Lunch with... Dario Franchitti
For more than a decade this Scot has proved there is a racing life beyond F1, emulating his hero Jimmy Clark with victory at Indianapolis and much more besides
By Simon Taylor
In today's Formula 1-obsessed world, the name of Dario Franchitti does not loom as large as it should. All those reference books and websites that believe motor sport starts and ends with Bernie's fortnightly round will list the smallest career detail of any driver who has achieved a few faltering laps of a Grand Prix. Yet this Scotsman, who has been Indycar champion three times in the past four years, is far less familiar.
In North America it's different. There Dario is a hero with a big fan following who appears good-humouredly on TV chat shows and, with his Hollywood actress wife, makes up a golden couple. Despite career earnings in the multimillions, and in marked contrast to some current F1 drivers, he is utterly unspoiled by success. He remains a friendly Scottish lad, modest, downto-earth and lacking in any air of self-importance. After 20 years in racing he retains a boyish delight in being able to spend his life doing what he loves. And, most unusually for a 21st-century racing driver, he has a well-educated fascination for the sport's history. In his houses in the USA and Scotland his collection of books and memorabilia, much of it covering periods long before he was born, is remarkable. In one house an entire room is devoted to his hero, Jim Clark.
So, appropriately, he suggests we lunch in the historic Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall. He's on a flying visit from his Tennessee base to be inducted into the Motor Sport Hall of Fame, the first non-F1 name to receive this accolade. He notes with delight that an ex-Clark Lotus 21 F1 car is on display in the foyer, and then we take lobster ravioli and sea bass in the Great Gallery.
Dario is one of a remarkable clan that has its roots in Italy but ended up in West Lothian, that nondescript area between Edinburgh and Glasgow under the shadow of the closed Leyland factory and the defunct Polkemmet coal mine. The Franchittis made and sold icecream, and the Di Restas had a cafe. "The families are related — my dad George and Louis di Resta, [Force India driver] Paul's dad, are second cousins — and it's made more complicated by how close we all are. Dad started racing karts in the 1960s, and then did some Formula Ford at Ingliston. Of course I'd go with him. As a kid the only things lever read were racing magazines. My dad helped Louis, who's 10 years younger, into karting, and then at the age of 10 I got into a kart, and I won my first race. I just went out and did it, it came naturally with no thought."
By the time he was 11 Dario was Scottish Junior Champion. Then the clan ventured south and he won back-to-back British Junior titles. "My parents made a lot of sacrifices. The business was seven days a week, so Mum would stay behind to run that while Dad was away racing with me. By 1987, when I was 14, I was doing the World Championships, up against a lot of names: Rubens, DC, Fisichella, Jan Magnussen. One year, when I was the only British guy to qualify for the final, I started 17th and got up to sixth behind Christian Fittipaldi. Then Luca Badoer took me out.
"When I was about to leave school — this was 1990 — David Leslie's father suggested I should go to the races with his team, polish the cars, do odd jobs, watch and learn. It taught me a tremendous amount. For 1991 Formula Vauxhall Junior came in. I was 17, and it was time to do it for myself. At the time Dad's business wasn't going so well, so he decided to remortgage the house. That raised enough to pay for one season. He didn't tell my mum until after he'd done it. They both had so much faith in me it was unbelievable, but in the end it turned out not to be too bad an investment."
In his first season of car racing Dario took the Vauxhall Junior title, and Paul Stewart Racing offered a Formula Vauxhall test. "Graham Taylor, the engineer, had to do a report for Jackie Stewart on how I went. Years later he showed me his notebook from that day: scribbled across the bottom of the page was 'Sign immediately'. Of course I now had no money at all, but Jackie said, 'You drive the car and I'll find the money.' Essentially we did a future earnings deal, no interest, no life percentage, just paying back when I could what it had cost them to run me. But Jackie didn't like talking to prospective Scottish sponsors about a driver with an obviously Italian name. He wanted me to change it to Jock McBain — I still wonder if he was serious about that....
"Jackie found the money, but for the first time, instead of being with my family, I was in a professional team, there were sponsors involved, and it was all rather daunting. I struggled to learn how to drive the car properly, and it got so I was telling Graham Taylor how to engineer the car and he was telling me how to drive it. I said to Jackie, 'I don't think I can work with Graham any more.' Jackie said, 'Graham's a good guy, I think you should work things out between you.' So Graham and I sat down over a cup of tea and we sorted it out." They are still friends today. At the end of that difficult season came a big confidence boost when Dario won the McLaren/Autosport Young Driver Award — and in 1993 he was FVL champion.
