Restored to title-winning form after his frustrating sojourn into NASCAR, Dario Franchitti plans to make his Indycar career last as long as possible
By Damien Smith
Formula 1 used to be like this, I’m told. Here we are, standing in the back of a busy race truck on practice day, chatting to three relaxed drivers with, it seems, all the time in the world. The friendly Ganassi team PR made sure we got our slot with these guys, but he’s not ‘babysitting’ his drivers, recording every word to check we all stay ‘on message’. In fact, he’s left us to it. Eventually the Scotts – Pruett and Dixon – slide away to leave us with a typically ebullient Juan Pablo Montoya. He was doing all the talking anyway, and as for toeing any PR line, forget it!
The track is Daytona, the race is the Rolex 24. For some of Ganassi’s stable of stars, this is a warm-up weekend for the season ahead, handy to dust off the cobwebs after the winter break. But not for the boss. For Chip Ganassi, the 24 Hours is a big deal, and drivers accept that if they sign for the Chipster to race Indycars or stock cars, it’s a given they’ll be in the team for Daytona. He loves this race.
Still, for an Indycar ace such as Dixon the 24 Hours is hardly a priority, and the same goes for his IRL team-mate who’s waiting for me in his RV. Dixon offers a lift on a golf buggy and Motor Sport hops on the back, in company with NASCAR’s only resident Italian, Max Papis. Yeah, this is just like F1.
Ganassi’s third Scot – Dario Franchitti – welcomes me with a familiar smile. The RV interior is plush but far from ostentatious and in every corner there are photos that pay homage to Franchitti’s religion. JC is everywhere.
No, not that one. The other one: Jim Clark, who Dario endearingly refers to by initials only. Three years ago he achieved his crowning glory by winning a rain-shortened Indy 500 and it mattered to him largely because by doing so he was emulating his hero. Dario is that rarity: a modern racing driver who actually has knowledge of, and loves, the history of his sport.
“I don’t know why, but the interest was always there,” he says. “Some of it comes from being exposed to Jackie [Stewart] when I first met him at 18. My engineer at the time when I was doing Vauxhall Lotus, Graham Taylor, gave me a copy of Graham Hill’s biography. I read a lot of racing books, whether it’s about cars or drivers. Tom Wheatcroft’s Thunder in the Park, for instance. What a man!”
Even so, it took time for Indianapolis to work its magic on Franchitti. “When I went there at first I thought it was just another race, which for me is a funny attitude because of my love of the history of the sport and JC’s win there,” he admits. “But the more I did it the more I fell in love with it.”
At the age of 36, it might be premature to claim the past three years as an ‘Indian summer’ for Franchitti. He’s relatively young by American racing standards. But it’s undeniable that he is nearer the end of his career than the beginning, and it’s only been since 2007 that a driver who first came to the States a full 10 years earlier has really managed to stamp his mark on the record books.
From his early days on Jackie Stewart’s ‘staircase of talent’ to the DTM with Mercedes and on to Champ Cars, Dario has always been part of the establishment. Fast, popular, good-looking, happily married to Hollywood actress Ashley Judd, he seemed to have it all. He won races regularly – 23 to date in Champ Car and the IRL – but the championships by which drivers are inevitably defined were always missing. He’d got close in 1999 when he only lost the CART title to Montoya on the number of race wins, but it began to appear that was as good as it would get.
Then in ’07 everything began to click. First he won the LMP2 class at the Sebring 12 Hours, then in May came his day at Indy, followed by three more IRL victories and that coveted title. “To win the 500 almost overshadows the rest of the year,” he says. “Certainly for the team it’s as big a deal to win Indy as it is the title.”
He is quick to acknowledge his engineer at Andretti Green Racing for his success back then. “I knew Allen McDonald from the Paul Stewart days. In ’07 something changed in both of us and we became super-focused. We had an edge and you could see that in the results. He was the easiest guy to work with. It’s an important relationship for me, the one with the engineer.”
Last year, his first in the IRL with Ganassi, was perhaps even more surprising: five wins and his second Indycar title, engineered by former Indy Lights racer Chris Simmons (“He tells anyone who’ll listen that I stole his drive [at Team Green]!” quips Dario).
The surprise was how completely Dario bounced back from his nadir: 2008 had been a disaster.
