By MIKE HARRIS
AP Auto Racing Writer
It seemed like the IndyCar Series was getting along fine without Paul Tracy until the former champion showed up.
Like in the old saying: out of sight, out of mind.
Tracy's performance last week at Edmonton in his second race of the season and first IndyCar race since running in the 2002 Indianapolis 500 raised eyebrows, proving that the 39-year-old Canadian still has the ability and star power that the newly unified open-wheel series can use.
"He's a guy we need in the series," said IndyCar points leader Scott Dixon, the Edmonton winner. "He's fantastic to watch."
Tracy, who said he spent way too much time on the couch and not enough in a race car in the past few months, shook off the rust in a hurry.
He consistently ran among the top 10 in practice, qualified 16th and drove to a surprising fourth-place finish on the temporary airport circuit, a track most of the returning drivers called the most physically demanding in the series.
The one-race deal came together at the last minute as the result of an effort by Tony George, the IndyCar founder and Vision Racing team owner, to help both Tracy and team owner Derrick Walker get back on track in the wake of the unification of the two American open-wheel series in February.
Tracy had been driving for Forsythe Championship Racing in Champ Car, while Walker had been fielding a two-car team in the series that was absorbed into IndyCar. Gerald Forsythe decided not to make the switch to the new series, while Walker was unable to find sponsorship to make the move.
Tracy's only racing action came in the Champ Car finale at Long Beach in April, while Walker was spending his time fielding cars in the developmental Atlantic Series for the sons of former Formula One champion Nigel Mansell.
"Derrick and I had been talking, you know, all the way through the summer from Long Beach about trying to put something together and finding sponsorship, working on things," Tracy explained. "It kept going down dead end roads."
Finally, the deal for Edmonton, with Subway as the primary sponsor, popped up two weeks ago.
"I went to Indianapolis for a seat fitting, got to know the team and, four days later, we were at the track," Tracy said. "In between, I went home to Las Vegas and trained like crazy in the 100-degree heat. I wasn't in the best shape of my life ... but definitely was able to carry it through here and was strong all through the race."
Vision Racing, which supplied Tracy's car and technical help to Walker, has generally been a midpack team and Tracy outperformed both of George's drivers, with A.J. Foyt IV finishing 12th and Ed Carpenter 13th.
"I'm excited for Derrick and I'm excited for Tony's team," Tracy said. "I think the equipment they've got, we've shown them what the level is, where they're at. So, hopefully, we can continue."
Walker echoed his new driver.
"The whole thing was just a Cinderella, last-minute deal," he said. "That kind of makes you try even harder, when you know people are not expecting much from you. He drove a terrific race and my guys did a great job, too.
"In fairness to Paul, when he came here he wasn't ready for this. Quite frankly, as the race went on, I wondered. I think his mentality carried over the fitness. He needs to get back in racing shape, but he's still got the fire in him. He's still 'Mad Dog Tracy.' That's what you want in a driver."
Walker also noted that the competition had already raced for two-thirds of the season, with even the teams and drivers transitioning from Champ Car well along the learning curve.
"You always come in knowing the competition is where it's at and that it's going to be an uphill struggle," Walker noted. "Without the help and guidance of the Vision team and some of my friends, we'd have been finding things out the second time around, and that wouldn't have worked."
Tracy, whose 31 career victories are the most of any active driver in the American open-wheel series, certainly enjoyed being back.
"The race was great," he said. "There was action all the way through. I was fighting with many different drivers, passed a lot of guys, made a lot of really daring passes in the infield. ... You know, I got this opportunity and we cashed in on it.
"So, from that standpoint, I hope the door cracked open for us. I hope it's wide-open for me and Derrick to be able to move forward and do something long term."
Now they just have to wait and see.