PASSION FRUITFUL FOR DEFENDING INDY 500 CHAMP DARIO FRANCHITTI
Gary Graves, USA Today
INDIANAPOLIS — Every visit to Indianapolis Motor Speedway's infield museum reveals more history to Dario Franchitti, whose own racing tales are close to being immortalized as well.
On this most recent tour, the reigning Indianapolis 500 and two-time defending IndyCar Series champion marveled at past-era drivers' ability to maneuver heavier cars without power steering and aerodynamic changes that bumped speeds 15 mph in one year alone. No trip is complete without a stop by Jim Clark's Ford-powered Lotus that dominated in 1965, where car and driver carries special meaning for Franchitti, a fellow Scotsman, albeit of Italian descent.
He drove the No. 82 car around the Brickyard last fall, wearing a specially made replica fire suit, and will steer a sister version of the vehicle this summer at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in England. But Franchitti notes that the best way to honor Clark and tradition is winning his third 500 in Sunday's 100th anniversary running, a reachable achievement as he long as he maintains his singular focus.
"I don't think about it in those (historic) terms," said the Chip Ganassi Racing driver, whose other victory came in 2007 with Andretti Green (now Andretti Autosport). "I just think about trying to win this year's race and the rest will take care of itself. When I first came here, I struggled to qualify for the race and didn't know if I'd get another chance to come back. I'm very grateful that I did."
Franchitti's more grateful for his second chance around IndyCar, which has been almost as dominant as Clark's '65 win (190 laps led of 200). Franchitti left the series after that first Indy win and championship for a NASCAR ride with Ganassi, whose hiring of 2000 Indy winner Juan Pablo Montoya away from Formula One in 2006 started a wave of open-wheel drivers to stock cars.
That foray lasted just half a season due to sponsorship woes and then a broken leg which sidelined Franchitti for the rest of the year. He returned in 2009 with Ganassi and has won the last two titles by margins of five and 11 points, respectively, putting him on the cusp of becoming the series' first four-time champion — which could be boosted by a third Borg-Warner trophy in five starts.
Franchitti enters the weekend second in points, 14 behind Will Power. He won the season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla., after starting second and has finished no lower than fourth on the four-race road/street segment that opened the season. Already chosen as one of the 500's Greatest 33 drivers, Franchitti can become the 10th to win three times and only the sixth to go back-to-back.
"I don't know that it was so much a second chance as much as it was him realizing how much he loved Indy car racing," Ganassi said. "We were trying to run him in a lot of races, and he got his leg broken in a Nationwide race and that sort of took the wind out of the sails of the program. We were having sort of an up-and-down start, but he showed some great driving skills in places that are not that easy, like Bristol (Tenn.) and Talladega (Ala.).
"I look back on that segment as incomplete, but we learned a lot, and it's made us a better team, and it's made him a better driver. So in that respect, it was successful."
But as easy as Franchitti and teammate Scott Dixon have made things look for the Target-sponsored team, last weekend's Indy 500 qualifying revealed a rare setback. Both drivers made determined charges for the pole, but Franchitti's challenge ended embarrassingly on the fourth qualifying lap when his No. 10 Dallara/Honda ran out of fuel, leaving him to start ninth.
Dixon grabbed the pole for a moment before running out himself afterward. Alex Tagliani ultimately bumped him to the middle front with an average speed of 227.472 mph.
That breakdown remains a sore spot for Franchitti, who concedes that he probably wouldn't have won the pole but at least wanted to start up front after starting his last three Indys third, winning twice.
"I'm not laughing, Chip's not laughing, the whole team's not laughing," said Franchitti, who blamed the fuel mixup on miscommunication within both operations. "We worked so hard to put fast cars out there, and we just made a mistake. I will try very hard to make up for it on race day. It'll be tougher from ninth, though."
Seeing this easygoing type with a chip on his shoulder is a rare event, but it demonstrates Franchitti's drive that at times has been misunderstood as detachment. The 38-year-old, who lives in Nashville with his wife, entertainer Ashley Judd, fiercely guards his family's privacy, and even Ganassi, who has known him since their days in the former CART series (which merged with the IRL in 2009 to form IndyCar), said it has taken a while to get closer to his driver.
"Each year you peel back a layer of the onion, getting to know him and figuring him out," Ganassi said. "He's a likeable guy, but the more you get to know him, the more you like him and appreciate his career."
Already considered one of racing's best drivers, Franchitti's second act clearly seems focused on dominance, especially at Indy. He has led 239 laps over his last three starts and last May led six times for 155 laps, seemingly able to pick his spots.
It's not that easy of course, as circumstances play into the equation on the 2.5-mile oval as much as a good car and pit stops. That will be the case again Sunday, but as three-time Indy winner Bobby Unser points out, Franchitti's recent performances symbolize how well that combination has worked.
"I think Dario can drive anything, he loves racing that much," Unser said. "Here, you have to have luck along with other important factors, and those help you make your own. He was very good here before, but I think he's a better driver since he came back from NASCAR. He ate his humble pie, he learned. And he's making his own opportunities."
Making this journey better, Franchitti says, is that he feels more youthful than when he arrived here in 2002. So while he won't speculate on how many more Indys he can win, the window's still wide open for him to make history.
Especially since he appreciates it so well.
"I think it does motivate you, because that's where I got my love of the sport," Franchitti said, panning the museum. "For me, it's about winning any race and especially the Indianapolis 500. I always wanted to emulate these people doing this, and being part of this amazing club is a great byproduct."