Just what he always wanted
Dario Franchitti has achieved a lifetime ambition: to own a car raced by his hero Jim Clark. And in this Lotus Cortina, he’s bought a certified winner
Writer: Damien Smith, photographer Dominic Hinde
He’s a hard man to pin down, especially on home territory. Everybody wants a piece of Dario Franchitti, but then here, in the grounds of Holyroodhouse, that’s because he knows just about everybody. He greets old friends with almost every passing step, that ready grin and easy manner precisely why they’re all so pleased to see him. In the shadow of Her Majesty’s Edinburgh residence, we’re in the presence of Scottish motor racing royalty.
We’re here for the determinedly anglicised Concours of Elegance, the annual shiny-car soirée that has travelled north for the first time away from London’s royal palaces – and against all reasonable expectations, The Queen’s garden is shown in its best possible light. Yes, it’s not raining.
This is a smart ‘do’, a smattering of Scotland’s elite roaming the lawn. Sir Jackie Stewart is buzzing around, immaculate as ever in tartan trews and ready to welcome First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Dario too has made an effort, but as usual strictly on his own terms – and certainly not in deference to a politician. The dark pinstripe suit and brown suede shoes could backfire, but not when you’re a charismatic triple Indy 500 winner. And there’s defiantly no tie with the crisp open-neck shirt. His old Formula Vauxhall team boss wouldn’t approve, but that is entirely the point.
Guest of honour Franchitti has been invited to showcase a selection of cars from his own growing collection. On entry, his three garish Indy 500 pace cars welcome visitors, the spoils of his victories in 2007, ’10 and ’12. Rip-snorting Chevys sure beat silver cups.
But there’s another of his cars, nestled in the company of Ecurie Ecosse Jaguars, multi-million-pound Ferraris and veteran exotica, that sits more comfortably in this setting. It might offer the silhouette of a humble 1960s family saloon, but the Ermine White with Sherwood Green flash and yellow pinstripe can mean only one thing. This is a Lotus Cortina, and not just any of the original 2894 built between 1963-66. This is the Lotus Cortina, reg number BJH 417B, the one he drove. And that makes this little car Franchitti’s most prized possession among the horde of cherished memorabilia this purist fanatic has accumulated from his life in racing.
Dario’s obsession with Jim Clark has become a trademark, his knowledge and passion for motor racing history a pleasing characteristic that has long separated him from most of his peers. “I’d been looking for one of Jim’s cars for a long time,” he tells me as we retreat to a bench, away from the well-wishers. “The cars that spring to mind are the Lotus 25 – the one that won all the races and I think I’ve actually driven, the 33, the 49 that Chris MacAllister owns plus the 38 [1965 Indy 500 winner] that the Henry Ford museum owns and I’ve been lucky enough to drive. None of those are for sale and I don’t see that changing! So I figured if I could find the right Cortina, it would be something I could use on the road as well as having something that Jim raced.
“I looked at a couple. Andy Middlehurst has been a fantastic help because he’s as big a Jim Clark fan as I am, and he’s restored a couple of them. And he owns one that again isn’t for sale.”
Since his career-ending Indycar shunt in 2013, Franchitti has gained precious time to pursue his passions. “When I had my accident in Houston I’d already started talking to Andy about it and he pointed me towards one in a dealership. I was lying in a hospitable bed, jacked up on morphine, humming and hawing about buying it, and I told Andy to go and do it. But then he told me they had jacked the price up” – presumably upon discovering who the buyer was – “and thankfully I said ‘no, I’m not doing that’, even in my compromised state!
“I waited about a year, and Andy phoned to tell me this car was for sale: BJH 417B, the one that won all the races.” Clark raced and drove more than one on the road, but this was the Cortina that mattered: the car in which he cocked a front wheel through the summer of 1964 to claim the British Saloon Car Championship, winning his class in all eight rounds and even scoring a few overall victories, at Oulton Park (twice) and Crystal Palace, whenever the powerful Galaxies of Jack Sears and Sir Gawaine Baillie faltered.
“Andy told me, ‘It’s the right car, I restored it’,” says Dario. “He went down to look at it and said ‘It’s perfect. It’s just as it was after I finished it.’ The owner had used it on occasion. He’s got lots of cars and other Cortinas to race, a very nice man, very straight to deal with. He said ‘That’s the price’ and a deal was done. It then arrived in Scotland on the back of a trailer. I’ve driven it once down the road, but I haven’t been home much this year. It went to Duns [to the Jim Clark museum] in May.”
How much did he pay? I know not to ask. A week later at Goodwood, I’m told the “very nice man” was serial Cortina racer Kerry Michael, and while the amount remains their private business, consider this: among the previous owners was the late Tom Walkinshaw, another Clark fan. In 2003, following the sad liquidation of Tom Walkinshaw Racing, his collection was auctioned off. Motor Sport reported at the time that BJH 417B fetched £90,000 – a dozen years ago, before classic car prices soared through the roof.
Franchitti really does admire Jim Clark.
Aside from those that carried the great Scot, Dario covets road cars more than racers. “The Cortina is different from anything else I own,” he says. “Most of the stuff is what you had on your wall as a kid: Ferrari F40, Carrera GT, a bunch of 911s. I’m a real 911 fan from the new GT3 RS through to a 1973 ‘hot-rod’! I’ve still got the old Ferrari 355, which I bought from my first signing bonus from Barry Green. And I’ve got a 964 3.8 RS, which is a rare car because it’s one of only two RHD…
“I’d love to collect racing cars too, but it doesn’t make much sense for me because I’m not allowed to race them! I tell you what… guys like Scott Dixon have no interest in cars – nothing. He told me the other day he’d bought one nice car, a BMW M5 I think. He talked about writing a cheque for £50,000 – and he was crying… He just doesn’t get it. But a lot of the Formula 1 guys, on the quiet, love cars – and not just modern stuff, but classics as well. Some of the characters who you wouldn’t expect, as well. But I don’t think they are allowed to say what they’ve got in their collections because of their contracts. It’s a shame they’re not more open about it because it would show more of the personalities.”
