A stirring race and fight for the CART championship were quickly forgotten amid tears Sunday when race winner Adrian Fernandez and new series champion Juan Montoya were told that fellow driver Greg Moore was dead.
Moore, a 24-year-old Canadian and one of the budding stars of the Champ Car series, died from massive head and internal injuries after his car went off the track at more than 220 mph and slammed into a concrete retaining wall.
The accident during the Marlboro 500 occurred during a restart on the 10th lap of the 250-lap event on the two-mile California Speedway oval.
Moore lost control of his car coming off turn two. It skidded onto the infield grass, crashed hard into a retaining wall and broke into pieces, with the open-cockpit driver's compartment spinning and hitting the ground several times before coming to a halt.
The race continued as Moore was removed from the remains of his Reynard-Mercedes and airlifted by helicopter to Loma Linda Medical Center.
Moore, a five-time winner in the CART FedEx Series, was pronounced dead at the hospital at 1:21 p.m. PST after what Dr. Steve Olvey, director of medical affairs for CART called "exhaustive resuscitation efforts."
Most of the drivers were not made aware of the death until after the race.
Andrew Craig, president and CEO of CART, said, "We thought the appropriate thing was to continue with the race but to cancel all the usual things that take place after the event."
When word of Moore's death was received at the track, CART chief steward Wally Dallenbach ordered the flags in front of the pit lane lowered to half staff and told the teams there would be no post-race celebration. Instead, a brief prayer service was held on pit lane.
Fernandez, whose first of five CART victories came in July 1996 in Toronto in a race in which driver Jeff Krosnoff was killed, gambled on making it to the end on a waning fuel load and made it, beating runner-up Max Papis to the finish line by 7.634 seconds.
The Mexican driver pumped his fists as he circled the track slowly on his victory lap. But, after getting out of his Reynard-Ford and being told of Moore's death, Fernandez broke into tears.
He went into seclusion briefly and later, barely able to speak through tears, said haltingly, "It's so hard. Greg was such a good friend of ours. We've been racing for a while and shared so many good moments on and off the track."
"This is a tragedy for all of us. the win doesn't matter anything. My heart goes out to his family."
It was the second driver death of the season. Rookie Gonzalo Rodriguez of Uruguay was killed in a crash during practice on Sept. 12 in Monterey. The 27-year-old Rodriguez was the first driver fatality in a CART race since Krosnoff. The last previous driver killed at a CARevent was Jim Hickman in 1982 during a practice session in Milwaukee.
Montoya finished fourth and Dario Franchitti, who came into the season-ending race leading the championship battle by nine points, finished 10th after losing two laps because of a tire problem during a pit stop.
The two wound up tied at 212 points, giving Montoya the championship on the basis of most wins. The 24-year-old rookie won seven times, while Franchitti, 26, won three races.
The previous closest championship was in 1985 when Al Unser beat his son, Al Unser Jr., by one point.
In the stands after the race, several hundred Colombians waved flags and celebrated the championship of their countryman, while the sensational rookie hugged team owner Chip Ganassi, whose team had just won an unprecedented fourth straight PPG Cup championship.
Both were in tears.
"Greg was a great guy," Montoya said in a hushed voice. "He didn't deserve to die."
Ganassi, himself a former Champ Car driver, said sadly, "We certainly don't want our light to shine at the dimming of others. You dream about days like today and you are never prepared for what ultimately happens."
"We had a great year. Certainly we tried to throw it away here the last couple of races, but in the end we prevailed."
Ganassi was referring to the fact that Montoya had crashed out of the previous two races, giving up the points lead he held most of the season when Franchitti won two weeks ago in Australia.
Montoya, who is the same age as Moore, said his fellow driver's death was heartbreaking but would not deter him from racing.
"I never think about anything like that," Montoya said. "You just want to go as quick as you can. That's the way Greg thought, too."
Unaware of the tragedy, the drivers battled relentlessly through the 500-mile race.
Papis, who lost the season's only other 500-mile event, in July at Michigan Speedway, when he ran out of fuel on the last lap, this time led a race-high 111 laps and appeared on the way to victory until he had to pit for a splash of fuel on lap 232.
Most of the other leaders had to pit as well, with Fernandez taking the lead for good when Montoya stopped for fuel on lap 240.
In the championship battle, Franchitti was in control until his team failed to secure a right rear tire during a green-flag stop on lap 71. He drove out of the pits with the tire askew and had to drive slowly around the oval and return to the pits, losing two laps in the process.
He still had a chance to beat Montoya until he was forced to pit for fuel six laps from the end, losing a position and one point to Gil de Ferran in the process.
"We are out there to practice a very nice sport and a very competitive sport, but we are not out there to kill ourselves," said Christian Fittipaldi, who missed five races this season with a head injury from a testing rash and finished fourth Sunday. "... Greg will be missed a lot, everywhere, inside the track, outside the track and hanging out with us."
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