The City Of Champions
It’s tough being a sports fan in the state of Tennessee, right now. My Tennessee Vols lost four games in October, while the Tennessee Titans won for the first time in almost a month this past Sunday in an uninspired victory over the winless Colts (sorry, Indianapolis). The Nashville Predators have been hot and cold while hovering around .500 all month. It speaks volumes that the Vanderbilt Commodores are the team generating the most buzz in the state, while sitting at 4-4.
One story that has been predictably overlooked in the Music City, is that Nashville is now home to the reigning champions of the two top open-wheel series in North America. Except for the dozen or so that follow open-wheel racing in our fair city, I doubt that anyone knows (or cares) that Nashvillian Josef Newgarden has joined fellow Nashville area resident Dario Franchitti at the top of their respective series.
Granted, Dario Franchitti’s fourth IZOD IndyCar Series championship was justifiably overshadowed by Dan Wheldon’s fatal injuries at Las Vegas. But I would have thought that it would have been a slight topic of interest in what’s left of our local paper, The Tennessean, to note that Nashville is now the home of not one, but two reigning champions in auto racing. Apparently not.
I don’t say this just because I live here, but I think Josef Newgarden is one of the most promising young talents we’ve seen come up through Firestone Indy Lights in quite a while. He pretty well dominated the series from the very first race. When I had the privilege of sitting down with him earlier this summer and interviewing him, I was impressed. He didn’t seem like any twenty year-old I had ever met – and I say that as the father of two in their early twenties.
He had the enthusiasm of his age group, but the maturity of someone at least ten years older. His talent was evident when watching the Indy Lights races on Versus, but you don’t realize his passion until you meet him face to face. He is articulate, personable and could be a marketer’s dream. Last night, Curt Cavin even mentioned Newgarden as a possible candidate for Andretti Autosport’s Go-Daddy car.
Like Dario Franchitti, Josef Newgarden seems to appreciate a lot of the history of this sport and already gets what it will mean to race in his first Indianapolis 500. When we first sat down to talk in June, he first treated the interview as the one of many that day that the series had set up for his “media day” in Nashville. But when we got into it, he could tell that I knew more about his sport than the endless parade of radio people that were interviewing him strictly off of a bio they had just received. We sat in the Cheesecake Factory at a mall near my home for over an hour just talking racing. He was finally pulled away when the INDYCAR PR person came back to get him. Otherwise, we could have stayed through the night – a young kid and an old goat – swapping race stories.
When Dario Franchitti first came to the Indianapolis 500 with Team Kool Green in 2002; he admits he didn’t get it. He knew that it was a race that his countryman, Jim Clark had won back in 1965 (my first race), but other than that, he didn’t understand all of the hoopla surrounding the event. He later admitted that it wasn’t until missing the 2003 race with a broken back from a motorcycle accident, that he fully understood what the Indianapolis 500 was all about. Two Indianapolis 500 victories and four series championships later, I’d say Dario Franchitti gets it now.
Nashville is a pretty good sports town for a town its size. With an NFL franchise, an NHL team, AAA baseball, a former IndyCar venue, Vandy basketball (ranked No.7-preseason) and the Tennessee Vols just three hours up the road; there are a lot of things to fill the gaps on sports talk-radio and the (shorter by the day) sports section of The Tennessean.
Still, it’s fairly uncommon to have two championship drivers in your town. OK, saying they are in the same town is a bit of a stretch. Newgarden was born and raised in Hendersonville, TN which is about fifteen miles north of downtown Nashville in Sumner County. Franchitti and wife Ashley Judd live in Leiper’s Fork, TN – about twenty-five miles southwest of Music City in Williamson County. Although they both live forty miles apart, they still live in what is considered the greater Nashville area – so we’ll claim them.
Forty miles is not the only thing that separate these two men. Both are in direct opposite stages of their careers. In the few years that Josef Newgarden has been racing, he has placed second in the Skip Barber National series (2008) and the British Formula Ford championship (2009), before winning the 2011 Indy Lights title for Sam Schmidt motorsports. His career is just beginning.
Dario Franchitti, on the other hand, is thirty-eight yet seems to be at his peak. He just keeps getting better with age. After finishing third in points in 1998, Franchitti barely missed winning the CART championship in 1999, when he was tied with Juan Montoya in points but Montoya won the title on a tie-breaker. His last year in CART was 2002, when he finished fourth. Shortly after he made the move to the IRL with the newly formed Andretti-Green Racing in 2003, Franchiti was out for the season after the aforementioned motorcycle accident. After four full seasons with AGR, he finally won the Indianapolis 500 and his first IRL championship in 2007.
After a failed attempt at NASCAR in 2008, Franchitti stormed back to IndyCar with Chip Ganassi in 2009 and has won the championship every year since his return, along with another Indianapolis 500 victory in 2010. His record since the 2007 season is nothing short of remarkable. Franchitti has recently irked some longtime fans (including myself) with a perceived sense of entitlement on the track that I don’t remember seeing just five years ago. Maybe it’s something they teach him at Ganassi, but it has turned off a few fans lately.
His winning ways, his actions on the track and his demeanor on camera have caused cheers to erupt when misfortune finds him. It probably will not be until he retires that we will truly realize his greatness. When it is all said and done, though – his name will belong in the mix with only the greatest that this sport has seen. The question is – how much longer will Franchitti keep going? He is always year-to-year and has yet to sign for 2012, although all indications are that he will. But he will be forty prior to the 2013 Indianapolis 500. One has to wonder how much longer he can continue to perform at this level, although he certainly shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
After the events at Las Vegas, INDYCAR has had its hands full with many pressing issues – most far more important than creating press releases celebrating its champions. I’m sure I’m not the first to realize the unique set of circumstances that both champions live in an area not known as a hotbed for open-wheel racing; yet I’ve yet to hear or see anything about this from any local outlet.
Does it speak to the insignificance of the Firestone Indy Lights Series? Is it the way the IZOD IndyCar Series is perceived? Was there going to be a media campaign in Nashville that was put on hold after Wheldon’s fatality? Maybe it’s just that I’m the only one that thinks this is a pretty neat deal that both open-wheel champions live in my neck of the woods.
Whatever the case, I do think it’s a big deal to have these two champions within a twenty minute drive of my house (I live in south Nashville). Not that they hang out in my circles, mind you. In the ten-plus years that Dario has lived here, I’ve never seen him anywhere around town other than at the Nashville IndyCar race which has been defunct since 2008. I would also question my sanity if I spent time where Josef Newgarden and other twenty year-olds hang out.
So while fans of the Titans, Predators and Commodores bemoan the fact that Nashville may never see a championship in their lifetime – there are two great champions sitting right here.