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Franchitti’s enforced retirement will have hit him hard

Dario Franchitti, a racing car driver with Hollywood looks. Picture: Getty

Dario Franchitti, a racing car driver with Hollywood looks. Picture: Getty

  • by JIM MCGILL
 

Life, as everyone knows, has a cruel habit of occasionally delivering what our friends in America commonly refer to as a curve ball.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a curve ball is something which is unexpected, surprising, or disruptive. For IndyCar legend Dario Franchitti, that curve ball arrived out of the blue last week.

Five weeks after being extricated from his wrecked No 10 Ganassi Racing car as it lay motionless in the middle of the track at Houston, minutes after it had soared into the catchfence at 100mph after clipping the rear of Takuma Sato’s slower car, Franchitti received another equally unexpected bodyblow.

While the visible physical injuries he suffered – a broken ankle and a fractured vertebra – continued to heal gradually, the biggest concern centred on the concussion the 40-year-old from Bathgate had suffered.

After undergoing a series of neurological tests in Miami, it became clear his recovery from the major concussion was taking longer than expected.

Franchitti, throughout his racing career, has suffered a number of significant concussions, and though everything continues to point to a full and complete recovery from his latest injuries, concern centred on the long-term and the potential consequences should the Scot suffer another head trauma in the future.

It was left to IndyCar consultant, Steve Olvey – the associate professor of Clinical Neurology/Neurosurgery at the University of Miami-Miller School of Medicine – to break the news to Franchitti that his racing career was over.

It is impossible to know exactly how Franchitti felt when he received the news, but having known him for almost 20 years, I can fully understand when his team boss Chip Ganassi described him as being “heartbroken”.

Racing, simply, is what Franchitti lives for. It is what his world has revolved round since his dad, George, plonked him in a kart at Larkhall when he was a kid.

Under the tutelage of father and son duo, David Leslie senior and junior – who were also responsible for the early career development of 13-times F1 grand prix winner David Coulthard, and three-times Le Mans 24-Hours winner and newly-crowned World Endurance champ Allan McNish – Scottish and British karting titles followed.

Franchitti’s subsequent racing career has been well documented, arriving in the States in the late-Nineties via a period in German Touring Cars with Mercedes. He was denied the 1999 CART title, losing on countback to Juan Pablo Montoya after both drivers finished on the same points.

Franchitti had to wait another eight years to win the title, which he did so just four months after becoming the first Scot to win America’s Blue Riband event, the Indianapolis 500, since his hero, double F1 world champion Jim Clark in 1965.

A troubled few months followed when he switched to an ill-fated campaign in Nascar, but in 2009 he was back behind the wheel of a single-seater, now in his No 10 Ganassi car.

Success was instant: three back-to-back IndyCar Championships were punctuated by two more portraits on the giant Borg Warner Trophy following Indy500 wins in 2010 and ‘12.

In IndyCar, Franchitti’s record is outstanding: 31 wins, 92 podiums, and 119 top five finishes. And all achieved in a Stateside career bookended by two of the most competitive eras of US open-wheel history.

And he’s been versatile throughout his racing career. Franchitti is the only man to have won the Daytona 24 Hours, the Sebring 12 Hours, the Indy 500 and the IndyCar title within the space of 12 months.

Yet, despite all the success and multiple millions of dollars, Franchitti remains one of the most likeable, approachable and unassuming guys you could ever wish to meet. Annoyingly, in addition to those fine traits, he also has the Italian-esque, broody looks of a Hollywood pin-up. How can one guy be dealt so many positive hands?

Today though, as he continues his recovery surrounded by close family, he will already be planning his new future. But there will, naturally and understandably, be frustration. He has been denied the luxury of being able to leave the cockpit on his own terms. Despite the physical injuries suffered in Houston, he had already pledged to rebuild his strength and fitness throughout the winter for another – probably final – season in IndyCar.

After that? Who knows? But privately he had often spoken of teaming up with younger brother, Marino, and tackling the Le Mans 24-Hours. In a perfect world, according to Franchitti, the trio would have been completed by their cousin, current F1 driver Paul di Resta.

And it should come as no surprise that current Red Bull racer Mark Webber Tweeted he would have “loved for [Franchitti] to have joined me in the Porsche [sportscar] in the future”.

If there is a positive to Franchitti’s enforced decision to walk away from racing, it’s that he immediately removes himself from the on-track dangers.

And they are dangers Franchitti is only too well aware of. In the 1999 title shootout, he saw his closest friend, Canadian Greg Moore, die in a crash aged 24. To this day, Franchitti still raced with a memory to Moore on the back of his race helmet.

In 2001, when Champ Cars came to Rockingham in Northamptonshire just days after the crash at the Lausitzring which caused Alex Zanardi to have both legs amputated, it was Franchitti who spoke on behalf of all the other drivers, and pledged that racing had to go on.

Then, in October 2011, on the day Franchitti won his third successive 
IndyCar title, he saw his friend Dan Wheldon die in a crash when his car flew into the catchfence at Las Vegas.

Anyone who has seen Franchitti’s Houston crash will know how similar it was to that which claimed the life of Wheldon. Motorsport, we all know, is dangerous. We have grown used to seeing drivers emerge unscathed from high speed, explosive crashes. As safety technology has increased in race cars, so we, as viewers and spectators, have become neutered to the risks these drivers are taking at speeds in excess of 220mph.

Franchitti’s decision to step away from racing, undoubtedly sad as it is, ensures, thankfully, that he will be around for years to come to talk in his knowledgeable, animated and enthusiastic way about his comprehensive collection of Jim Clark memorabilia.

Of more immediate concern for him is whether his beloved Celtic can make it through the group stages in the Champions League.

Franchitti has always been quick to play down his achievements in motorsport and has laughed when the word ‘legacy’ has been mentioned.

Now the man, who has the most deeply ingrained affinity with motorsport’s heritage of any current racing driver, knows he must reinvent his life.

It will take time. Franchitti has committed himself fully to his love of the sport, and this latest development is still way too raw for any new plans to be announced.

In the meantime, he can slowly begin to accept how highly his achievements have been recognised by his motorsport peers, and concentrate on making a full recovery.

 

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