Jackie Stewart and Allan McNish retired on their own terms, choosing when to walk and never looking back. Franchitti was robbed of that decision by injury, but after an Indycar career that spanned 16 years and reaped 31 wins, those precious Indy 500 victories and four championships he’s at peace with life – especially in the wake of an accident that he knows could so easily have ended it.
“I don’t feel the need to race Indycars any more or in sports cars where I had some opportunities,” he says. “I came to terms with it really quickly; it wasn’t a big deal. After that accident I was ready to say ‘OK, I’m finished.’
“I can do demonstrations, but can’t do anything competitive,” he adds. “It’s unusual because I can go on the autobahn and drive at 230mph, according to the insurance company, but I can’t do anything competitive at a much slower speed. And that’s fine. The real big thing is from a health point of view: if I have another knock to the head it’s not going to be good.
“It would be nice to have a wee play sometimes, nothing serious, and that’s the thing that’s unfortunate. But I can still do stuff like the Mille Miglia retrospective. I drove another Cortina at Donington recently for TV, but in a lunch break. I couldn’t participate in a general test day [because of his insurance terms]. I did just one lap, but my instinct was to come in and say ‘Stiffen up the dampers’ just like I used to. It just felt brilliant. But this is the reality.”
We’re speaking just a few days after his friend Justin Wilson lost his life in a senseless Indycar crash at Pocono, another single-seater victim of somebody else’s debris. It’s tricky territory for an ‘old-school’ racer such as Dario. But in the context of his own experience, it’s hardly surprising that he concurs with the current mood among his peers.
“Something has to be done to protect drivers’ heads,” he sighs. “Jenson [Button] said it best in Monza: enough is enough. Is it a canopy? I don’t know. Adrian Newey designed that car for Gran Turismo that had a canopy system. We’ve got some brilliant minds in racing and we need to figure it out. The trouble is that canopies create problems: the temperature inside the car, the weight, getting people out if it’s upside down – that all has to be reconciled.
“The Mercedes concept with the ‘boomerang’ structure was interesting. People said it was ugly, but people said the raised cockpits were ugly when they were introduced. I drove in Grand-Am for Chip Ganassi and that had a bar straight up the middle of the windscreen, as did the NASCARs I drove. You look straight through it, you don’t even see it. Your eyes focus right past it.
“I don’t know the answer, but I know something has to change. Losing Justin… these things always hit harder when they personally affect you – like Jenson, who knew Justin well and was pals from a young age with Dan [Wheldon, also killed in an Indycar, in 2011]. We’re all feeling it. Racing is never going to be safe, but we’ve got to make it as safe as we can.”
Like old pals McNish and David Coulthard, retirement has unburdened Dario and his loved ones from the pressure of such concerns, and he now contemplates motor racing safety as a TV pundit. Sports people don’t necessarily fall naturally into broadcasting, despite the number that make the switch, and it’s fair to say that in his role as Formula E co-commentator Franchitti took time to find his voice. But as the all-electric series embarks on its second season, his enthusiasm, knowledge and personality are shining through. It’s a confidence thing.
His old hero would surely never have worked in TV. Those who knew him feel Clark would have slipped away from racing after the fire was gone, perhaps back to his farming roots and away from the hubbub. Then again, they also say he changed in his final years, that his future might not have been so easy to predict.
The tragedy is he never got to choose. Neither did Justin and Dan. With what he knows, Franchitti will be counting his blessings every day for the rest of his life.
Clark's 1964 saloon car title
How BJH 417B carried an F1 world champion to his most unlikely title
March 14, Snetterton
1st in class, 2nd overall
Runner-up to Jack Brabham’s Alan Brown Galaxie, a full two minutes down, after Jack Sears hits spinning Mini Cooper of Tommy Weber.
March 30, Goodwood
1st in class, 2nd overall
Returns from Sebring double-header in which he races Cortina 168 RUR to a class win in the 250km race and 2nd in class, 21st overall in the 12 Hours… but Sears’ Galaxie has too much power around the Sussex sweeps.
April 11, Oulton Park
1st in class, 1st overall,
Sears leads until brakes fail on the way into Lodge. He spins to avoid a head-on impact, leaving Clark to open a big lead.
April 18, Aintree
1st in class, 3rd overall
Sears’ Willment Galaxie romps home. Clark makes a last-lap dash for second, but can’t shift Sir Gawaine Baillie’s self-entered Galaxie.
May 2, Silverstone
1st in class, 3rd overall
International Trophy meeting. Clark is brilliant, but can’t live with Sears or Dan Gurney’s Alan Brown Galaxie on the flat-out airfield circuit.
May 18, Crystal Palace
1st in class, 1st overall
Sears still holds sway around tighter confines in London, but a blown tyre hands Clark and Peter Arundell a Team Lotus one-two.
July 11, Brands Hatch (non-championship)
Clark not entered
No saloons for Clark on a day when he wins the British GP, but John Whitmore takes BJH 417B to another class and overall win to claim the Molyslip Trophy
August 3, Brands Hatch
1st in class, 2nd overall
Sears wins easily at the Guards Trophy meeting ahead of Clark and the Willment Cortina of Bob Olthoff
September 19, Oulton Park
1st in class, 1st overall
Ignition failure costs Sears again at Oulton, leaving Clark clear to win at the Gold Cup meeting. His maximum class B points tally of 48 is 10 clear of John Fitzpatrick’s Mini Cooper S.