The west of Lothian question: An interview with Bathgates's hero Dario Franchitti
THE HIGHER you are the further you have to fall, so after his unsuccessful transition to Nascar, Dario Franchitti could be forgiven a moment of self-doubt. But if Scottish motorsport's leading driver's faith in his own abilities have been stirred, he is not irretrievably shaken.
Having won all the baubles IndyCar racing can bestow – emulating his hero Jim Clark by winning the Indy 500 last year before going on to take the Championship – the Scottish driver stepped up in glamour, horsepower and profile by joining Nascar, only to struggle badly. After less than a year in American television's most popular sport, he's back in single-seater IndyCar action.
The Nascar series which inspired the Tom Cruise film Days Of Thunder is motorsport's flashiest, gaudiest arena. With up to 250,000 fans per race, it's a fast-and-furious moneypit with big characters on huge salaries and a television reach, particularly in the Southern states where most of its drivers come from, that even Formula One envies.
Yet Franchitti entered the bearpit in a car that bore no relation to anything he'd ever driven before, working for a team that was ruinously uncompetitive. Even then Franchitti had to be dragged kicking and screaming from Nascar. Only when the economic downturn saw all his sponsors pull out and his team was wound up did he call it a day. Even now the 35-year-old insists that "I absolutely don't regret going to Nascar and I'm not finished with it. I intend to be back one day."
Franchitti has no intention of writing off the hard yards in the vast and heavy stockcars-on-steroids that evolved from the souped-up Prohibition-era motors used to outrun police. With up to 43 cars per race, a nose-to-tail racing style and a willingness on the part of other drivers to shunt rivals out of the way at average speeds of nearly 200mph, Nascar takes some getting used to. The lack of the sort of on-board computer gizmos that are standard in Formula One and IndyCar, and which tell teams how the car is performing and how it can be improved, makes it notoriously difficult for rookies to shine.
"I wanted a challenge and went to Nascar because I wanted something different, and bloody hell did I get it," he says. "It was a much bigger challenge than I expected. I had to learn a new style of racing and a new style of car, and the team were not performing. I felt very unfamiliar with everything and was under pressure.
"You go from a touring car to an IndyCar, which isn't a great jump, and then you go to this big old heavy stock car which doesn't feel like anything you've ever driven before. All of a sudden none of the stuff you've learned in your career – like setting up the car or what the mechanics need to know – works any more. It's like someone who's never driven a Formula One car trying to go to Barcelona and compete.
"But I learned a lot about myself: what it's like when I'm taken out of my comfort zone; how I react when I push myself a bit harder. Parts of it were fun and parts of it were exceedingly difficult, but as much as I was struggling and the team was struggling, I could see progress. We started qualifying in the top ten and I started consistently finishing in the top 15. Then I got a pole position, qualified on the front row and then led at Bristol. When I started off I was a fair bit behind my team-mates, but by June I was qualifying ahead of them, was racing right alongside Juan (Pablo Montoya] and was a good bit ahead of (Reed] Sorenson. That taste of it has whetted my appetite rather than put me off."
More than anything, Franchitti bridles at the suggestion that he's a quitter, and there's plenty in his career that lends credence to his assertion of gumption. There is, for example, the tale told by staff at Buckmore Park, the karting track in Kent where the teenage Franchitti and younger brother Marino competed regularly, about how a lacklustre performance so infuriated their dad George that he left them to find their own way back home to Scotland. They pair got back to their Bathgate home the next day just in time to brush their teeth and head off to school at Edinburgh's Stewart's-Melville College.
If his enrolment at one of the country's leading private schools makes it sound as if Franchitti had a gilded upbringing, when it came to racing he was no stranger to the school of hard knocks. Having first sat in a go-kart aged three, he won over 100 races and 20 titles, including his first Scottish Junior Karting Championships aged just 11, and was mentored by David Leslie and Jackie Stewart, but he was no stranger to disappointment and has often had to mine his deep seams of determination. Back in 1994, just 18 months after being named Autosport's young driver of the year, he lost his drive after his team-mate, Dane Jan Magnussen, won virtually every race for the Stewart team as he took the British F3 title while the Scot ended the year winless and languishing in fourth place overall. There was also, of course, his disappointment at failing to secure a competitive drive in Formula One, which still rankles today.
The knocks haven't always been metaphorical: genuine tragedy has never been far away. Franchitti's mentor David Leslie died earlier this year when his plane crashed, while the Scot's best friend in racing, Canadian Greg Moore, died when he crashed during the last race of the 1999 season on the day he lost the IndyCar title to Montoya on countback.
Franchitti has had his fair share of accidents too. In Whitburn in 2003 he suffered spinal damage that almost ended his career when he crashed his MV Agusta Senna motorbike through a hedge and into a six-foot deep ditch at 150mph. Last year he crashed at over 200mph when he and fellow Nascar rookie Jacques Villeneuve came together at Daytona, while his two IndyCar crashes from 2007, both at well over 200mph, remain YouTube classics. In the first he clipped Englishman Dan Wheldon and, after some serious airtime, hit the ground only to be smashed into by Kiwi Scott Dixon; a week later at Kentucky he crossed the finishing line at full speed only for Japanese driver Kosuke Matsura to slow drastically, leaving Franchitti with no option but to ram into him, taking off and only stopping when he hit a concrete wall.
Although Franchitti quipped at the time that "the car was up in the air for a long time so I had time to think about a lot of things, especially how hard it was going to be when it hit the ground" he no longer weighs the threat of death against the adrenaline rush and "giddy feeling" he got from overtaking opponents at 200mph, as he did when Moore died. Now he is more sanguine and less inclined to dwell on his own mortality.
