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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/ Franchitti & Dixon's TCGR IndyCar sweep

by Gordon Kirby
At 36, with 23 CART/IRL wins under his belt and his pal Paul Tracy apparently out of the Indy car business, Dario Franchitti has become the grand old man of today's IndyCar drivers. Fittingly, Franchitti demonstrated his intelligence, experience and guile by winning this year's IRL finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway on fuel mileage. While his championship rivals Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe raced for the lead and maximum points Franchitti decided to play the fuel mileage game.

Dario wasn't able to get his car handling perfectly at Homestead and wasn't at all sure he could run with let alone challenge Dixon or Briscoe over a full stint. After studying the data from practice Franchitti and his engineer Chris Simmons were convinced they should be ready to switch tactics in the race if required.

"We weren't sure how we were going to be because we couldn't get the car working exactly like I wanted in practice," Franchitti reported. "We sat in the team meeting and looked at the strategy and said if we make this number we can make it on three stops. If not, it's four stops."

Not long into the race Franchitti and Simmons decided to go to plan B.

"From the start, Scott and I ran side-by-side for ten or fifteen laps and eventually, my car started to understeer. Scott got me around the outside because I had to lift, or I would've run up into him, and Ryan got the momentum too, so I fell to third. They were getting away a little bit, nothing crazy, but a little bit. Then I lost a little time in traffic. I got chopped pretty badly by the #23 car (M. Duno). Hardly suprising. But they got about a four second gap and I couldn't bring it down.

"I was already saving fuel and I went one or two laps longer than Scott and Ryan. I thought, okay, if we keep doing this, we're fine. We made some adjustments on the first stop and the car became so much better. But I was already too far behind them. If I tried to make that up, I'd put myself in the hole on fuel.

"So I kept on saving fuel. I lost a little bit more ground because I was really leaned-out. But we were able to go longer than Scott and Ryan on the second stop and go even longer before the third stop. When we made the third stop we knew we could make it without another stop, and Scott and Ryan couldn't.

"At that point, even if there had been a yellow, they would probably have still struggled to make it to the end. Regardless, had there been a yellow, we would have been much closer to them and I felt, at that point, we had a car that we could have challenged them with if there had been enough laps left.

"So we felt we did the right thing," Dario added. "We would have loved to have been up there fighting it out lap for lap. But I wanted to win the race. It was more important for me to win the race than to lead the most laps. There have been many other races this year when we've led a load of laps, but had things unravel, Indianapolis being one. So it was nice for it to work out our way."

Teammate Dixon led a bunch of laps at Homestead but wound-up finishing third behind Briscoe. Dixon was beaten to the championship by ten points and days later, Scott remained frustrated with the result.

"Most people would have never thought it would have gone that way," Dixon observed. "It was a whole night of racing between myself and Briscoe and for it to quickly turn like it did and end up being a fuel mileage race, you hope it didn't end up like that. But you've got to take it like it is and obviously Dario had put in a lot of work throughout the season to put himself in that situation.

"I think, for us, it was disappointing because you're constantly pushing the whole night where you've lapped pretty much every car on the track and then for it to drastically turn around, it's hard to swallow. I think most racers think races should be won by going as fast as possible and being the quickest to the end rather than on strategy. But nobody ever thought that a 200-lap race would have gone from green to checker without a yellow. So it was a crazy night and disappointing after the whole season."

Of course, as long as you have a limited fuel tank capacity you can't eliminate the possibility of fuel mileage races.

"You can't do that, of course," Dixon remarked. "It's part of racing. I've probably won four or five races the same way. It's just when it's a deciding factor in the championship it's a tough thing. Everybody knows it's part of the sport and good on Dario and his guys for figuring that out and making it stick. But again, you would never think an oval race would go green to checker without a yellow."

Dixon had to work hard to hang onto his car so he was convinced there would be some crashes and yellows during the race.

"My car was a handful and it was probably one of the better ones out there," he commented. "So kudos to everyone that nobody smacked the wall."

As the yellow-free race wore on, Scott discovered he couldn't match Bricoe's pace and ability to run high.

"Briscoe was the only guy who was as quick as us," Dixon said. "I think we were quicker on the start of a stint. The problem for me was that I had to run the bottom line to be as quick as Briscoe. We weren't trimmed-out enough to run up the top and run flat-out and have the speed to compete with Ryan. As the run goes on, the higher line seems to become more of the favored line at that track. I was almost in a bind either way because we had raced hard to try to get the most laps led bonus and we came up short on that. So it was going to be tough to eventually beat Briscoe. We were kind of caught both ways."

Champion Franchitti says the year worked out better than he had hoped for.

"I never expected to win five races," Dario said. "I was hoping to be up there challenging, but to be as strong as we were all year was great. We struggled in Texas and in Kansas we qualified on the pole and got put to the back for crossing the white line and then we had the brake failure coming into the pits. Then I screwed up at Watkins Glen. I made a mistake trying to avoid somebody else's accident. Apart from that, I think they were all top tens and fighting it out with Scott and Ryan was a hell of a battle."

Franchitti is delighted to have come back from his unhappy season in NASCAR to rediscover his true self as an Indy car driver.

