Watching the penultimate round of the 2013 Formula 1 at the Circuit of the Americas and following finale of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, my mind has been devoted to the IndyCar Series. Involved in a three-car crash in the second race of the Shell/ Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston with Takuma Sato and EJ Viso, four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti announced his retirement from auto racing. In a posting on his official website Thursday, Franchitti stated, “
One month removed from the crash and based upon the expert advice of the doctors who have treated and assessed my head and spinal injuries post accident, it is their best medical opinion that I must stop racing. They have made it very clear that the risks involved in further racing are too great and could be detrimental to my long-term well-being. Based on this medical advice, I have no choice but to stop.”
For fan who watched that IndyCar race or replays that followed, the frightening scene was a clear message that sometimes the danger in motorsports is inescapable. The severity of the Houston crash was show clear it provoked Dario Franchitti’s veteran team owner Chip Ganassi to rush towards the crash scene. In the wreckage of a torn-up #10 Dallara-Honda race car, moments were spent waiting for some affirmative word on the popular Scottish driver. While some movement was spotted, Franchitti was in no condition to leave the remains of his race car without assistance. While seriously hurt with spinal fractures and an injured right ankle, there was hope Franchitti would have been ready for 2014. Auto racing has been the scene for some incredible comebacks from dangerous, life-threatening crashes with Ernie Irvan, Michael Schumacher and Mario Andretti among drivers who returned from serious accidents. However, in the case of Dario Franchitti, head injuries that included a concussion and spinal damage would lead to the end of the 40-year-old’s career.
Dario Franchitti’s career in American open wheel racing came to fruition through the aid of CART World Series owner Carl Hogan and Three-time Formula 1 World Champion Sir Jackie Stewart. As a young driver, Franchitti’s extensive European racing career involved a productive stint Formula Vauxhall Lotus piloting a vehicle for Paul Stewart Racing (a team owned by Jackie Stewart‘s son). His first major success came with a pole position at the 1997 Molson Indy in Toronto. Missing out to Rookie of the Year honours to Canadian Patrick Carpentier, Franchitti’s first season left many in the sport knowing there was signs of future brilliance in the Scottish driver. In 1998, Dario Franchitti was tabbed to drive a car for Team Green. Eventually, Michael Andretti brought into the Team Kool Green operation and moved to CART’s competitor, the Indy Racing League. Franchitti would stay with Andretti Green Racing (now existing as Andretti Autosport) through some daunting seasons that included a winless 2006 campaign. In 2007, the Scottish driver’s endurance was rewarded by a strong IndyCar Series year. The season in the #27 Andretti Green Racing car capped off when he took the 2007 championship when future Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon ran out of fuel on the last lap of the series finale.
At the risk of simply filling an article full of Dario Franchitti’s open wheel driving successes, allow me to sum up his racing career with 21 IndyCar wins and 10 CART World Series wins (collectively placing him eighth in all-time open wheel race in Indy-type cars), four championship titles in IndyCar as well as three Indianapolis 500 victories. Away from North American open wheel competition, Franchitti found success racing in the Grand Am Rolex Sports Car Series. Competing exclusively in the Rolex 24 at Daytona from 2008 to 2013, Franchitti was part of the Chip Ganassi Racing team that took a Lexus-powered Riley Daytona Prototype to victory in 2008. Coinciding with the Rolex 24 at Daytona victory, Dario Franchitti participated in a brief NASCAR career. Driving a Dodge for Chip Ganassi Racing’s, the Scot ran several NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series events. A NASCAR Nationwide Series pole at Watkins Glen was the highlight of a short stint in stock car racing shortened by an ankle injury midway through the season. It was after that stock car tour Dario Franchitti realized his home was racing for Target Chip Ganassi in a reunified IndyCar Series. He unofficially returned to the series late in 2008 for an exhibition race in Australia ahead of the 2009 season. Back in IndyCar, Dario Franchitti’s partnership with #10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing car proved to be an instant season-long tour de force.
In 2013, the Dario Franchitti’s year was hindered by a poor start to the IZOD IndyCar campaign. Collecting a round of third-place finishes, the #10 car was simply not at peak form. Some speculation has questioned the psychological affects of Franchitti’s widely publicized break-up with wife Ashley Judd (though the two have remained friends). A more technical analysis of Franchitti’s struggles reflects on the driver never quite adapting to the Dallara DW12 chassis. Since the start of the 2012 season, he had only one a single event. The silver lining was that the safety enhancements installed into the new IndyCar vehicle meant have protected him from even more serious harm in the wreck at Houston.
I will like to share some comments I received from the Scottish driver himself. Having previously wrote a 2010 IndyCar Series preview article, Franchitti had just captured his second IndyCar championship in 2009. As part of an answer to a question I asked about preparing for a series consisting of road courses and oval, he responded, “I’m enjoying the (series) schedule. You have to keep on it all the time. You have to keep physically fit and your mind in it. It doesn’t matter what it (schedule) throws at you, whether it’s Indianapolis one weekend or Milwaukee, the weekend after.” Looking back at the answers I received almost four years ago, it was interesting for me to note the words said prior to another two championships. “The depth of the competition has increased significantly with the unified series. I think that’s what makes it sweeter is we’ve got everybody together, and you’ve got a more balanced schedule as well.” Franchitti said regarding a title defence.
While an injury has forced him to prematurely end his career, Dario Franchitti has been in intimately affected by the ultimate dangers in auto racing. Franchitti’s close friend during his early CART days, Greg Moore was killed in the 1999 race at California Speedway. In 2011, Dan Wheldon died in the Las Vegas IndyCar finale. Wheldon had driven for Andretti Green Racing at the same time as Dario Franchitti. In addition, 1960s Formula 1 superstar Jim Clark, a home country inspiration to Franchitti, was killed in 1968 at the Hockenheimring. For this reason, it‘s fair to say Dario Franchitti was familiar with the risks associated with his chosen career.
Leaving aside his career as a driver, it will be quite an adjustment to not see Dario Franchitti’s name on the side of the #10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing car. It is likely that 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan will be taking over Franchitti’s former machine next year as the team switches to Chevrolet engines. An interesting fact, Franchitti won all of his CART/ IndyCar races with Honda power. As for the direction his life takes permanently outside of the race car, it should be encouraging for Dario Franchitti to consider his future outside of a closed circuit.
Information and photo source: Chris Nagy, Franchitti.com, IndyCar