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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Dixon & Franchitti preview the IRL season

by Gordon Kirby
First of all, congratulations to Ross Brawn and his drivers Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello for upending Formula 1's applecart in Australia last weekend. Brawn has demonstrated yet again that he is the smartest, most practical designer in F1 who adroitly used Honda's massive budget last year to develop his new car in no fewer than three wind tunnels running continually on a daily basis around the world. The guys at Honda who made the decision to pull-out have been made to look like fools and the rest of the F1 field have been exposed for being lost amid the tunnel thinking that so often envelopes F1.

And too, between NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow, the IRL's de facto spec car and these latest F1 cars one can only conclude that racing's leaders have lost all sense of aesthetics, if not their minds. Can somebody please reinvent some attractive, flowing beautiful race cars for us to enjoy?

Meanwhile, the IRL's IndyCar season kicks off next weekend in St. Petersburg in company with round two of the ALMS series. Both series are struggling to pull together twenty competitive cars so it will be interesting to see how the street races play in St. Pete next weekend and Long Beach two weeks later.

Favorites to win this year's IRL championship have to be Chip Ganassi's defending champions Target team with Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. Dixon won both the Indy 500 and IndyCar championship last year while Franchitti achieved the same double in 2007 with Andretti-Green. After spending most of last year making a failed experiment in NASCAR Dario returns to Indy car racing this year and he and Dixon are friendly teammates who should be very hard to beat on all types of tracks.

"You can't discount Penske or Andretti-Green," Franchitti said about the competition. "Tony Kanaan is always a threat and I expect both the Penske guys, Briscoe and Will Power, to be very strong. And I think you'll see guys like Graham Rahal and Doornbos coming up as Newman/Haas/Lanigan learn the car."

Dixon doesn't mind being called the favorite but he knows plenty of people will be trying to beat he and Franchitti.

"Just because we're the last two Indy 500 champions and IndyCar series champions there's going to be a lot of people pushing to beat us," Dixon commented. "I think it's good for the confidence of the team and everybody involved. But to be honest, I think the team has developed more in the off-season than it has in previous seasons. I just think they've been working harder. There have been more updates or looking in different areas to find improvements. I think everybody is really motivated."

Franchitti agrees with Dixon.

"I think the team and Scott are very motivated to keep the momentum going and not get complacent," Dario remarked. "I guess you're right to say Scott is the favorite at this point. But I'm never one to read much into that because the years that people have said to me you're the favorite have been the worst years. The years when people have been saying this guy's ready to retire I went out and won the championship. So I think we're both just going to go out and do our best and see what comes of it.

"The team is very strong," Dario added. "We did a private test at Phoenix and we've done some road course testing and a wee bit of superspeedway stuff and I can see where their strength is. There are some things that Scott does a lot different than I do and vice-versa, and we're starting to feed off each other and push each other as well. I think adapting to the team is not difficult because they're such a good team. It's not like you're in there trying to reinvent the wheel."

Franchitti's car will be engineered this year by longtime Ganassi engineer and former driver Chris Simmons.

"It takes a little bit of time to get that communication going with any driver and engineer relationship and Chris and I are doing a good job there," Dario said. "If we had two years experience under our belt we'd be in better shape, but that will take time and I'm confident we'll get there."

Dixon says he and Franchitti immediately struck an excellent working relationship.

"We've been friends for years," Scott said. "Dario's helped me out in a few situations. I think with most of the drivers in the IndyCar series it's different from a lot of other series. We all get on pretty well away from the track and I think Dario and I both respect each other greatly for what we've achieved and what we can do. I think both of us are hungry and inner team competition is the best competition you can have.

"The biggest difference for me is having a person who is willing straight out of the box to share and work together. The last teammate I had it was a nightmare early on but then we became really good friends and it worked. But it took a year to get that process going, whereas with Dario, it began immediately."

Franchitti again agrees with Dixon's assessment.

"I was with Team Green and AGR for ten years and to go away from that comfort zone is a bit difficult. Whatever happened at AGR with all the different teammates there was always a core of Tony (Kanaan) and I. We were very good friends and we worked together very well and I see the same thing with Scott. We're very open with each other. We both think we can do the job and we both want to try to beat each other. The engineers are very open as well. So it's very good.

"Working together and having the right attitude and trust is what's going to push us forward, not so much on the good days but on the bad days when things are not going well and we have to dig ourselves out of a hole. That's when the strength of the team and strength of the relationship really shows."

Testing has been further reduced this year and fewer practice days are scheduled during the month of May at Indianapolis.

"It's a hard point for a lot of people, even Dario coming back," Dixon observed. "There's not much testing and that makes it really hard on the young guys. I tested twenty or thirty days before I did my first Champ Car race."

Added Franchitti: "This year they've shortened the first and second weeks at the Speedway. I'm not a guy to pound 'round and 'round, but if we have a couple of days of rain this year we could be struggling. So it's going to be interesting."

Franchitti is delighted to be racing again this year at places like Long Beach and Toronto. He takes particular delight in racing in Toronto.

"I love Toronto. The moment I showed up at Toronto back in '97 I loved it. I don't know whether it's because there are a lot of expatriate Scots there, or what it is, but from the first day I was there I loved the city and the track. That was my first pole in the Hogan car and Bobby (Rahal) took me off at the first corner. I still haven't forgiven him for that!

"But from that day I really enjoyed Toronto. When we used to go up there with PT and Greg (Moore) and (Patrick) Carpentier and then (Alex) Tagliani, it was fantastic. The Canadian fans really got behind them. But that's the way it is. The Scottish fans want to see Scottish drivers and the Aussie fans want to see Aussies, and the Canadians want to see Canadian drivers."

Franchitti would love to see his former teammate and old friend Paul Tracy in action in Toronto, if not elsewhere.

"PT is forty now but in his mind he's twenty-one," Dario observed. "He's got a hell of a lot of enthusiasm and confidence and he's worth the price of admission. Whatever he's doing, it might not be the right move he's making. But he's going to make something happen.

"Paul was very, very loyal and really stuck by everybody in Champ Car," Franchitti added. "Sadly, that's to his detriment because he's sitting there with nothing. Paul deserves to have a competitive ride. Forget that he sometimes does all this crazy stuff. Look at his record. Then you look at other guys like Servia and Hunter-Reay who should also have rides. Getting PT into a car would be great, especially for Toronto."

Added Dixon: "Tracy was tremendous in Edmonton last year. That was really impressive to see. He showed everyone what he can do."

Meanwhile, Franchitti is delighted to be back in Indy car racing.

"I'm excited to be back in a unified series," he said. "I'm excited to be going to Long Beach, Toronto and all those places, as well as some of the short tracks and Indianapolis. When I first came to the States this is what people said was so great about Indy car racing. You need all these different racetracks and we're some way back there now. We want more horsepower on the road courses, but one step at a time, and unification was the first step. So I'm pretty excited about the whole thing."

Indy car racing is fortunate to have Franchitti back in its paddock teamed with Dixon and Ganassi's first-class operation. Dario and Scott should not only be the men to beat this year but their records and personalities will make them the face of the IRL series. And that's a good thing for a type of racing that needs every positive it can find.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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