Newly retired four-time IndyCar Series champion and three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti sat down with RACER’s Marshall Pruett for an in-depth look at his career, favorite cars, tracks, memorable teammates, closest friends in the paddock and other topics that emerged during a long stroll down memory lane.Enjoy their multi-part interview over the holidays, starting with Franchitti’s introduction to racing in America with the CART Indy car series in 1997.
MARSHALL PRUETT: Most fans weren’t aware of your background when you joined Carl Hogan’s CART team you were an unknown. What they didn’t know is that you’d gone far along the European open-wheel ladder with the top team and had been groomed for bigger things. What was that final period in Europe and transition to America like for you?
DARIO FRANCHITTI I’d been doing British Formula 3 with Paul Stewart Racing in 1995 and there was no budget to do the next step. There was maybe enough to do a second year of Formula 3 with Jackie and Paul, and then maybe Formula 3000. Formula 3000 was not very good at the time, unfortunately. And I was getting myself further and further into debt with a future earnings deal to fund Formula 3.Going into 1996, my options were limited and with the DTM thing Mercedes was offering me, it was a completely different deal. I was going to get paid! And it was Mercedes That led to the chance to race in America, but when I came over and jumped in the car for the first time at Homestead, it was something that took a bit of getting used to. I’d been driving a touring car with fairly decent downforce, power steering, ABS brakes, all these crazy wiz bang thingsmoveable aero, movable center of gravity, all this nonsense. It had a lot of electronic driver aids, to say the least.I get in this Indy car and I can’t hold this thing in a straight line when I take my hand off the wheel to shift into second gear, and this was with the old manual gearboxes. Oh my God.
I’m thinking to myself that I’m going to have to bulk up to do this. So I felt a bit shocked. And then the problem was that I used the clutch on the downshift, I right foot brake and then use the clutch until IndyCar went to the paddle shift. The problem was the Mercedes’ engines in ’97 were not built for that. So I was sticking cranks through the front of engines I went through two engine blocks in a day testing at Sebring! We ground to a halt until we find out what was going on. Then I couldn’t use the clutch for the first so many races until we fixed the problem. And that became an issue.So it was a bit daunting the first bit. And then it got very bit by bit I started to understand what I needed from the car, get more comfortable driving something at that speed. And it just started to click a wee bit. I definitely threw the car into the scenery on some occasions
When I tested at Homestead for the first time I was right foot braking on the oval. And Carl Hogan comes up and says, “Come with me, we’re going to go visit Rick Mears.” I thought, really? And I went there and Rick sat and told me what I needed to do. Sat and watched me for pretty much a whole day. Then I’d come in, he’d say to try this or try that. And that was my first experience with Mears. He was a huge help.
MP: How much of an adjustment was it for you when you came to CART did you know anybody?
DF Not really. I knew Max Papis a bit. Max had as little experience as I did. I got to know Greg Moore pretty quickly, particularly on the ovals. Greg was another one who told me do this, do that. And I would watch Greg on the ovals andI can’t do that. When I was doing NASCAR, Jimmie Johnson would tell me what to do. Again, I was like, I can’t do that. So I was on my own a little bit with that. The Reynard guys were very helpful. A couple of the engineers on the car were quite good, which was nice, and in a lot of ways, for me while I was learning, it was helpful being a one-car team.MP: We had, what was for me, a really interesting conversation after you won your second IndyCar title. It was on the topic of what clicks within a driver to make championships possible, and you’d said that among the other things that took place during the move from CART to the IRL, you weren’t necessarily ready to become a champion at that point. I’d expected the guy who raced Montoya to a draw in 2000 to mop up the field, but that didn’t happen. You obviously won the title and the 500 with Andretti Green in 2007, but share some of how the years leading up to ’07 weren’t quite right for you to break through.
DF Two things happened. Obviously, in ’99 Greg [Moore] was killed. I didn’t watch I was not terribly in love with the sport then. I’m just being really honest. And with just what happened recently with the accident and the concussion, I had a pretty massive concussion in 2000 as well not as big as this one but certainly a substantial concussion. How you grade these things, I don’t know. And I was back in the car in three weeks. And, quite honestly, I didn’t feel right for three years.And that really that hurt. I could qualify well, got some pole positions, got the lap record at Road America and all that sort of stuff. But in a race, I couldn’t get the job done. Some of that was definitely an after effect of the bang on the head. And eventually it righted itself. And that was it.
I missed most of 2003 with an accident, 2004 was good, but we didn’t connect it all together. 2005, I felt like I had a decent shot. We were very quick everywhere but we just didn’t get it all together. Dan [Wheldon] was quick everywhere and got it together and was a deserving champion.And 2006 was another season that you could say was good, but could have been better. One thing you learn is that it takes everything coming together to truly be in a position to win a title. There’s no half measures. When it does come together as it did in 2007, it can help you realize what wasn’t there before.
MP: You spent the 2008 season away in NASCAR and came back to open-wheel with Ganassi that appeared to be an instant fit for you, the team, your new teammate Scott Dixon and the momentum from ’07 seemed to continue uninterrupted.
DF Yeah, I was obviously motivated. I had that time away at NASCAR to have a break from open-wheel, but when I returned, I had been away long enough. And it was essentially the same car I came back to. So I knew what I wanted from it and I was ready to go. The cars were good right off the bat. The cars on ovals were like holy smokes. Like, really? This is what I’ve been fighting against?And it was good on the road courses, they weren’t bad on the street courses; I was able to help get the car feeling the way it should and tell (his engineer) Chris (Simmons) and the boys what was wrong and they fixed it really quickly. Everything just clicked. The strategies were right. We were quick, we had the speed and we were making all the right calls and things were going our way. It all worked. That’s the kind of thing you never take for granted because when it’s not going your way it’s bloody difficult, regardless if the speed is there or not.
MP: Is it too early in your retirement for you to appreciate all you’ve accomplished, and also how much you had ahead of yourself? You had a life after IndyCar on the books racing at Le Mans and other sports car adventures and I’m wondering if having a big void there now is making things a bit difficult or confusing for you.
DF Obviously, I’d done my deal with Chip and the Target boys for next year and I wanted to try and win another championship and try and win a fourth Indy. That was there and I wanted to really focus on that and then eventually, there was the thought of going to Le Mans. I talked to my buddies at Porsche and Mark Webber and I had some conversations about doing that with their new P1 program. So, unfortunately, that’s not going to happen.But if I look back on it, do I look back and think I didn’t do this and didn’t get to do that? No, I don’t. I look back thinking, I can’t believe I got to win three 500s and four championships and got to do all the things that I did.
And, going forward, the great thing is that Chip has said, “What do you want to do? Do you want to stay part of things and the team?” Absolutely. I do. So we’re working on that right now. I don’t know what it’s going to look like. But that’s really helped me. That’s given me a lot not motivation, because motivation is an outlet, because I still think about the bloody racing car all the time. When the guys were at Sebring testing, I’m sitting home thinking what about this change, what about that? I still have that passion for that for that hope, for racing an IndyCar, making a car go faster. I may not be behind the wheel but I still have the passion and I’m pretty excited by that.