The Racing Capital
of the World
November 15, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
Dario Franchitti had established himself as one of the “Legends of the Indianapolis 500” long before the three-time Indy winner and four-time IndyCar Series Champion driver made the difficult decision to follow doctor’s orders and quit his driving career Nov. 14.
He is one of just 10 drivers in the 102-year history of the “World’s Greatest Race” that has won the Indianapolis 500 three or more times, joining the true Mount Rushmore of motorsports names as A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford, Helio Castroneves, Bobby Unser, Louis Meyer, Mauri Rose and Wilbur Shaw.
He won his first Indianapolis 500 and the series championship in 2007 for Andretti Autosport and spent a season out of IndyCar racing as he attempted a switch to NASCAR. But the lure of the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar brought Franchitti back in 2009 to Target Chip Ganassi Racing, where he scored three more IndyCar titles and Indy 500 wins in 2010 and 2012.
Along with Castroneves, Franchitti appeared to have all the ingredients to join Foyt, Al Unser and Mears as the next four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500.
“I thought he had as good a shot as anybody to be the next four-time winner,” Mears said. “I’m never convinced of anything in this business. The only time I was convinced of winning the race was if I was past pit in at Indy and I could slide the rest of the way. I know he had as good a chance as anybody to win four Indy 500s because he had the ability, the talent and the team to do it. It takes everything together to make it happen.
“I definitely thought he had a very good shot at it.”
Mears was a master at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Indy wins in 1979, 1984, 1988 and 1991 – the shortest amount of time between his first and fourth Indy 500 wins. Franchitti won his first Indy 500 in 2007, was out of IndyCar in 2008 and scored IndyCar wins No. 2 and No. 3 in 2010 and 2012 getting to that mark in just four attempts between wins No. 1 and No. 3.
“He did a tremendous job – one of the best out there,” Mears said. “What always impressed me about him was his race craft. He was a smart racer and did what was necessary when it was necessary. His smoothness really stood out of me on a road course. He was one of the smoothest guys I ever watched on a road course. He was very impressive and did a tremendous job.”
Mears retired in 1992 at the age of 41 while Franchitti walks away at 40. The two never had a chance to race against each other, but Franchitti is one driver Mears would have loved to race wheel-to-wheel with.
“Sure, absolutely, it would have been a lot of fun to race against him,” Mears said. “He was a smart racer. He was one of these guys you would really have a lot of fun racing with – not just racing against but also racing with wheel-to-wheel. You could count on him like that. You could race within inches of him instead of feet and have fun doing it. You knew he wasn’t going to do anything out of the ordinary to catch anybody by surprise. You could count on his consistency, which would make a guy fun to race with.
“Plus, being quick, you would like to try to beat him because he is so fast and competitive.”
The only active driver in the IndyCar Series in line to become a four-time Indy 500 winner is Castroneves.
“They were contemporaries of each other and Helio still has a very good shot at winning four Indy 500s,” Mears said. “He is with the right team and equipment so he has a very good shot at it. It all falls down to the right team and driver and everything falling the right way. It can happen.
“We’re definitely going to miss him. He has always been such a great ambassador of our sport and supporter of it and has done a lot for the series. We’re all going to miss him, but I understand where he is coming from. We wish him all the best in whatever endeavors he does. Hopefully it will be sticking around the series.
“Somebody that loves the sport as much as he does you can’t just walk away. You want to stay involved in one form or another, so we’re looking forward to that.”
From 2009 to 2011, Team Penske driver Will Power battled Franchitti to the final race of the season for the championship only to fall short.
“We’re all going to miss those battles,” Mears said. “Dario was fun to race with, and Will feels the same way. He is going to miss the battles, and we will miss watching those battles because those were a lot of fun to watch. The sport is going to miss him, in general.”
Mario Andretti may have only won the Indianapolis 500 one time, in 1969, but he certainly is one of the greatest drivers of all time. He developed a close personal friendship with Franchitti when he was part of Andretti Green Racing (now Andretti Autosport).
“It hit me like a rock when I heard the decision,” Andretti said. “We’re losing a real champ, no question about it. I certainly respect his decision. If he needs any retirement advice, he should call me. It’s one of those that if you are a Dario fan like I am it’s not a happy moment because you like to see him race, but at the same time he has his reasons, and you have to respect it. He has contributed so much to the sport. He is one of those that made a difference. You hate to lose someone like that. As a driver he brought something very strong and meaningful for the sport.
“I have the greatest respect for him because I got to know his intellect. The guy is a very classy, classy man. You hold a conversation with him, you know he is at a very special level. He is a complete package as an individual, not just a race driver, no doubt about it. I feel very happy and lucky to call myself his friend, to be honest with you.