"It's a pretty stark choice: you either deal with the dangers of the sport or you get out of the car," he said. "If it had affected me it would have affected me at Chicago last year because the two previous times I'd been on the oval, in Michigan and Kentucky, I'd flipped, but I went on to start on pole, win the race and win the championship, so I'm obviously not too worried.
"I've always been aware of the dangers of the sport, I've always understood they're there."
Sometimes, however, the dangers are more real to racers' loved ones. While dad George and brother Marino are former and current racers respectively, wife Ashley Judd, who is at virtually every race, is a basketball fanatic who is said to be uncomfortable at her husband placing himself in harm's way each week. One of the 50 most beautiful women in the world according to People magazine, the actress and singer's mother Naomi, herself a millionaire country singer, reportedly did all she could to stop the romance in its early days for fear that her daughter could be widowed early.
Marriage to Judd gave Franchitti a heightened profile across the Pond and brought him into contact with a group of celebrity friends that includes Ewan McGregor and Gwyneth Paltrow while also giving the Bond obsessive the chance to meet his hero, Sean Connery. Yet according to all reports the motor-racing world's Posh 'n' Becks remain steadfastly down-to-earth, with Franchitti laid-back, cheery and displaying a disdain for ostentatious displays of wealth, while his wife Ashley is a cerebral graduate who keeps Hollywood at arms length. "I'm not star-struck by fame," says Franchitti. "My friends are my friends, whether they are famous or not. Neither Ashley nor I are into the showbiz thing, we just chill out and have fun with each other (at our ranch] in Nashville."
Despite Franchitti's desire to have another crack at Nascar, he's not getting any younger. Nor is money a motivating factor: as the face of Estee Lauder, Judd is obscenely well-paid, while the Scot has earned more than any British sportsman alive except David Beckham, receiving $1,645,233 for winning the Indy 500 plus millions more in endorsements. He has all the toys he needs – all the Ferraris and helicopters he could ever want – so why continue, I asked.
"Every year I ask myself whether I want to carry on, whether I still need this in my life. It's something I've thought about at the beginning of every year since I was 25. The answer is always 'yes, I really want to race this year'. I just love doing this, love being around the racetrack and climbing into the car. The older I get the more I appreciate how lucky I am that I get a chance to do this – certainly more so than when I was 25 years old. You realise that it won't go on for ever and you appreciate how privileged you are to be able to do exactly what you want with your life. How many people get that chance? It's what I've wanted since I was three years old."
Franchitti seems completely devoid of ego. Not even being snidely described as "the husband of Ashley Judd" by Sports Illustrated and USA Today after winning the Indy 500 fazed him. "I'm a private person who likes a quiet life and is happy to fly under the radar," he laughs. Yet he does bristle when his hard-won achievements as a driver go unrecognised, famously launching his toys out of the pram when Autosport, the magazine he's read since he learned to read, put Lewis Hamilton on its front cover instead of the Scot the week of Franchitti's triumph at Indianapolis.
That's partly because the Scot is an unusually enthusiastic student of motor-racing history and is keen that his place in the firmament of Scottish racing is not lost. His hero worship of the first Scot to win the Indy 500, Jim Clark, is so intense that a room at the Perthshire mansion he and Judd are restoring is devoted to Clark memorabilia. Despite having made good in the USA, where F1 is a marginal sport, he makes no secret of "the fact that I never got to test myself in a competitive car in Formula One is still one the main regrets of my career even if I've achieved far more than I ever thought I would".
It says much for him that the likely elevation of cousin Paul Di Resta to Formula One next year after years of being financially supported by Franchitti is a cause for celebration, something that "makes me very, very proud" rather than wistful or even resentful. Perhaps it's his Italian background – he was born and brought up in Bathgate but has a huge extended family in Cassino – but family is of profound, almost overwhelming, importance.
He speaks in glowing terms of his younger brother Marino's racing career and seems bemused at the concept of sibling rivalry. He'd love to race his brother again, but not so he could beat him, just to relive old times and because it would mean Marino's career is prospering. That may happen at the end of next month at Daytona when the two brothers will race each other in the Rolex 24 at Daytona if negotiations to get Marino on the grid alongside Dario in his Chip Ganassi Racing car bear fruit. And when he talks about his Indy 500 win, he doesn't concentrate on the perfect storm which prematurely ended the race and helped him to victory, nor does he dwell on rituals such as drinking a pint of buttermilk alongside the famously huge Borg-Warner trophy (the original is 5ft 4in tall and now has his likeness stamped on it alongside every other driver to have won the Indy 500 since 1936). Instead, his memories of that day are as likely to be of how he felt his dad's hole-in-one at the Brickyard Crosssing, the golf course in the middle of the Indianapolis track, was an omen, or even how the video of the 1967 Lisbon Lions triumph that he watched before the race provided him with some much-needed inspiration.
If he loves his family, Scotland comes a close second. He makes no effort to hide his homesickness, describing his perfect day as waking up in Scotland on a beautiful day and taking his dogs Shug and Buttermilk for a walk before taking his Ferrari for a spin and then having dinner with parents George and Marina, and his wife Ashley.
"I often get homesick," he admits, "and I would love to spend more time at home in Scotland but I'm on the phone home pretty much every day and I watch a lot of DVDs just so I can get my dose of humour from back home as well. Right now I'm watching Gavin & Stacey, and catching up on a whole series of Shameless. The humour is completely lost on the Americans, but it keeps me happy. When I heard that Rab C Nesbit is coming back to do a Christmas special it was one of the best days of my year."
Which just goes to show, you can take the boy out of Scotland…
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