my American editorial career, and make some very, very good friends. As I hope you can tell we had some great times – and still do.