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The Way It Is/ Dario Franchitti is a fine fellow, a great racer and now, like his hero Jim Clark, an Indy 500 winner

by Gordon Kirby
It was a great pleasure to watch Dario Franchitti score a thoroughly deserved first Indy 500 victory on Sunday. Franchitti becomes only the second Scotsman to win the 500, following in the footsteps of the great Jim Clark who famously won the race back in 1965. Like Clark, he is a very civilized, thoughtful man, a well-rounded person with a tremendous passion for the sport. He's a great reader as well and knows as much about the sport's history as any racing driver I've ever met.

Franchitti and Tony Kanaan have been teammates at Andretti-Green for three years and Kanaan and he enjoyed sharing a similar setup at Indianapolis this year. Both were extremely competitive in the 500 as were teammates Marco and Michael Andretti and Danica Patrick.

"Tony and I are running the same setup," Dario commented two weeks ago after qualifying at Indy. "We're working very closely together. We always do--all five of us, and all four for the rest of the season--we always try and work as closely as possible. But this month Tony and I have been shadowing each other. Normally, there's a bit of a change, here or there, for what the driver likes in the way the car handles. One might like a more loose car than another, but we've been extremely close all month."

In the middle of the race Franchitti had to make an unscheduled stop to change a cut tire which forced him to work his way back through the field. "That was exciting because we were behind all the guys on the lead lap and the lapped cars, too" he said. "But the car was really good and I was able to get through traffic fairly quickly and get back into contention. The two things that really gave me satisfaction from today's race were improving the car from where we started and then coming from the back through the field.

"It wasn't easy. There were some interesting moments. When the car goes into a four-wheel slide at 220 mph, it catches your attention. One lap it was pushing and the next lap, the next corner in fact, it was loose. I was lucky that the guys fixed the car through the race and gave me a great car all month to allow me to do that. I want to recognize the whole engineering staff at Andretti-Green Racing for giving us great cars, especially my guys, Allen McDonald and Dave Seiffert, and John Anderson for calling the race."

Like all the top Indy car drivers these days, Franchitti is a road racer who has developed into an excellent oval racer. "On any track you're always searching for a car that's quick and comfortable," he commented. "On the bigger ovals for example, it probably takes a little bit of the control out of the driver's hands. It's not like going into the hairpin at St Pete and you can brake five yards later, especially in qualifying.

"At Indianapolis, you're wide-open for the four qualifying laps and you are catching that thing, you're right on the ragged edge. It's not any easier. One is not more easy or more difficult than the other. But they are different disciplines and require a different set of skills, I think, which is why you see guys who are great oval track drivers but are not good on road courses, and vice-versa."

As Dario told us a few weeks ago, mid-corner speeds at Indianapolis are as fast as ever these days and he says this makes the current IRL extremely demanding to drive on the shorter ovals in particular. "The loadings are pretty impressive, especially a small track like Richmond," he observed. "We're over five gs in the corners there and physically it's very difficult. Indy is not really a physical track in any way but mentally it's one of the toughest. You've got to be inch-perfect, whether it's for four laps of qualifying or 200 laps of the race. Indianapolis is hard on the head. It's hard enough to run on your own, but put thirty-two other drivers out there with the same idea and it's tough."

Franchitti says an increase in torque is the only difference detectable by the drivers from this year's ethanol-burning 3.5 liter Honda V-8. He also appreciates the wider power band of this year's engine. "We haven't noticed any difference at all with the ethanol," Dario commented. "The engines are up to 3.5 liters again and I've noticed the increase in torque. On the street course at St Petersburg the car was spinning the tires a lot easier and on the short ovals you notice it coming off the corners. So you've got to be more disciplined with the throttle now than last year because it can bite you. It's challenging.

"The engine's been superb this year," he added. "Touch wood, there have been no failures."

Franchitti would like to see some other manufacturer step up and compete in the IRL against Honda. "Honda prefer competition as much as we do," he remarked. "This is my tenth year with Honda and I love being part of their program, especially when you're in a fight with other manufacturers. I loved that part of it. I've got to do that a bit this year in the ALMS with the Acura program and I'd love to see engine competition come back into the IRL."

Dario also doffs his cap to Bridgestone/Firestone for producing tires for the IRL that are so reliable and effective that they're almost taken for granted. "I've been a Bridgestone/Firestone guy since the DTM in 1995," he noted. "When we had the tire competition in CART they could prove how good they were by beating other people. Now they do the same job, week in, week out, and nobody really notices. But it's true. We don't have tire problems."

He reiterates the well-known point that tires can be the most significant factor in performance. "Tires are huge, there's no two ways about it," Franchitti said. "With some tweaks on the car you can bolt on maybe half a second. But sometimes with tires you can bolt on over a second, so they are a massive part of the whole package. Firestone throws a curveball every now and then with a new construction and compound that we have to adapt our cars to, and that keeps it interesting."