"I grew up racing in Europe and I raced open-wheel cars up until I did my two seasons in the DTM, which were essentially Formula One cars with bodies on them. Then I came to the United States to drive for Carl Hogan and I found a home in US open-wheel racing in CART and then IndyCar. I found something that I loved to do and I met some great drivers and teams to race with. This is what I love doing and when I was away in stock cars last year I realized how much I enjoyed it and missed it."

The unification of IRL and Champ Car and consequent addition of races like Long Beach and Toronto to the schedule made it even more attractive for Franchitti to return to Indy cars.

"When it became a unified series again and Long Beach and Toronto came back on the schedule, that was one of the big reasons," he remarked. "I'm glad I won Long Beach and Toronto this year because when those races came back on the schedule I said I wanted to be racing there again. The fifty-fifty split in the schedule between road courses and ovals and driving these type of cars on those type of tracks is what does it for me.

"I've got to thank Chip," Dario added. "He was the one who was putting the pressure on, asking if I wanted to come back to Indy cars. I realized pretty quickly that I did and it didn't take any time at all to make an agreement."

Reflecting on his own season Dixon says his results weren't consistent enough to deserve a championship.

"I don't think we had the flow to this year that we've had in some other years," Scott observed. "We had lots of bad races mixed in with some pretty good ones. The first two were disappointing. I don't know what happened to the first two races. I think St. Pete wasn't going to be too bad. We were sitting in fourth when Will (Power) parked in my pit. That kinda ruined my race. But I think we had the speed to finish top three.

"Long Beach was a bit of a nightmare because I burned the tires up in the first part of qualifying and didn't have enough at the end. And Kentucky and Iowa were disappointing. There's definitely six races that stand out that were definitely not the best."

Still, Dixon remained in the heat of the championship battle all year with Franchitti and Briscoe.

From early in the season it quickly became a three-way race.

"If you go back to Milwaukee, I think that was a defining point," Dixon noted. "Even if you go back to Indy it was myself, Dario and Briscoe racing it out, at least in the first half of the race. Even if you go back to Kansas it was that way, but I think probably Milwaukee onwards was the defining point of us three racing it out."

From day one, Franchitti and Dixon have enjoyed an excellent working relationship.

"Fighting with Scott with the same equipment is great," Dario said. "As good as I know Scott is, I knew it was never going to be easy, but it's a privilege to work with the guy. He's so uncomplicated and so much fun. I've been pretty lucky over the years with my teammates in that regard."

Franchitti described an example of how close Dixon and he work together.

"There was one race this year where we were both looking at the data after the second practice. Scott was just mighty through the first part of the lap and I was strong in the second part of the lap. If we could have put his first half and my second half together we would have wiped the floor.

"We looked at the data and we had this conversation about what do you do here and what do you do there? We questioned each other back and forwards. But no matter how much we sat and talked we couldn't get to that point where I could do what he was doing and he was doing what I was doing. But we were trying as hard as we could to make it work."

Of course, their inability to exactly match each other underlines that differences always exist in both technique and driver physiology. And too, on road and street courses for example, Franchitti brakes with his right foot while Dixon is a left foot braker. Dixon adds that working together as a single team has always been the goal at TCGR.

"That's always the way it's been at Ganassi's," Dixon said. "They don't really allow you to do it any other way."

Still, Dixon says bonding with Franchitti was particularly easy.

"The transition to new teammates is sometimes tough but this was definitely a breeze," Scott relates. "I think both of us are old enough and wise enough to know that if you don't help each other you're fighting an uphill battle. So it's good to have somebody come in with the same values. Dan (Wheldon) and I were very good at the end of his two years with the team, but we struggled a lot in the early days together. But the whole transition with Dario was quite easy."

TCGR's IndyCar and Grand-Am general manager Mike Hull says Franchitti and Dixon have formed a very mature partnership that may be unmatched in contemporary motor racing.

"I think both Dario and Scott are at roughly the same point in their careers," Hull remarked. "They've won the same kinds of races and championships and driven the same types of cars. So the pressure and level they drive at is totally different than somebody who hasn't won the Indy 500 or the championship, or a lot of races. Because of the pressure on them to compete and try to improve themselves every day and erase all complacency, they share equally and maybe more so than teammates we've had in the past at Chip Ganassi Racing.

"We've had teammates in the past who were at different points in their careers that had great natural ability and great racing instinct. But they were still trying to prove to themselves, and everybody else, what their capabilities were. In this case, you have two guys that sit across the table from each other in the engineering office and never hide anything.

"It's a rare pleasure to be part of such an unselfish environment to make the whole team better every day. I think that's unique in racing today. You don't see that in Formula One and you don't really see it in NASCAR, or anyplace else."

Hull believes the depth of experience and accomplishment in Ganassi's team is another key element in the team's one-two championship sweep.

"I think the second thing that's part of it is they are surrounded by a group of people that have won together for a long time," Hall said. "So the pressure they operate under is very different than people that haven't quite done it yet but are very capable of doing it. We have two teams of people that literally operate as one team.