"The cash from the Young Driver award all went on my racing, and I still had literally no money, couldn't even buy myself a shirt. When I wasn't in the car I'd do anything to keep body and soul together, instructing at racing schools, doing circuit days for BMW and Nissan: you'd get £100 a day, but it was often absolutely terrifying, sitting in the passenger seat next to some complete wally. A lot of young drivers were doing the same. We were all skint but we had a lot of fun, we lived the life.
"Another way to earn money was delivering cars. You could get £20 a day doing that. I was driving a truck for an Edinburgh Mazda dealer when I had a call from Jackie Stewart: 'Come now to Milton Keynes, because King Hussein of Jordan is arriving to view the facility. Put on your team gear and look smart.' So I turn my 7.5-tonner south down the M6, and it's 4am when I fall asleep and go over the centre barrier. Somehow I manage to get it back to the hard shoulder, but I'd blown the front right tyre. I had to struggle to change this big truck wheel, and I arrived at Milton Keynes with my team gear no longer looking so smart. I don't know what the King thought."
After his storming year in 1993, the pendulum swung away again in '94. "Stewart moved me up to F3 with Jan Magnussen. In Vauxhall Lotus I'd usually beaten Jan, so I was happy about that. And I won the first round. But after that Jan could do no wrong, won 14 out of 18 races. For me nothing seemed to go right: various problems, odd failures. I scored enough points for fourth in the series, but whenever it was going well something would happen. It was soul-destroying.
"Then I was on a train and a girl with a strange German accent called me and said, 'Norbert Haug of MercedesBenz vant to speak to you. Call ziss number.' I was sure it was one of my mates winding me up, and I didn't even bother to write down the number. Then one of the Autosport journalists called me and said, 'Have you heard from Norbert? He asked us who we'd recommend as young talent for the Mercedes International Touring Cars team, and we said you.' After a frantic struggle I got Norbert's number, called him, and he said, 'Be at Hockenheim next Tuesday to test our ITC car.'
"The car was phenomenal: nearly 500 horsepower, sequential gears, ABS brakes, active aero, active rollbars. The pokiest thing I'd driven up to then was an F3 car. I loved it. I must have gone reasonably well, because they asked me back, but Jan Magnussen showed up too. That was bad news, because I knew there were two places in the team. One was going to Giancarlo Fisichella, and I expected Jan to get the other because he'd just landed a McLaren Mercedes test contract. We set just about identical times and Gerhard Unger, who was running the team, was happy. But when I got home he called and said, 'Sorry Dario, the drives are going to Giancarlo and Jan.' Shit. I didn't have the money to go F3000, I was going to get further into debt if I stayed in F3 and, although I think Jackie still believed in me, the engineers and mechanics at PSR probably didn't. Then Gerhard called again: 'We've fallen out with Fisichella. Get over to AMG at Affalterbach and we'll see if we can do a deal.'
"They put a contract in front of me, and I signed it. It was a huge amount of money to me then, six figures, the first time I'd ever earned any money out of racing. Plus I went from driving around in old borrowed bangers to my own Mercedes C36. I went back to Milton Keynes and told Jackie I was leaving. I didn't handle it well — I should have told him before I went to Germany — and he was a bit pissed off with me for a couple of months. Then he went back to being the same old Jackie.
"As soon as AMG finished the first of the new cars for 1995, back to Hockenheim, and I was the first driver they put in it. I went out on new tyres to put in a time, lost the back end going up to the first chicane, hit the barrier and flipped over backwards. The car was totally destroyed. It was like Armageddon. The biggest thing they found was half a carbon-fibre door. The steering wheel was bent, the pedals were bent, the inlet trumpets were torn out of the centre of the Vee. I was a bit concussed, so I got a lift back to the pits, and the team went out to the wreck and couldn't find me. They thought I'd run off into the forest to hide. I almost lost the whole drive there. But I qualified on pole for the first race, thank God."