He warmly recalls CART's great days through the late nineties when Bridgestone/Firestone was racing against Goodyear and Honda, Toyota and Ford/Cosworth were constantly upping the ante on horsepower. "Competition brings other problems with it, obviously, with controlling speeds," Dario observed. "But for me there was nothing like driving a car with a thousand horsepower and sticky Firestones. It was awesome!"

Franchitti has widened his repertoire this year by doing half a dozen ALMS races with Bryan Herta. Tony Kanaan joined them for Acura's ALMS debut at Sebring where they won the LMP2 class and finished second overall in the famous 12-hour race despite a bunch of late-race problems. Then at Long Beach in April, Franchitti qualified on the pole and led most of the ALMS race before hitting trouble in the pits and also falling foul of some unnecessarily complex IMSA rules.

"I like to drive different kinds of cars, whether it's historic cars, or whatever," Franchitti remarked. "When I found out that Acura was going to do the ALMS I said I'd love to be a part of it. And then Andretti-Green decided they were going to do the ALMS program and I said, 'Look guys, if there's a chance, I'd love to drive this car.' We looked at the calendar and it was impossible to do more than a few races. So they said, 'What's your brother doing?' I told them he'd love to be part of the Acura program. So that's what they agreed to, and it's great."

Through its Acura brand Honda is supporting three teams--Andretti-Green, Fernandez and Highcroft Racing--in the ALMS. For the first time through HPD and Wirth Research, the company is developing the car as well as the engine. Led by Franchitti and Bryan Herta in the AGR car, the Acura teams have been immediately competitive with the factory Audis and Penske Porsches.

"We started at Sebring with not very high expectations because it was a brand new program," Franchitti observed. "But we went out and won our class and finished second overall and then stuck it on overall pole at Long Beach, which was really a big deal for me. I really enjoyed that. I would have loved to have won the race. I think we did a great job in that race and you look at Houston where Bryan finished second overall.

"That program is all coming together and it's a blast to do a different discipline and to jump in a car that looks and feels and sounds different. And it's different tracks and a different type of racing which includes working with another driver. I really enjoy it.

"The Acura guys are on it," he added. "As I said, Honda's not getting the competitive part of it in the IRL at the moment. They're getting it elsewhere, in the ALMS, and they love it. You could see how important it was to everybody at Acura and Honda when we got on the podium and won our class at Sebring."

Franchitti believes racing's natural attempts to find the most efficient way 'round a track have provided the first steps in developing better fuels. He sees the sport contributing more in the coming years to developing green or alternative fuels.

"I think racing has always led the way as far as developing certain new technologies," he commented. "I remember when I was driving for Mercedes-Benz and we had a regenerative braking system which was banned. But there have been pivotal times throughout racing where these things have come to the forefront, and this is one of them again.

"The IRL need to be applauded for what they're doing with ethanol and it's great to see the diesels from Audi and Peugeot," he added. "What better way to develop fuel efficient cars than to go racing? Every tiny, extra ounce of fuel we use we get upset by it because it's performance. So what better way to do it? I think we're spearheading that in racing and it feels pretty good."

Unlike many of his peers, Franchitti is a man with a passion for the sport's history. He's a reader and collector of racing books who's very knowledgeable about the past. Franchitti also loves to race historic cars, witness his famous Jaguar accident at Goodwood last fall.

"I have no idea why it's happened the way it has," he ruminated about his love of racing's history. "It's just one of those things. Why are people interested in computers and cutting edge things? Why are people drawn to the past? I like a bit of both, but I have a great appreciation for the people who came before me in this sport whether they were F1 drivers, NASCAR drivers, Indy car drivers, or sports car drivers. I like to read about it. I like looking at pictures of old race cars. I love driving old race cars. I love talking to people about old race cars and to the drivers who have come before. It interests me a lot.

"I've always been a race fan and I watch all kinds of racing on TV all the time and I read about it. I remember when I was growing up as as young kid I loved the mid to late seventies F1 cars and I still have a close bond with them, even the ugly cars. And I've got more into the cars from the sixties as well, and of course, the pre-war Silver Arrows, that kind of stuff. And I've been lucky enough to drive them. I got to drive a couple of them and I got to drive that wonderful, lightweight E-type at Goodwood, and unfortunately, had the accident with it last year.

"One of the real privileges I've been allowed from some of the things I've achieved is I've gotten to know Jackie Stewart and Mario. They're two of my heroes and I get to chat with them and catch up with both them from time to time. That's just great!"

Franchitti believes the essential challenge to the driver is the same today as always. "I think the challenge is the same. It's just taking the car as close to the limit as you can. That's the same challenge."