To tell the full story we must return to his first IRL title year. It was far from smooth running.
In August he flipped a single-seater for the first time. Twice. On consecutive weekends. Either accident could have done a lot more than derail his title charge.
At fearsome Michigan, he was blameless when former AGR team-mate Dan Wheldon tapped him into an accident. At the Kentucky oval a week later, he was solely at fault in a bizarre crash after the chequered flag.
“The first accident didn’t shake me up,” he states. “The second one, yes – six days later. That time it was my fault. I was pretty shaken up after Kentucky. I got back in the car on a road course a week later and… [he pulls an unhappy face]. That made going to the Chicagoland oval after that difficult because I didn’t feel all that comfortable. I hadn’t quite managed to conquer my worries so I wasn’t happy with myself at that point.” He doesn’t mention that he still won in Chicago, clinching the title.
Then came the shock switch: the champ was on his way to NASCAR with Ganassi and Felix Sabates. Had the accidents spooked him out of Indycars? “Ultimately, it had no part in the decision to go to NASCAR,” he maintains. “We’d already started to think about it.
“The tipping point was that I looked at myself and… I always ask this question: ‘am I ready for another year?’ At that point the answer was no, not really. I didn’t have the motivation or the fight. I thought, this is new. It didn’t happen when Greg [Moore] died [in ’99], when I broke my back, when I broke my pelvis. This time, I thought hmm – time to do something else. That was when Chip came up with the offer.”
The programme was a mix of second-division Nationwide and premier Sprint Cup races. He’d always admired the all-rounders – Andretti, Foyt, Elford and of course ‘JC’. Now he’d try to join them by making his mark in NASCAR.
“I really didn’t know what I was getting into,” he sighs. “I’d watched it, thought I understood it and that I’d be OK. But it was a different world. At the end of my time there I’d qualified on pole and led at Watkins Glen in the Nationwide car, qualified on the front row at Bristol – so I thought I was starting to understand it. But in the beginning it was unbelievable. It was like driving an historic car. Guys who drive Ford Galaxies would probably have a better understanding than someone coming from an Indycar.
“The expectations were high, which made it tough. We didn’t have a sponsor and then I broke my ankle at Talladega. I came back from that and went pretty well, but then Chip couldn’t pay out – and that was it. It was a new situation for me to be in. I’d had mates in that situation, but it was humbling to find myself there.”
Single-seaters to sports cars? No problem. But to NASCAR? Even Montoya has taken longer to adapt than he expected. “I don’t see myself doing it again,” says Franchitti.
So having walked away from Indycar once, how did he find the motivation to return? “I got back in an Indycar and did a test at a little track in Texas and thought ‘yes!’. Just great. After about half a day when I’d really started driving the car I thought ‘my God, this is brilliant’. The motivation problem wasn’t even an issue. I knew what I’d been missing.”
But now, at 36, with two IRL titles and an Indy win to his name – not forgetting a Rolex on his wrist for winning the Daytona 24 with Ganassi at the start of ’08 – will the desire become a problem again? Apparently not.
“I want more race wins, more championships, more Indy 500s,” he says. “I always thought when I first came over here that I’d race until I was about 35 and then retire. That seemed a sensible age. But I got to that age and realised I still love doing this. I enjoy it and appreciate it more now than I ever did. I’ll keep going in Indycar for as long as I can keep a competitive seat.
“I look at Michael Schumacher and I totally understand where he is coming from. If you’re someone like Jackie [Stewart], he had so much more that he wanted to do. But some of us I guess are just drivers and we don’t have those skills that Jackie has. I don’t know anything else. Sometimes that scares me I suppose.”
And F1? A disastrous test with Jaguar in 2000, when he had little chance to show what he could do, was as close as he would get. “That one I don’t think about,” he claims. “Someone yesterday showed me a picture of the Jaguar test and said ‘please sign this’. I thought, oh my God, that was one of the worst days of my life! Then the next picture was of the podium at Indy, so that made me feel better!
“Ultimately, whatever you’re doing it’s about winning races. One reason I never went to F1 is that I wasn’t prepared to drive round at the back and I had the chance to drive race-winning stuff here. The way I look at it is I found something to do when I was a kid that I loved. It’s my job and I get paid well. I’m lucky.”
The title defence kicks off on the streets of São Paulo on March 14. What chance a hat-trick?