During his first season with Mercedes Dario finished third in the international series, the ITC, and fifth in the German series, the DTM. In the 26-round combined series in 1996 he finished fourth, winning at the final event in Suzuka. "I loved racing those cars. They evolved at a tremendous rate: semi-automatic gearboxes, movable ballast, trick aerodynamics. They talk about flexible wings in F1: we had them in ITC 15 years ago. At one point I was qualifying a car with full ground-effect, full skirts, and a button to raise the car hydraulically to beat the rideheight test. By the end of the year it had all got too expensive, and the series died.
"At the end-of-season dinner in Stuttgart I sat next to Paul Morgan of Ilmor, who built the engines Mercedes were running in Champ Car. Lovely guy, died in that plane crash in 2001. He said, 'What are you going to do next?' I said, 'I'd love to try Champ Car.' Paul said, 'Maybe I can help you on that.' Next thing I know, Norbert's sending me to the Homestead track in Florida to do a test for Carl Hogan. That was a wake-up call. The DTM cars had power steering, and in terms of upper body strength were not difficult. With the Champ Car, when I took one hand off the wheel to change gear, I couldn't hold it in a straight line, the thing would weave all over the track. And God, it was quick. I'd come from 500 horsepower to over 900, big heavy car, loads of downforce. Jimmy Vasser was testing there as well, and I remember thinking, 'How am I ever going to get near his times in this thing?' But after two days I got within a second of him, and Hogan said, 'Right, let's do it.'
"I'd already had a run in an F1 car at the end of 1995. Because of the Mercedes relationship I got half a day in the McLaren MP4/10B at Jerez. After about 50 laps my neck was gone, but it went fine. David Coulthard was there having his first run in a McLaren, having just quit Williams, and I ended up about a second slower than him.
"But now I'm focused on Hogan and Champ Car for 1997. Then I get a call from Norbert. 'Ron Dennis wants to see you in Woking, just for a chat.' I've never told anybody this before. I turn up at the McLaren factory, and Ron says, 'We want to give you a test contract. You'll drive the Champ Car at weekends in America, and fly back and test the Fl McLarens during the week. We'll pay a good part of your American budget, and we'll also pay you a test driver salary. If one of the regular drivers gets hurt you could become a Grand Prix driver.' Then he hands me this 60page contract. You can guess the sort of thing: I'd be locked into a seven-year deal, but they could dump me any time they chose. I took the contract home and ploughed through it, and then I called Ron and said, 'Thanks, but no thanks.' I think that was the start of the end of my relationship with Mercedes, but I just didn't feel comfortable with that. But I always got on well with Norbert. He liked to take a gamble on young drivers, and if it hadn't been for Norbert I wouldn't be sitting where I am today.
"So, there I am in Champ Car. And my second time in the car I'm doing an oval. That was a massive shock. It was bloody scary. These days I left-foot-brake on ovals, although I still rightfoot-brake on road courses, much to the surprise of the younger guys. But then I was right-footbraking everywhere. I qualified in the top 10, next to Michael Andretti, and I did OK in the race until the leader, Gil de Ferran, came up to lap me. I tried to leave him lots of room, got on the marbles and went off. I didn't make that mistake again. But I got pole in Toronto, and led three races that year. In my sixth race, on the oval at Gateway near Carl's home town of St Louis, we were in front with 20 laps to go when the gearbox broke. Our Mercedes engines were strong, the car was quick, but the team was pretty disorganised and we had lots of problems.
"I had various offers for 1998, but Honda and Firestone seemed the way to go, so I joined Team Green. Paul Tracy was my team-mate, and we got on really well: a fun guy to hang out with, a good team player, no mind games, no bullshit. But in the car, phew, unbelievably aggressive. I was now being measured against a top guy in an identical car, and I hadn't really done much over there at that point. But I'd got it figured out a bit now."
He certainly had. Five poles, more than any other driver; nine front-row starts; storming wins at Road America, Vancouver and the wet Houston; only a blown engine in the final round robbed him of second place in the championship. "The Vancouver win was cool, because they had a thing called the Marlboro Pole Award. If you won a race from pole position you got $10,000, but if nobody won from pole the money rolled on to the next race. Before Vancouver nobody had won from pole for 33 races. So I got $340,000 added to the rest of the prize money. We had a good party that night.