He's also aware that the many improvements in safety over the past thirty years and the state of today's technology have changed the nature of the challenge. "I think at Indianapolis we obviously understand the danger of making a mistake so we're probably more closely tied to some of those guys from the past," Dario remarked. "With a modern F1 car you can get away with a lot more on some of the tracks they race on because the safety is so good now, which they've got to be applauded for. But there definitely was more risk back then.

"I think those guys were a special breed and the mechanical sympathy part cannot be overlooked. As I say, Honda haven't had an engine failure in the IRL all year and in F1 the semi-automatic transmissions pretty much guarantee you can't miss a shift or blow an engine. But in the old days, the drivers had to watch their gearboxes and nurse the car at the same time that they were going to the limit. There was no telemetry telling them the oil pressure's low. You had to look at the oil gauge to tell that."

Five years ago Franchitti was given an F1 test by the Jaguar team, but it turned out to be one of those tests where he was afforded very little track time and denied the best tires and equipment. "Am I frustrated with it? I'm a bit bitter with the Jaguar test, yes. Bobby Rahal came into the team at that time and he saw what was going on there. I felt I was short-changed on that whole deal. It really was hard to be treated that way. One thing I can do is wheel a car around a road course pretty quickly and I don't know why it happened the way it did, but it did.

"But it wasn't to be," he added. "I've had a lot of opportunities over here that many other people haven't had, and you should be thankful for what you've got."

Franchitti remains a big fan of F1 and he's delighted to see McLaren rookie Lewis Hamilton in the thick of the battle for this year's world championship. "I love the fact that Lewis Hamilton has gone into F1 with a good car. He's done some testing and he was ready. I remember watching him in go-karts when he was eight years old and I've watched him over the years and got to know him, and I've seen him in some difficult times like his first year in Formula 3. But he's brilliant. He's driving so well and his head is on his shoulders so squarely. It's lovely to see a young guy get that chance and it's great for the sport, too."

Dario's cousin Paul di Resta won the European F3 championship last year and is racing in this year's DTM series. "He's leading the championship in a two-year old car," Franchitti said. "So he's doing a great job and hopefuly he'll get the F1 chance at some point as well."

Some people say Franchitti has made a lot of money and is enjoying life these days with wife Ashley Judd and not sufficiently motivated to win. I asked him this question two weeks ago before his great win at Indy on Sunday and he vigorously refuted any such theories. "Everybody's got opinions and most people's are not really worth listening to," he commented. "I say go ask my teammate Tony Kanaan how hard I'm pushing him. We were driving home from dinner the other night and Tony turned to me and said, 'You know, you're driving as well as I ever saw you drive and pushing as hard as I ever saw you push.' And I believe that.

"At St. Pete we got nearly two laps down and finished fifth and did nearly half the race with a car with no brakes, and I don't mean fading brakes. The brake pedal was hitting the bulkhead yet we were still able to hang onto the leaders.

"I'm pushing hard and I want it," he continued. "If I didn't, I would just pack up right now. If I could get through last year where on most tracks we basically had cars that had no chance of winning, then the motivation is there as much as it ever was.

"When you look at the races where we did have a chance, like St. Pete, where we were running away with it all weekend and the car broke. At Sonoma we finished second to Marco. When we had a car to win last year we were up front, and when we didn't we weren't a factor because the car was slow.

"The difference between this year and last year is we've got competitive cars. Am I driving any better this year than last year? No. And that's one of the hard things about this sport, how to judge? It's not like a guy running a 100 meter sprint, or even a marathon for that matter, because there's so much more to it and the car is such a factor in it. When the car is good it flatters the driver and when the car is bad it makes him look bad."

Flashing a grin, he added: "I stuck it on the pole at Long Beach in the ALMS car and I'm happy with the job I'm doing. As long as I'm happy and my team is happy I don't give a shit what anybody else thinks."

Franchitti celebrated his 34th birthday in the middle of May and sees many more racing seasons ahead. "A couple of years ago I was kinda thinking, 'We'll see how long I want to do this.' But right now, I don't see an end. How long will I keep doing IRL? I don't know. If I keep enjoying it as much as I have recently, it'll be a while. The more road courses and a couple more short ovals that are on the schedule has opened my eyes a little bit. That's a positive for me."

After winning at Indianapolis on Sunday he was equally sure about his desire to keep racing for some time to come. "I'm not going to quit anytime soon," Franchitti commented. "I've got a good few years left and a championship to win. And you know, one of the things that really helps is having a twenty-year old teammate. I mean, TK and I are old married men now, and to see things through Marco's eyes is pretty cool."

Dario has been racing in the United States for ten years and has become one of American open-wheel racing's most renowned veterans. Many people forget that he finished the 1999 CART season tied on points with that year's champion Juan Montoya who took the title because he won more races. Now that he's won the Indy 500 it would be great to see Dario win either an IRL championship before he finally helicopters off into retirement. I join his many fans in wishing him good luck in that quest.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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