FULL-SPEED AHEAD FOR FRANCHITTI
IndyCar's Franchitti reflects on friends lost and what keeps him on course
By Matthew Scianitti
July 6, 2012
Don't call Dario Franchitti a survivor.
"I would say we all go through a lot to get here, whether it is the injuries or the hardships to get to this point in our sport," he says sitting with his feet up inside the Chip Ganassi Racing trailer at Toronto's Exhibition Place on Thursday afternoon. It looks as if he could be sitting in the cockpit of his race car. "Survivor seems a bit strong."
No, call Dario Franchitti a champion, an Indianapolis 500 champion, after his third victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May. What does it feel like to cross the storied finish line paved with bricks?
"I was still almost in shock," he says. "Not shock; I was still gathering myself from the first corner [after nearly colliding with Takuma Sato near the end], and what happened because as he spun, and came backward, he hit me. I was still very much recovering from that."
"The last lap under caution was very much still processing that and thinking, 'Holy crap, if you give [Sato] any more room you're just going to crash' - Then there is that feeling of crossing the finishing line, and 'Oh my God, I've done it again.'"
It the incredible feeling that glosses over an "average" season of bumps, spent fuel and mechanical failures that has Franchitti, the reigning IndyCar champion, in eighth place in the season standings, 70 points behind points leader Will Power before Sunday's Honda Indy Toronto.
I don't think you can take Indy out the equation - ," Franchitti says. "Indy is massive."
And not simply for the wreath, the trophy and the buttermilk, but for the subtext: His teammates, and his movie star wife Ashley Judd absorbing him in their smiles inside Victory Lane, and how the race results raised the spirits.
"I was kind of looking at the position of different guys, and saw Scott [Dixon] second and Tony [Kanaan] third, that is when I thought of Dan [Wheldon] and Michael Wanser [son of team manager Barry Wanser], who died last year of cancer," Franchitti says, "and I was thinking of those guys pretty quickly."
And he poured the winner's traditional milk on his head, because Wheldon, his former teammate, who died in a crash in Las Vegas at the end of last season, had done the same after winning last year's Indy 500, and because it felt so cold and so right, even if it stank on him later in the Indiana sun.
"What a race, what a race," Franchitti said while standing in Victory Lane after starting 16th. "I think D-Dub [Dan Wheldon] would be proud of that one."
And in the tears of the moment, perhaps the cost of a glittering career emerged. Franchitti also suffered through the death of his great friend, Vancouver driver Greg Moore on the California Speedway in October 1999. When the media crowded around him during press day in Indianapolis, they asked him to qualify the emotions of the race after Wheldon's death. "I'm not ready," Franchitti said, and dug a hole within himself. He wants to be far away from memories of flame and twisted metal.
But Thursday there was the Scotsman's unmistakable smooth smile. "It gets easier, the pain gets less as the years go on. But, especially with - It has been a long time since Greg died, but do I still miss him? Absolutely, and it is the same with Dan"
But don't call Dario Franchitti a survivor.
"Yeah, it is a [dangerous] sport, but it happens everyday to people who do normal things, normal jobs, people die," he says.
"But I think, when you lose a friend or a loved one, whether it is in day-to-day life or at the race track it is no different, with Greg or with Dan, to me it was no different than losing a family member. That is the best way I can describe it."
And yet, Franchitti says he has never dragged the pain with him. Through four IndyCar championships, he has never lived for Moore. He wears two bracelets dedicated to Wheldon, but will not drive any faster for the Englishman. But he dreams about seeing them on the track again, and laughs about what they might have done, and what they the competition might have felt like.
"I have asked myself, and I asked myself after Greg died: Do I still want to [race]?" he says. "After Greg died, I had a while, because I didn't drive the car again until the January - Greg died in October. And I jumped in the car in January and had a failure in the car, and properly shattered my pelvis and busted my head up. Concussion. That really tested my desire to want to do this.
"Then when I broke my back [in April 2003] when I was on my motorbike, I asked myself do I still want to do this? I had to have an operation if I wanted to drive the car again. I had to have rods put [in]. Or I could have lived a normal life without racing again, without rods. But I said, 'No I still want to do it.' And then when I came back from NASCAR [in 2008], did I still want to go back to Indy Car? Absolutely. And then recently, obviously when Dan died: Do I want to do this? The answer has always come back, yes."
Maybe he will talk to Ganassi before next season, and maybe it will be the team that does not want him, but the right now he still wants to sit in the cockpit, apart from the rest of the world, with only the steering wheel and the road. It is the little universe he spoke of last year - the next corner, the straightaway - before winning in Toronto for the third time.
So call Franchitti something more than a champion, because from daydreams of Moore and Wheldon burns some kind of passion, even at 39. Call him, instead, a competitor, a race car driver.
"You can't control everything, you just get in there and do your job," he says. "You play the hand you're dealt to try and win the thing."
View the National Post article here