"Look at what happened to Dixon at the beginning of the year. He won the championship last year and had a lot of momentum going but right away he struggled. Yet Scott and his guys raced every race like they intended to be at the front and have the necessary ingredients to wn. They never got down on themselves. They knew if they continued trying to make their program and themselves better each day, they would get it right."

Dixon admits he must make some improvements if he is to challenge next year for a third IRL title.

"I think I definitely need to pick-up my street and road course qualifying," Scott said. "That's been a little bit of a pain. Sonoma has always been a thorn in my side, except for 2007. We've done well at different tracks in different years. I just think the consistency was lacking a bit this year on my side of the team.

"To get an all-round year I think you need to focus a litle more on some of the sore points. I think there are a few areas we can clean-up. I think going for more poles was an issue this year. I think we made it hard for ourselves with not getting the job done in qualifying."

For Ganassi's team next season begins at Daytona at the end of January. Chip's team won the Rolex 24 in 2007 and '08 and Franchitti was part of the winning team in '08 and Dario and Scott are sure to be among the driving strength on Ganassi's two-car entry at Daytona in two months.

"Our intention is to be at Daytona with two entries," Mike Hull said. "We're not sure how the livery will be spread among the cars but we want to go there and race with Target drivers as part of our entry, no question about it."

If possible, Franchitti would love to do the Rolex 24 hours, Sebring 12 hours, Le Mans 24 hours and Petit Le Mans.

"I haven't spoken to Chip yet about Daytona," Dario said. "I'm interested in doing it as long as it's done right, which is the only way Chip does it. I'd also love to go to Sebring and Petit Le Mans again and, if it worked out, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, too."

Franchitti was the third driver at Sebring and Petit Le Mans this year beside David Brabham and Scott Sharp in Duncan Dayton's championship-winning Highcroft Acura P1 car.

"I had a great time with the Patron guys this year," Dario said. "Watching them rebuild that car at Petit for the second year in a row was bloody impressive. I do enjoy my weekends with the Patron guys. The fact that they won the ALMS championship, too, was icing on the cake for me.

"When you get in the situation where I can drive for and work with the Target team, who are so good at what they do, and go away and have some fun with the Patron guys, it's a pretty cool situation. To drive topline equipment all the time in different categories is a great thing, particularly when you think where I was a year ago."

Teammate Dixon co-drove Gil de Ferran's Acura P1 car with de Ferran/Simon Pagenaud at Sebring and Petit Le Mans and Scott thanks Ganassi for allowing Franchitti and he to spread their wings.

"It's a lot of fun because Chip is pretty realistic about allowing you to do other things," Dixon said. "It's pretty easy to smack it in the wall and injure yourself and for Chip to let Dario and myself go out and do that race a week or two before the IndyCar finale was pretty good.

"I like doing those races," he added. "Some drivers don't particularly like doing that stuff, but for me it's fun. It's a lot of time in the car. I love racing, so anytime I can do those type of races I'm definitely all hands on deck."

Scott expects to soon receive his marching orders for the Rolex 24 from Ganassi and hopes to do Sebring and Petit Le Mans again.

"I think the 24 hour race is a no-brainer. I expect to hear the details from Chip when he's got it all figured out. And obviously, Sebring and Petit Le Mans are a year-by-year basis to see what kinds of options and teams are available."

Mike Hull has no doubts that Franchitti and Dixon's Acura P1 experience has helped make them better drivers.

"I like the fact they do that because I think it makes them better race drivers," Hull commented. "More race drivers need to be able to take advantage of driving race cars in different series if they have the opportunity. The problem these days is the commercial interests they're bound to because of the commercial sponsorship agreements with their owners tend to stop them from doing that. But when they drive for a first-rate team in another series they learn a lot and grow a lot as race drivers and their vision is expanded. I think Dario and Scott doing the Acura program has helped us as a race team."

Dixon doesn't expect to drive a race car again until the Rolex 24 test at Daytona at the end of the first week in January.

"We've got a trip to London to see family and then a trip to New Zealand to see family and then for the first time we're spending Christmas back in Indianapolis."

Franchitti is enjoying an equally languid few months.

"I'm going to just chill-out with Ashley for a few weeks and do different things and not worry too much about going to the gym. And then in a few weeks I'll get back on it, get back on the treadmill in the gym and the treadmill of life."

He'll also be watching his friend, rival and teammate Juan Pablo Montoya as he fights for the championship or a top finish in this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup series. With Chevrolets and a merged and much-changed Earnhardt-Ganassi team, Montoya has both the horsepower and handling to show his stuff in NASCAR this year and into the future.

"I watch intently," Dario grins. "I love watching those guys have some success because I know how hard they've worked. They're good people and they really had a tough time last year, and Chip had a tough time downsizing the team. So I joke about it and say I wish I could have driven that kind of equipment last year. But then I probably wouldn't be here (in Indy cars). Everything happens for a reason.

"I'm delighted that Juan's getting the opportunity with the right equipment," Dario added. "It also shows that if you spend some time there, you can learn how to drive those cars. He's up there fighting with Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin, two of the absolute best in the business. It's bloody impressive--very, very impressive. Long may it continue."

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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