It’s October 31, 1999. A light blue racing car, bearing the number 99, is hurtling towards turn one at California Speedway. It’s lap nine of the final race in the CART season, known today as the Indycar series. Narrowly hanging on to 15th position within a tightly packed field, the car hits 242 miles per hour as it enters the banking of the oval’s first turn and becomes slightly unsettled.
Luckily, no one tries to pass the Forsythe Racing Reynard as it squirms its way through the second half of the turn, V8 engine screaming, before sliding up towards the outside wall as it accelerates out onto the back straight. The driver takes a moment to glance towards the inside of the track.
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He thinks about the tragedy that should be playing out in that space right now. He thinks about the fact that it isn’t.
Coming to the green
The grid that lines up to take the green flag in the re-creation of the 1999 Marlboro 500 I’ve set up using racing sim Automobilista 2 and a CART 1998 livery mod doesn’t perfectly match the one in the broadcast of the real race, but it’s close enough. Both fields rocket into the first of the afternoon’s many left turns as a huge mass of violent sound and energy.
In both cases, the 99 car, having started right at the rear after failing to set a time in qualifying, makes a gutsy dive towards the inside of the track, advancing a handful of positions. While my attempts to gain ground in the early laps continue, the real race’s number 99 sees its efforts halted on lap three, as Richie Hearn spins out of turn two and hits the inside wall.
Once he emerges unscathed, the race goes back to green at the beginning of lap nine. In the simulation, I begin the same lap having just narrowly avoided a collision with Bobby Rahal in the midst of turns three and four. Still recovering from the shock of this near-call, I gingerly make it through the start of the lap.
My counterpart in the real race does not. The broadcast cuts away from the leaders just in time to catch his car shattering into several pieces as it slams the same wall Hearn hit moments earlier. As the section of the wreck containing the cockpit comes to rest, the commentators fall silent.
This is a really bad one.
For a moment, lead broadcaster Paul Page holds off on trying to identify the driver involved, but, after spotting the other Forsythe car still circulating, confirms who it must be.
It’s Greg Moore.
During the lengthy stoppage that follows, which sees a concerning number of medical vehicles surround the wreck and tend to Moore, I manage to regain my courage and work my way up to the lead pack in the virtual race. Soon, I’m battling Michael Andretti, son of the great Mario, and whom Moore crossed the line just ahead of to score his first win in the series.
On lap 18, I take the lead for the first time, going by the red Chip Ganassi racing machine of Alex Zanardi, whom Moore took great delight in passing during 1998’s Rio 400 and who will lose both of his legs in a horrific crash during a CART race in 2001. The real race restarts on lap 24, when Juan Pablo Montoya, Zanardi’s replacement at CGR during the Italian’s intervening return to F1, briefly takes the lead. Just before the green flag, Page reports that Moore’s “injuries are serious, possibly life-threatening”.
Lap 27 sees both races paused due to accidents. In the real race, Alex Barron’s Team Penske car hits the outside wall in turn four, leaving him unharmed. The incident in my race occurs behind me, leaving me unsure of its seriousness. The timing stand suggests Bryan Herta has retired. Back in reality, the cameras show the helicopter transporting Moore to hospital departing the speedway.
My decision not to follow my fellow leaders into the pits before the restart quickly backfires, with those who come in not losing enough track position to make my gamble to stay out look worthwhile, unless I can benefit from another yellow soon.
It never comes. With my fuel number in the single digits, I have to pit. At the same time in the real race, the broadcast gets its first update from Steve Olvey, the head of the medical team that attended to Moore. “Greg has severe head and internal injuries.” he says, reiterating that these are life-threatening.
Just as I re-join the track, the yellow flag I’d been hoping for arrives. Too late. Having fallen a lap behind the leaders, my chances of winning have pretty much gone up in smoke. Among those who opted for the same strategy, all but one end up in the same position. Their ranks include Dario Franchitti, who, having come into the day with a narrow championship lead over Montoya, sees his virtual title chances obliterated long before the loose wheel that ends them in the real race can arrive.
