Dario Franchitti Goes Out With Dignity
Shortly after it was apparent that Dario Franchitti had survived the frightening crash we all witnessed during the Grand Prix of Houston; speculation began as to whether or not Franchitti would resume his legendary driving career next spring. Those close to the situation were surmising that he would probably retire. The general feeling was that he had attained every possible goal anyone could have in racing. He was over forty and common sense said the crash had spooked him enough that he would step away.
Although that made sense, my gut told me that he would return. I didn’t think he would return in a one-off at Indianapolis. I thought he would return full-time to the No.10 Target car. I felt that he was still on a quest to become the fourth four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 and to beat Helio Castroneves in his similar quest.
Dario Franchitti is a private man, but this much we do know about him – he is also a proud man. I didn’t think he wanted to go out this way. Few athletes do. But fewer get to go out on their own terms, no matter how stellar a career they have had. John Elway is one of the few athletes whose career had a storybook ending. I’d like to think Peyton Manning will, but that is yet to be determined. Most either go out the way Joe Theismann did (via gruesome injury) or Brett Favre or Ed Reed (hanging around a year too long).
Race car drivers are the same. Few get to leave the sport with dignity the way that Rick Mears did. Most have their careers halted due to injury, like Emerson Fittipaldi or Alex Zanardi. Others fall victim to Father Time in the way that AJ Foyt and Johnny Rutherford ended their glorious careers, with mostly a whimper.
Before his injury, some had suggested that Franchitti’s skills had aged. I was not one of them. I thought it was more of his not coming to grips with the DW12 for whatever reason. Some said it was due to his old-style habit of right-foot braking. Helio Castroneves came up as a right-footer, yet he is still very competitive. I’m not an engineer or a driver, but I think it was the entire package of the DW12 compared to the old-style Dallara that gave Franchitti fits. Still, he figured it out enough to win the 2012 Indianapolis 500 in a DW12 with a Honda engine that was considered very suspect going into the month.
Whatever the case, Dario Franchitti announced yesterday that he would be stepping out of the car for good. But it wasn’t so much that he was spooked by the Houston crash. Instead, it was the grim news delivered by doctors, including Dr. Steve Olvey, who served as Medical Operations Director for CART for several years. Olvey is to neurology, what Dr. Terry Trammell is to orthopedics. Both are highly respected in their field in the IndyCar community.
Olvey was quoted in Racer saying that Franchitti had suffered multiple concussions close together at one point, and the one in Houston was “…a big one, a significant concussion”. Franchitti is reportedly still having trouble with short-term memory and is still not cleared to drive his personal car on the road. That’s scary.
So, in the end – it wasn’t the mangled ankle or the two broken vertebrae that permanently sidelined Dario Franchitti. It was the history of concussions. As we have all learned, from everything currently going on with head injuries in the NFL – you don’t mess around with concussions. The consequences are too great to risk further injury. Each concussion has a cumulative effect. A fourth Borg-Warner trophy is simply not worth the risk if you’re not even going to remember it in a few years.
So, instead, we are left with almost two decades of racing memories from Dario Franchitti.
When he first came onto the scene in 1997, I took an immediate liking to Franchitti. He drove his under-funded entry for Carl Hogan with passion and skill. He looked Italian, but spoke like Sean Connery. When he moved on to Barry Green’s Team Kool Green, he was the likeable and classy guy to serve as the foil to his bad-boy teammate Paul Tracy. In the ill-fated season finale at Fontana in 1999, when his best friend Greg Moore lost his life – I was desperately pulling for Franchitti to win the race and the championship. He finished tenth in the race, thereby finishing tied for first with Juan Montoya in the championship. However, since Montoya had more wins than Franchitti that season, Montoya was declared the champion.
When Michael Andretti bought Team Kool Green, he renamed the team Andretti-Green Racing and moved the team over to the IRL in 2003. Tracy remained in CART, but Franchitti made the move. He was teamed with Andretti and fellow CART refugee Tony Kanaan. Unfortunately, Franchitti broke his back in a motorcycle accident in April, and was out for the season. After Robby Gordon subbed for Franchitti at Indianapolis, Bryan Herta was tabbed to fill in for the rest of the season. He did such a good job, that a fourth seat was created for Herta in 2004. When Andretti stepped out of the cockpit after the 2003 Indianapolis 500, Dan Wheldon became a full-time team member. Franchitti remained with the team and returned fully recovered for 2004. Thus was born one of the closest and tight-knit teams that I’ve ever seen in all the years I’ve followed this sport.
Franchitti, Wheldon, Kanaan and Herta were best of friends off the track and fierce competitors on the track. Each left the team for various reasons. At the memorial service for Dan Wheldon, the remaining three took the stage together. By then, Franchitti was driving for Chip Ganassi, Kanaan for KV Racing Technology and Herta was an Indianapolis 500 winning team owner. But their chemistry together was palpable. The three remain best friends to this day.
Dario Franchitti’s legacy was secure no matter if he came back or not. His stats are impressive. Two-hundred sixty five career Indy car starts, thirty-one wins, thirty-three poles, ninety-two podiums and four IndyCar Series championships along with three Indianapolis 500 victories. His four championships are second only to AJ Foyt on the all-time list. He is only the third driver in Indy car history to win three consecutive titles. In addition, he was a great champion and an outstanding ambassador for the sport we love.
But beyond his stats, he has an immense appreciation and passion for the history of this sport. He readily admits that his first Indianapolis 500 in 2002 didn’t mean that much to him. When he missed the race in 2003, it bothered him much more than he thought it would. During his recovery time, he immersed himself in the history of the sport, starting with his countryman and lifelong hero Jim Clark. By the time he won his first Indianapolis 500, he was in awe of the place and the magnitude of the achievement was not lost on him. For the second and third wins, you could tell that he appreciated it more and more each time.
When Franchitti won his final Indianapolis 500 in 2012, I was appalled at the boos that poured down upon him from the crowd. Whether it was because it was perceived he took out Takuma Sato on the last lap or fans were tired of him winning, I thought it was very uncalled for. I wasn’t necessarily pulling for Franchitti to win the race, but I appreciated the fact that we were all witnessing greatness and did not feel that he deserved to be booed.
There is already speculation as to who will be filling the seat of the No.10. To me, that’s a discussion for another day. Today, I would prefer to focus more on remembering Franchitti’s career, rather than who will be replacing him. When it’s all said and done; after going through all of Dario Franchitti’s stats, his accomplishments and realizing his appreciation of the sport’s history – I think the most important way to remember Dario Franchitti will be through the eyes of Tony Kanaan, Bryan Herta, Scott Dixon and others. They will have one simple, but very poignant word to describe him – friend.
Best of luck, Dario.