Dario and friend after his third Indy 500 win in 2012. (Marshall Pruett photo)
It was the news that those closest to him kept in confidence: the hellacious concussion Dario Franchitti suffered during his crash in the second portion of IndyCar’s double-header at Houston was lingering far longer than expected. He would eventually make a full recovery, but as the cognitive fog continued to persist, alarm bells began to ring.
Franchitti also damaged his back and a leg in the crash, but those bones and muscles would recover at a predictable rate ” well before the 2014 IndyCar season began. But after suffering a few bad crash-related concussions earlier in his career, the mammoth Houston accident compounded the earlier damage, significantly increasing the risk of what next impact would do to his gray matter.
The concern that emerged in the weeks following Houston centered on whether he’d suffered one too many blows to the head, and how the 40-year-old’s brain would handle another crash. Among his inner circle, conversations shifted from talking about when he’d be ready to drive to if he should drive again. The writing was on the wall, and this time, due in large part to the worrisome tales of how brain trauma has come to the fore in other sports, the signs could not be ignored.
In recent years, fans of the National Football League have had no choice but to learn about concussions, the after-effects of repeated blows to the head, and how so many former NFL players are suffering troubling, life-altering effects from making a living in a contact sport. Franchitti’s chosen profession comes with a far lower frequency of head trauma, but as we’ve seen, the speed and violence associated with a concussion-producing crash can be frightening.
It’s the thousands of routine helmet-to-helmet hits football players receive during a given season, as some experts believe, that deliver the most amount of damage. It’s a cumulative situation ” higher frequency, lower impact. In our sport, it’s the exact opposite. One or two monster hits can use up whatever ?concussion credits? a driver has, and in the case of Franchitti, he quickly realized there was no reason to cash his remaining chips.
Dario and his father George Franchitti share the moment after Indy win No 1 in 2007. (LAT photo)
Count me among those who never wanted to see Dario’s career end via press release while he was sitting at home recovering in Scotland. Selfishly, I wanted to see him return and prove the old lion could still keep the cubs in check, but not if there was a tangible price to pay. I wanted to see him join that elite club of four-time Indy 500 winners, but not if we watched while fearing for his health throughout the month of May. Not when even a minor crash ” one that a driver without a history of concussions would walk away from ” could leave Franchitti sitting unconscious in the car.
With four IndyCar Series championships, three Indy 500 wins and no financial worries, tempting fate to add more trophies to the pile simply wasn’t worth it. He leaves a massive void in the world of open-wheel racing, and as one of IndyCar’s two biggest stars, the sport finds itself unprepared to deal with his absence. It isn’t the first time a big name has retired from Indy car racing, but Franchitti’s departure has highlighted how much work awaits the IndyCar Series to build and promote the next wave of icons.
His Target Chip Ganassi Racing team, which has been driven by Scott Dixon and Franchitti since 2009, now finds itself in transition. Managing director Mike Hull, team managers Scott Harner and Barry Wanser, Dario’s engineer Chris Simmons, his crew chief Kevin O’Donnell and the rest of the good people at Ganassi Racing will have to adjust to life without a force of nature pushing them at all times. He was an exacting competitor, and coupled with Dixon, formed the strongest 1-2 punch in the series.
It’s believed Alex Tagliani, who deputized for Franchitti at Fontana, will help the team during off-season testing with the car, but just as every other driver retirement has led to a stampede of interest, rest assured Chip Ganassi has received calls and texts from every corner of the globe. Where Ganassi, Hull and sponsor Target take the No. 10 Chevy in 2014, and whether they go for a veteran or a young driver on the rise, will surely make headlines when it’s revealed.
There’s at least one silver lining to come from today’s announcements: Dario has made the right decision. His parents, brother, sister, girlfriend, closest mates and thousands of acquaintances will need to adjust to wherever life takes him outside the cockpit. Franchitti’s the first to admit he’s rather useless at anything other than driving a racing car, so whatever he comes up with will likely involve some unintentional humor as he finds his footing.
Driving aside, Dario makes whatever paddock he’s in a warmer and more interesting place, and it’s that side of the man I do not want to sport to lose.
Franchitti’s choice to retire makes perfect sense, but it’s still sad to see him walk away from the career he loves as a safety precaution. After Indy cars, a decade or more of sports car racing seemed to be all but a guarantee, and with his passion for vintage racing, it was easy to imagine an 80-year-old Dario turning up to Goodwood in period-correct gear for a go in something exotic.