The only member of the group who manages to avoid losing out is Jimmy Vasser. Both drivers are close friends of Moore, with the former having woken up on a hotel lawn alongside the Canadian just over a year earlier, following a night of revelry in celebration of his own first CART win.
As Michael Andretti takes a commanding lead in the real race that’ll soon be undone by an oil fire, mine becomes a frenetic affair reminiscent of Moore’s 1996 debut outing in the series. My only option is to race as hard as I can to re-pass and stay ahead of the leaders, awaiting more stoppages that might bring me back onto the lead lap.
Each lap, I fight ruthlessly against drivers like Tony Kanaan, another of Moore’s buddies, executing risky dives and precarious passes that don’t offer any immediate improvement on my current position.
Taking the chequered flag
Sadly, by the time I come in for my final stop on lap 89, I’m still in the same predicament. The final stint throws me a bone by offering some illustrious leaders to run alongside. Andretti, Zanardi, Al Unser Jr, whose Penske car a 19-year-old Moore tested in 1994, and Christian Fittipaldi, whom Moore found a cardboard cutout of in his bed following 1996’s Long Beach race, as a prank from his crew following an altercation between the two.
Despite the ever-present threat of the oval’s outer wall looming just a few metres away, awaiting a chance to instantly end my race, I keep on fighting. That is, until I spot that my engine is seemingly starting to overheat, forcing me to back off in an effort to avoid suffering a sudden mechanical failure, as has happened to Moore many times.
In the real race, Hogan Racing’s Helio Castroneves, currently forecast to be without a ride in the series next year due to his team’s imminent dissolution, does have his engine let go. Thankfully, my motor hangs on long enough to see the chequered flag, which comes out on lap 125, the half distance mark of the real race.
As a casual sim racer, an hour and a bit of constant concentration and hanging on to a race car at over 200 mph is about all I can manage in one go. I have to get up and walk around, while my right arm aches and a headache rages. The athletes in the real race still have 125 laps to go. Greg Moore planned to complete all 250, despite having been stopped from qualifying due to broken finger, badly cut hand and bruised hip sustained in a paddock accident.
Around lap 153 of the real race, the broadcast returns from a break to another interview with Dr Olvey. “I regret to announce that driver Greg Moore has been pronounced dead at Loma Linda hospital, he died of massive head and internal injuries.” he reports.
“Well, that certainly was our concern.” adds Page, before launching into a short recap of Moore’s life.
It finishes with a tribute graphic that silently lingers on the screen.
The broadcast returns from the ad break that follows to a shot of the speedway’s flags at half-mast, before abruptly cutting back to the on-track action. Unlike the audience watching them on national television, none of the drivers shown diving for the pits ahead of the final stint of the race have been told that their colleague is dead.
They won’t be until they return into the pits at its conclusion. Champion Juan Pablo Montoya will give a subdued interview, during which he gently murmurs regarding Moore: “He didn’t deserve to die.” The race’s winner, Adrian Fernandez, who crossed the line just behind me in the virtual race, will burst into tears. This is the second race in recent memory he’s won that’s seen another competitor die.
Equally emotional will be second place finisher Max Papis, another of Moore’s close friends, who, in the post-race press conference, will utter the words: “We are not here to kill ourselves.”
The post-race debrief
While being a sim racer can now lead you down the path to becoming a real racing driver, the vast majority of regular fans who hook up a steering wheel at home will never be in the position to potentially experience the indescribable rollercoaster of emotions those drivers did on that day in 1999. What I think our virtual attempts to step into the shoes of our on-track heroes can do is remind us of the serious dangers they historically have faced, and still grapple with today, in order to bring us the entertainment we love.
Later this month, 33 people will take to the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval at over 200 miles per hour. They’ll risk injury and death for a shot at winning the Indy 500 and permanently etching their name into the annals of history.
Among their number will be Helio Castroneves, who ended up getting the Team Penske ride that would’ve been Moore’s for 2000. Also lining up will be Tony Kanaan, in what will be the final Indycar race for the ‘brat pack’, the nickname given to Moore’s entourage of off-track pals.
While I’d love to see either of these two friends win the race, there’s only one thing that really matters to me. I hope everyone involved on May 28, 2023 departs the speedway in just as good a health as they arrived.
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