Best Of A Generation
When old-timers or curmudgeons (one in the same?) like me sit around and discuss the greatest Indy car drivers of all time it’s usually a debate about who is No. 1 but there’s never an argument about the candidates: A.J., Mario, Parnelli, Gurney, Rutherford and the Unsers.
They were the most versatile and skilled in an era we will never see again and their careers were long and legendary when open wheel racing was lethal.
Because they jumped back and forth between midgets, sprints, dirt cars, sports cars, Formula One, F5000 and Trans Am, it’s impossible (and wrong) to rank any of the modern day drivers in their class.
Rick Mears, Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal and Al Unser Jr. were the Bad Asses of the ‘80s and ‘90s, when Indy car stars still had grunt, a national following and a Q factor.
Alex Zanardi and Juan Montoya were brilliant, just not around long enough, in the late ‘90s and Paul Tracy spent most of the past two decades thrilling us.
Now the average Joe probably wouldn’t recognize Dario Franchitti on the street, let alone know how to spell or pronounce his last name.
But a pretty strong argument can be made that the 37-year-old Scot belongs in the conversation when that “best” word is used.
“Absolutely, he’s one of the best in my opinion,” said a three-time USAC, 1984 CART and 1978 Formula One champion who answers to the name Mario. “The versatility he’s demonstrated in his driving is very special. He’s the complete package, very precise on a road course and he’s the same way on an oval.
“I’m a big fan of Dario, not only as a friend, but I have a definite appreciation for his talents.”
Franchitti’s body of work alone (three time IndyCar champ and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner) puts him in the elite status but its how he adapted to the split personality of American open wheel racing in the last 15 years that’s impressive.
From 1997 to 2002, during CART’s hey days when it had 900 horsepower, a deep talent pool and was the most challenging series in the world, he won 10 races, lost the ’99 title on a tie-breaker to Montoya and had few peers in road racing.
When he joined the Indy Racing League in 2003, it was still 100 percent ovals, 90 percent throttle, and balls one-upped brains 80 percent of the time.
For a guy who was never wild about ovals and whose strength was finesse, running flat out for two hours in a pack at Texas or Chicago or Kansas City seemed like a bad fit.
But he had driver’s tracks like Milwaukee, Richmond and Indianapolis to placate him while learning to cope with the suicide circuit. It wasn’t long before he scored wins at Chicago, Homestead and Fontana.
By 2007, when IRL was starting to morph into CART Lite with road courses and street circuits, that was right in his roundhouse. He claimed his initial Indy win and title that year and then headed south.
NASCAR didn’t work out but when Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan both turned Chip Ganassi down in the fall of 2008, Franchitti was back in an Indy car.
“It’s pretty cool to look back and think what’s happened in the last couple years,” said Franchitti, who has won eight times and led 1,047 laps in his back-to-back championships. “I missed driving an Indy car and to get a chance to come back with Chip and Target was perfect.
“I’ve got a great relationship with Chris (Simmons, his engineer) and my crew and Dixie (Scott Dixon) is a great teammate. I couldn’t ask for a better situation.”
Overcoming a 55-point deficit to Will Power with four races remaining took a great call from Simmons (not to take tires on the last pit stop at Chicago which vaulted Franchitti from ninth to first), beating Power at Kentucky and Japan and then applying a psychological dagger to the gifted Aussie at Homestead.
“Did he have a couple of great breaks? Sure he did but he took advantage of every opportunity like a great talent should,” said Mr. Andretti.
Nothing demonstrated his professionalism like last weekend. He needed to win the pole for one point. Check. He needed to lead the most laps. Check. It turned out he didn’t need to win the race but, believe it, he would have if that’s what was required.
The guy who idolizes Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart drives just like they did – with his brain connected to his right foot, smooth as silk, aggressive when it’s time to be and always trustworthy at speed.
One of the highlights of his life came last month when Dario got to drive Clark’s 1965 Lotus around IMS and it was somewhat symbolic since both were road racers who developed a respect and affinity for Indianapolis.
Of course the surreal thing is that Franchitti has more ovals wins (8) than road course victories since ’07, turning left enabled him to catch Power and he captured the oval track title named for Foyt this year.
An irony not lost on him.
“I got to have my picture taken with A.J. and the trophy named after him and that was very cool, me and A.J.,” chuckled Franchitti, whose appreciation and knowledge of Indy car history runs deep.
“Obviously, I could never have imagined being an oval track champion when I first came over here.”
Like the message on his answering machine, Anthony Joseph Foyt Jr. doesn’t waste a lot of words but the all-time Indy car winner gave Dario a Texas-sized compliment.
“Well, he’s got the best equipment but he’s a helluva road racer and he’s pretty damn strong on the ovals,” said Super Tex. “I don’t know where he ranks, that’s hard to figure because my era was so much different than his. But he’s damn good.”
It’s impossible to say how Franchitti might have fared on the treacherous oil dirt of Langhorne, in the wet at Spa in a flimsy F1 car, on the high banks of Salem in a sprinter or at Indy in a roadster with eight-inch tires.
All we can measure is what he’s done with what Indy car has become during the past 15 years. And nobody has done it better.