“The record speaks for itself. What he has accomplished is right up with the absolute elite, no doubt about it. People need to know about that.
“I think it’s important because Dario has a fan base, and fans will continue to go to the race and would love to see him there. I might even make him my teammate in the two-seater car. If he is willing to still come to the race, that is great for the series to have him around in whatever capacity he chooses. It would be very valuable if he does that.”
Parnelli Jones is another great driver who has just one Indy 500 victory to his record but remains one of the heroes of the sport. 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner Jones developed a strong friendship with Franchitti and recalled the key role Franchitti played in helping him achieve a trophy he always wanted.
“He is the one who helped me get my Baby Borg Trophy,” Jones said. “He came to my house with Rick Mears and the Baby BorgWarner, and I said, ‘God I have to have one of them.’
“They asked me to come to Detroit to give Dario his Baby Borg, and I did that and he turned around and presented me with one. What a proud moment that was. I have great memories of the guy.
“God bless him he’s still around, but we are going to miss him in racing.”
Jones wasn’t afraid to admit that Franchitti was his favorite driver of this era.
“It’s a total, total shock to me,” Jones said. “He was such an asset and needed individual for IndyCar racing. I hate to see him give it up, but I guess there is a time for everything. What a great guy he is and what a great race driver he is. He is walking away at the top of his game, just as I did. I guess I can understand that. He has certainly done everything he could possibly have done there. The only other goal he had was to win Indy again. We are going to miss him and need him for IndyCar racing.
“He was such a pleasant guy to be around. He was somebody to look up to, and I looked up to him very much. He was an asset to IndyCar racing and a good guy on top of it. I hate to see him not be around as much. God, we are going to miss him at the racetrack. What a neat guy. I enjoyed my relationship with him.”
The late Jim Clark was Franchitti’s hero. 1965 Indianapolis 500 winner Clark was also from Scotland, as is Franchitti, and Jones saw similarities in the two drivers from vastly different eras.
“Dario had such an admiration for Jimmy Clark, and I know the Lotus that we had he got a chance to come back and sit in that Lotus of Jim Clark,” Jones said. “He was so proud of that. They were two guys that came out of the same tree. They were much alike.
“Dario knew how to put it together. He certainly had a lot of talent and was driving for a good team with Ganassi and had a good relationship with him teammates. He knew how to win and be there at the end. That’s something that some of us didn’t have.”
Bobby Rahal won the 1986 Indianapolis 500 and was a three-time CART champion. Current IndyCar Series team owner Rahal is 20 years older than Franchitti but considers the driver as a great friend.
“Dario is a class act and was a great driver over the years,” Rahal said. “He’s been a good friend. I have great respect for his driving abilities and his persona – who he is. He has had a great career. It’s a shame it ended the way it has but he made the right decision. I suspect he will continue to play an important role in motorsports in the years to come.”
And then there is the greatest Indianapolis 500 legend of all – A.J. Foyt. The first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 entered the sport in a bygone era where death lurked around every corner. In his first Indianapolis 500 in 1958, the rookie Foyt had Pat O’Connor as his mentor. Foyt grew close to O’Connor, but that friendship didn’t last long because O’Connor was killed in a massive multi-car crash on the first lap of the 1958 500-Mile Race.
Foyt won his first Indianapolis 500 in 1961 in a fierce battle with Eddie Sachs. When Foyt won his second Indianapolis 500 in 1964, Sachs and Dave MacDonald were killed in a horrific crash in the fourth turn of the second lap, which was the first time in the history of the Indy 500 the race had ever been stopped for a crash.
This was an era where race drivers drove hurt. But little was known about the lingering and dangerous effects of concussions – the primary injury that forced Franchitti to stop racing.
“If the doctors tell him he should quit, then he should listen to them,” Foyt said. “I'm the opposite and never would listen, but I probably would have been a lot better off if I did. But Dario's won a lot of races and championships, so he has a lot to be proud of. My hat's off to him."
Instead of becoming the next four-time Indianapolis 500 winner, Franchitti’s career ends as a three-time winner. But considering some of the drivers on that list, that’s pretty good company.
“You can’t begrudge somebody making a decision like that,” said three-time winner Bobby Unser. “I don’t think they like to get bit as much as they did in the old days. I don’t blame him a bit. I can’t sit here and name them off, but I’ve known a lot of race drivers that have gotten themselves bit in the past. A lot of them continued on because they liked the money and didn’t want to lose that, but they didn’t go fast after that.