"Most of that season I was fighting Alex Zanardi, who won his second title before going back to F1 and Williams. Alex was incredible on the road courses: he had this attitude in his head, he just didn't comprehend that he could be beaten, ever. Even today, after the accident in 2001 when he lost his legs, he still has that attitude. At Long Beach he was a lap down, and he came back and won. Ten years later he was still talking about it: he said to me, 'Did you have any mirrors that day?' Funny he should say that, because at Long Beach the glass vibrated out of both mirrors, so I could see nothing behind. 'Thought so,' he said. 'You didn't put up much of a defence when I came through.'
"I was still enjoying the road courses more than the ovals. On the ovals I tried to follow Greg Moore. He was the master, you never saw anything like it — and at that stage those cars were beasts on the ovals. He became my best friend. We'd travel together, train together, chase girls, go skiing in the off-season. That period was one of the happiest times of my life. In 1999 I had a great battle for the title with Juan Pablo Montoya. On the ovals Greg would give us a hard time, but on the road courses Monty and I kind of separated ourselves from the rest. He was always quick, and always looked quick — all arms and elbows — whereas my style makes it look like I'm not going that quick. In qualifying I beat him 10 times, he beat me 10 times. We both made mistakes during the year, and at Surfers Paradise I had to qualify on pole, lead the most laps and win the race to stay in contention. I did that, and Monty crashed. But in the last round at Fontana I had a wheel-nut problem in the pits and lost a lap. We ended up dead level on points, but Monty had more wins, so he was champion."
In the early laps of that Fontana final, Dario's friend Greg Moore perished in a massive crash. More than a decade later, Dario goes quiet when he thinks of it. "I'm glad I didn't win the title that day. His death took away the enjoyment of racing, it burst the bubble. He was from Vancouver, and when I finally managed to win the Vancouver race in 2002 it was good to be able to dedicate the victory to him. I did the same thing when I won the championship in 2009, because it was the 10th anniversary of his death. It's important that people don't forget about him. An unbelievable driver — on the ovals, the quickest of all — and a special person.
"I told Barry Green I had to get away for a bit, took the winter off, and the next time I got in a car was February, testing at Homestead. Into Turn 3 on the oval at 190mph, the spindle holding the right rear wheel to the upright failed. I don't remember any of this, but I hit the wall with such force that it cracked my pelvis in three places. My head somehow missed the cockpit surround and hit the wall too, so I had a massive head injury. I was back in the car four weeks later, but the brain contusions took me several years to get over. It affected my mental concentration, my balance, my memory, my fatigue levels. It also changed my personality: I became more serious, although Greg's death may have been part of that." Soon after the Homestead crash Dario had another F1 test. "The Stewart team was now Jaguar, but Jackie was still close to it. In a throwaway remark I told him I'd quite like a run, and he said he'd make it happen. But because it was F1 it was terribly complicated: contracts, clauses, sub-clauses, all that crap. It was at a full two-day test at Silverstone, and if a journalist spoke to me I had to have my lawyer there, because he'd read all the small print and knew what I was and was not allowed to say. I'd already got a bad feeling about it when I went to the factory for a seat fitting, because one of the mechanics started telling me what was wrong with the team and who was doing a bad job. I did the first day and struggled a bit but it wasn't too bad, and I knew I could build on that on day two. But next morning my car had Luciano Burti's name on it. They put me in another car which was a dog, play in the steering rack, wouldn't even brake in a straight line. It felt as though the team didn't really want me there. I went back to America, relieved it was over. I hadn't made a good impression, and at that point I decided that F1 wanted to forget me.
"I'd had two ambitions as a kid: to do F1 and to win the Indy 500, like Jimmy had done. F1 was now a closed book, and at that time I was in CART and Indy was IRL. But in 2002 Team Green had a separate Indy programme too, and I did the Brickyard for the first time. I tried to be nonchalant, treat it as just another race, but the emotion and magic of the place got to me. At the end of '02 Michael Andretti bought into Team Green and they switched to the Indy Racing League. At that time IRL was all ovals, no road circuits. But I trusted the team, and decided to stick with them. In the end I did 10 years with Barry Green.
"By now the effects of the head injury had gone away, and I felt I was back to my best. Then I broke my back. I was in Scotland, riding my MV Agusta, when an oil line came adrift and sprayed onto the back tyre. I had to stand the bike up and put it through a hedge. The other side there was a sixfoot drop, the bike dug in and I took off. Back in the US the brilliant Dr Terry Trammell fixed me up, with titanium rods in my back which are still there. But I missed most of the 2003 season.
"In 2004 I won Milwaukee and Pikes Peak, and I qualified third at Indy. I was still learning those IRL cars — a bit less power than the Champ Cars, a higher centre of gravity, and on the ovals you had to run them with more oversteer. And I don't like oversteer. With a Champ Car, if you got a wiggle on and you didn't catch it first time, you were in the wall. With IRL you had to run loose, with the rear end dancing away. It took me a while to get comfortable with that. By '05 I'd got it all figured out, and the IRL was now running road courses as well, which made me feel a lot better. We led several races, won Nashville and Fontana. But '06, for various reasons, was just a bloody disaster, and I decided to make a big change. I did a deal with Chip Ganassi to go to NASCAR. We're about to sign and Chip calls and says, 'Nobody else could have taken this drive from you, but I've just signed Montoya.' That was a blow. Back with IRL and Team Green, I went into 2007 with low expectations."
But this time everything went right. Dario fulfilled a dream by winning a rain-interrupted Indy 500 with a brilliant mix of storming pace and clever strategy. "I'd hit one of my life's goals, and it changed the way I went about racing, it relaxed me. After that I had a run of poles and wins, and it was as though I could do no wrong. I thought, 'This is too good, something's going to happen.' And it did, at Michigan Speedway.
"I'd stalled in a pitstop and fell to last, but the car was a rocket ship that day, and I came through and caught the leader, Dan Wheldon. I got alongside him and he tried to side-draught me. You can do that in NASCAR: if you get really close to the other car's rear quarter you can slow it down. But in open-wheelers there's just no margin for error. His right front clipped my left rear, and I looped high in the air. The engine was bouncing on the rev-limiter, and on the radio I heard my spotter, Dave, say, `Aw shit.' I thought, 'That's the last thing I'll ever hear.' It seemed to go on for ever. I open my eyes and I'm still way off the ground, with cars flashing past beneath me. Then I land and flip again, that's when the roll bar snaps off and my head's going rrrrrrr down the track. When it finally stopped and the marshals rolled the car over I just had a bruise on my nose from the helmet. Thanks, Mr Dallara.
"Then, six days later, it happened again. This time it was my fault. At Kentucky Speedway I was coming back after a problem, nobody told me it was the last lap, and I didn't see the flag. I'd just shifted into sixth as Kosuke Matsuura slowed after the finish line. I hit him, looped up into the air, hit the wall hard. I was pretty shaken up, and I hurt my knees, but I flew my helicopter home that night. We had more dramas towards the end of the season, but I beat Scott Dixon by 637 points to 624 to take the title.
"So I'd won Indy, I'd won the title — and I decided to go to NASCAR for 2008. Strange decision, I know. The Team Green guys were really upset with me. People said it was because of those two accidents, but it was nothing to do with that. I was straight back in the car after those two loops. I suppose I was looking to accomplish something else, a new challenge. I signed with Chip Ganassi, flew to Talladega, got in this huge great barge, steering wheel this big, pulled out of the pits and thought, 'What have I done?' I did the first Nationwide race and qualified on the front row, which wasn't too bad, but then they put me in a Sprint Cup car for the first time at Atlanta, which is the fastest oval they run. I was a fish out of water. It's a totally different technique driving those cars. I like to be tidy, keep the car working in shape, but you can't do that with NASCAR. Those things spin their wheels at 190mph coming off a corner. I didn't have a clue what I was doing. I had glimpses of getting it together, and then I broke my ankle in a crash at Talladega. Coming back I started to qualify the Cup car in the top 10, and I had a Nationwide pole at Watkins Glen and a good fight with Jimmie Johnson. But at the end of June Chip said there was no sponsorship for my car, and he closed it down. I was reigning Indycar champion with nothing to drive.
"In August I went to watch the IRL race in Detroit, stood at Turn 1 as the cars went through, and thought to myself, 'What have I been doing?' I went to Chip and said, 'I want to do IRL with you.' Chip said, 'Fine, I'll pay you this much.' I said, 'No, I want this much.' He said, 'OK, you're on.' That was it. And as soon as I got into the Target Ganassi Dallara Honda it was like coming home.