“First of all, the guy was a really good race driver. He was really quick. He didn’t do good in the stock cars, but people like me didn’t hold that against him because there are very few open-wheel drivers that could drive stock cars. I never held that against Dario. When he came back to IndyCar, he went fast again and fast consistently. I had the utmost respect for him. He was eager and wanted to go fast and by golly he did go fast.
“But he got hurt and I don’t blame him for doing that. He’s 40 years old. In most cases – not all of them – that’s the end of a guy’s career in terms of going fast. There were some really good ones that were able to continue, and they stuck around until they were going slow. None of us like that. It’s hard to leave something that you were so good at.
“With Dario, I’m kind of proud of him that he had the fortitude to say my butt got kicked and I’m leaving. That’s OK with me. I’ll like the guy just as much because he was a really great race driver.”
“Uncle Bobby,” as he is now known, admits he was a driver who never feared about getting injured. For the most part, he was able to avoid serious injury in his career. He retired from racing after the 1981 season for other reasons.
“I was flat-ass ornery,” Unser said. “Nothing would slow me down. I’ve always been that way. I just wish that I could do it again. Seeing Dario quit, I think he’s just smarter, that’s all.
“I wasn’t smart enough to get hurt and slow down. I just quit totally because I missed my oldest son, Bobby Jr., in the growing years. I was on the road racing all the time. I lived in Indianapolis and traveled the United States and the world. So when Robby came up, I had my race shop, and I wanted to be there for him. That’s the reason I decided to quit. If I had not made enough money and accomplished what I did – by that time I was 47 years old and I had already made a couple of bucks. I didn’t have to have the money and wanted to have at least one son that I could watch grow up and help him race. I passed up the first two kids completely, and that was kinda sad.
“That was the reason. Nobody worried me, scared me or I couldn’t outrun on a normal day. I was fast, I was ornery, teammates didn’t like me, and I didn’t like teammates and I wasn’t worried about that.”
And that is where there is a major difference between Bobby Unser and Dario Franchitti – Franchitti liked his teammates.
“Dario was always excited and motivated,” Unser said. “That is what you like to see. The first thing after he won Indy, he came walking by and people are talking to him, and I came out of the motorhome and talked to him and he wanted me to talk to him. The first thing he asked if how did I feel about him becoming a three-time winner. Instead of being jealous and anxious, I was proud of him because he really won that race. Takuma Sato almost got him and came really, really close. It was an act of God that Sato was the only one that hit the wall and Dario won the race. He was worried about how does Bobby Unser feel about being a three-time winner, and I felt really good.
“No. 1 he’s a likable guy. No. 2 he’s a good race driver. No. 3, he fricking earned it. It was some real racing. I was totally proud of him, and I told him that and meant it.”
Rutherford is another three-time Indy 500 winner who started his career in the 1960s, when drivers in the Indianapolis 500 were similar to test pilots in aviation. The desire to go faster and faster led to innovation but often had dangerous consequences.
Franchitti has experienced the dangers of racing, most recently in the crash at Houston that ended his career on Oct. 6. Two of his closest friends did not survive accidents, with Greg Moore killed in the 1999 CART finale at Fontana, Calif., and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon killed in the 15-car pileup at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the 2011 IndyCar Series finale.
“Dario had success at the right times and experienced some things where he was very lucky getting upside-down twice and that could have done him in at Michigan or Kentucky in 2007,” Rutherford said. “We thought he would recover and carry on, but if the doctors told him to stop, that is his opportunity and his time and more power to him.
“I’ve always thought a great deal of Dario as a person and as a driver. For him to make that decision is a bit of a shock. He is young enough to keep going, but there comes a time, and I don’t think Foyt or myself or Andretti other than being forced to it wanted to quit and didn’t think we could still do it. If that is Dario’s decision, that is good. That is the hardest thing to do is pull the plug on something you loved doing your whole life and enjoyed doing so much. He has been very successful at it. That is a bit of a shock, but under the circumstances now, we know he has quit racing.”
Rutherford believes IndyCar will miss Franchitti not only for his outstanding racing ability but also for his charm, personality, fun-loving nature and dignity.
“I think he is very good,” Rutherford said. “He is one of the best in the current regime, for sure. That’s tough. I would have liked to have seen him back in our day, but that is not going to happen. He is all the things that I think a driver should be. He was very smooth, very calculated. He doesn’t push the envelope. He does it right. That is why when you said he quit it was a shock because he still has that going for him.
“He was all of the things that IndyCar needs right now. He is a very smart guy and one of the few other than some that had been in the business for a while that was interested in learning the history of the business. He wanted to know everything he could find out about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its history.
“He is one of us.”