"My worry was whether, after a year away, I'd be able to keep up with my new team-mate Scott Dixon, who was starting his eighth season with Chip as reigning IRL champion. Luckily I was able to get the job done." Five poles, five wins, and his second IRL title 11 points ahead of his team-mate: it was as though he'd never been away. And in 2010 he was champion again, after a torrid battle with Team Penske's Will Power which went down to the final race. High point for Dario was his second Indy 500 victory.
"I led 155 of the 200 laps, but I wish it'd been as easy as that sounds. The track temperature went up 10 degrees between qualifying and the race, and my car was a real handful, dancing all the way through the corners. I was really marginal on fuel. My crew were saying, save fuel, save fuel, I was going as slow as I dared and Wheldon was second and getting closer. I decided to let him creep up on me, and on the last lap go all out. But with a lap to go there was a caution, so we queued up to the finish, and I'd won it with a gallon left.
"This season Dixie and I are in the Target Ganassi cars again. Everyone is in DallaraHondas these days, although that changes for 2012 when Chevy and Lotus come in. So it's pretty much a one-make formula, but that puts more emphasis on race preparation and organisation, and the Ganassi guys are really good at maximising that."
In 1999 Dario was introduced (by Greg Moore) to the actress Ashley Judd. Despite the pressures of their wildly different careers — Ashley has now appeared in over 30 films — they managed to spend time together and in 2001, in a memorable Scottish ceremony, they were married in Skibo Castle. "Ashley is a fantastic supporter. Her own life is incredibly busy — she's involved in a lot of humanitarian activities, she's a global ambassador with Population Services International for education and prevention of Aids in young people, and recently she went back to Harvard and got her master's degree. But she still gets to a lot of races. We live in the middle of nowhere and, although there's a bit of fuss when we turn up together at one of her events or one of mine, most of the time we manage to stay below the radar.
"When Colin [McRae] was killed I lost enthusiasm for my helicopter, and I sold it. But I've had my Ferrari F40 for 12 years, I've got a 355, a Mini-Cooper, a Porsche turbo. I like Porsches. I've got a 964 Speedster, a Carrera GT with straight pipes, and a 993 RSR replica, a real hooligan's car. Among my racing stuff — helmets, overalls, paperwork, I never throw anything away — I've bought back my original Formula Vauxhall Junior, I've got a Reynard Champ Car, I've got the Corvette pace cars from my two Indy wins. And the Jim Clark collection is growing: I have the actual chalk pitboard that was used when he won at Indy in 1965, and I've just got the entry forms for his first race, Crimond, June 16, 1956, in Ian Scott-Watson's DKW.
"A real thrill was driving Jimmy's winning Lotus 38 around Indy just after Classic Team Lotus had restored it for the Ford Museum. It's hard to put into words what that meant to me. I had a replica set of Jimmy's overalls made for that day, and a helmet — we got a special paint sample made up so the blue was precisely right — and the correct goggles. And I had the pitboard sent over from my Clark room.
"I love sports car racing. I've won the Daytona 24 Hours for Chip, got second overall and first LMP2 at Sebring, and I'd love to do Le Mans. I couldn't do it justice right now, but that's on the list. [Dario's brother Marino, five years younger, is a successful sports car driver in the ALMS.] Historics, too: winning the TT at the 2006 Goodwood Revival was a blast, with Emanuele Pirro in the ex-John Coombs E-type. Not so good in '07: the E-type went backwards into the bank at Fordwater on my second lap of practice — I still maintain a wheel came off. I woke up in hospital in Chichester next to Adrian Newey, who crashed his E-type in the same session.
"I want to keep going in IndyCar for as long as I can. Now I'm almost 38, and nearer the end of my career than the beginning, I realise how much I love it. I'm winning more than I ever have, but it's a results business, and if I don't perform I'll have to retire. I wouldn't like to step back and drive for a team that isn't top-notch. I've been lucky enough to drive for some great teams, none greater than the team I'm with now. And no regrets now that Fl didn't work out for me. I wouldn't trade any of what I've had."
It must be something in the water in Scotland. That rugged country of a mere five million souls bred Jimmy Clark, Jackie Stewart and Colin McRae; it bred David Coulthard and Allan McNish; it bred Ecurie Ecosse. And it bred Dario Franchitti, an export of which it can be very proud.