Franchitti and Scott Dixon enjoyed a special relationship as teammates and friends. (LAT photos)
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 the final offering from their four-part interview, which covers Franchitti’s favorite teammates and competitors in his deepest reflection piece so far.
MARSHALL PRUETT: The list of teammates you’ve had and drivers you’ve raced against is like a fantasy league of champions and all-time greats. What was your first impression of the drivers and talent when you landed in CART back in ’97?
DARIO FRANCHITTI: When I first showed up, it was pretty much a whole grid of incredible guys. Alex Zanardi, in particular, was unbelievably impressive. But pretty much the whole grid at that point was loaded with giants. As a young driver coming from Scotland, it was either guys that were absolutely at the top of their game or guys who were legends of the sport. There’s a couple of guys that weren’t quite at that level, but the majority were. I would say most of the guys at that period have gone down in history for the right reasons. A very special time for Indy car racing.
And I learned a lot from everybody I was racing. Zanardi, Montoya… God, Montoya. He and I had a really interesting battles in ’99 because we went out to the track and would occasionally bang wheels. We would do slide jobs on each other. And we became really good friends. There was never any BS, never anything needless or silly, no tantrums. We just kind of got on with it. JPM, definitely, was an animal brought the best out of you.
Cristiano da Matta, when he was on the top of his game, jeez, he was hard to beat. That 2002 season, he was dynamite. Then sort of the whole Andretti-Green situation with Tony [Kanaan], Dan [Wheldon] and Bryan [Herta] was a murderer’s row.
Buddy Rice was tough to beat. And then it was Scott Dixon. And Dixon to me, I would put him up there with anybody, because most guys when they’ve got that kind of special glint in their eye when they do that special performance, they’re tough to beat. But when they don’t have that special look, their normal performance isn’t high. Dixie’s normal performances is already at such a high level, you pretty much know he’s going to be on your arse all day or you’re in for a whale of a fight to get by him. And then when he does have that special glint in his eye, it’s awfully tough to beat that ginger bastard. From Day 1, he’s been hard work beating.
MP: Dixie eventually became your teammate, and that’s been another theme for you. What kind of rival-turned-teammate relationships have you enjoyed over the years?
DF: Yeah, I have been lucky with the teammates I’ve had right through my career, honestly, from day one. I’ve had good teammates and I’ve gotten along with them routinely. We have always been lucky with that. With Tony and with Dan and obviously Bryan, there was that dynamic and it was well talked about that we were we are good friends. We had arguments along the way, the four of us had a couple of sit-downs in the hotel room. Fist banging and things like that. But we were very good friends that started out on different teams trying to beat each other, obviously. That never changed when we were driving together, but maybe an extra millimeter here or there was given where it was never offered to the guys who weren’t our teammates. And maybe there were a few times where we forgot to give each other that extra millimeter…(laughs).
MP: You’ve had a lot of special relationships with teammates, and maybe it hasn’t been documented as much as your Andretti-Green days, but I don’t think people have a proper understanding of how close you and Dixie have become, and that’s only been amplified after your crash.
DF: Dix and I How do I put it? We weren’t so it wasn’t talked about really, but my relationship with Scott as a teammate is as good as any I ever had. And to me, that didn’t change whether he beat me or I beat him. I knew any day he could beat me and my job was to go out and beat him. But as far as being an open book and the guys I work with, ours was as good as any relationship I’ve had.
As far as a friend goes, I’ll tell you this. When things were really, really bad, when I was really struggling with my head after Houston, he would come and visit me every day and just sit with me. I didn’t want to be around a lot of people because I was struggling with all kinds of things. But he would just sit with me and talk to me. No matter what was going on. If his championship fight was coming up, whether he was building his new house, he had Emma and the two girls to look after, he was doing all this stuff and he would come and sit with me for hours. (Dario chokes up a bit before continuing) And then right before the championship, before he went on the grid, he called just to check that I was all right. He told me not to panic because he had a plan to go out and win the title, which made me laugh and raised my spirits. Him and of the guys that are still running, TK and Dixie, are two, not even forget teammates here but two of my best pals. Amazing people.
MP: You don’t hear a lot about selflessness in our sport. Hard not to love Dixie for being there when it mattered the most.
DF: That’s him, man. He’s that type of person. I’m lucky to have friends like him and Tony and Bryan, and Paul Tracy, Marco Andretti and all these guys that I raced against. We go out there each week and we beat the living crap out of each other. But there is definitely a… I don’t want to say brotherhood because there’s girls involved, too, but there’s a brotherhood of, whichever driver and we all like to beat each other up, but if one of us is in trouble we’ll support each other. That’s been one of the nice things about what’s happened to me. So many people have been there, checked in, kept me in their prayers. Picked up the phone, visited me in the hospital. I have to say the Indy car community is special that way. I don’t know many other sports where your closest rivals let their guard down and show you their human side, person to person.
MP: Your relationship with Tony has also been a defining part of your career here.
DF: The relationships with Scott and I, and Tony and I, they’re very different. At the track they’re very different relationships. Scott and I, we have an unbelievably open policy as far as information back and forward. It’s not even just data but: “Have you tried this in Turn 3?” “Yeah no, I haven’t. I’ll try it.” “Have you tried this in Turn 6?” That kind of thing. That goes back and forward. But when we get on the track and we’re racing, we really, we would get after each other really hard. There was no sort of team orders, as it were. There was never any kind of, “After you.” We always raced each other, even before we were teammates, but especially as teammates and when we raced each other there was a lot of room and a lot of respect and that actually increased the more we did together. We kind of gave each other a little bit more slack sometimes, unless we were going for a win.
There was one race we had recently where we came within about an inch of crashing and we were both like: No, no, no, no! But a relationship on the track was like that. But with Tony, back in the Andretti-Green days, there were very much times that I would sit behind Tony and protect him or he would sit behind me and protect me. We were never in the championship fight at the same time, so we were always able to do that for each other. So it was a different kind of relationship; where Scott and I in general have been in the championship fight at the same time. This year, he was, toward the end obviously, the fact that I would’ve backed him as he was in that fight but… Before I signed with Chip, with all four of the Andretti-Green cars it was very open. It really was. Tony and I, in particular, have kind of a rhythm going. If I was like this, Tony was like that and vice versa, as far as talking through a track and finding little advantages here and there. That was something that we really used to our advantage and that came from the trust and respect we had for each other.
Yeah, he was also a rival, you could say, but we were better off as a close-knit unit than trying to do it all by ourselves. I don’t know how often teammates work together like that. Very special and unique. And the same with Scott, that really quickly developed too into that kind of relationship. Scott is such a competitive person. He and Dan [Wheldon] had started off with a little bit of a rocky relationship but it very quickly became a very good one. So we both had a lot of good experience with teammates and we were able to roll it into what we were doing. And the fact that we liked each other only helped. We’d both dealt with Danny Boy, so that was a bonding experience… (Laughs) We realized pretty quickly there was no BS or no hidden agendas. We just got on with it. As a person, I just think the world of the guy.
There’s a lot of layers to Dix and he’s an amazing person. He’s kind of a quiet person in public but he is just… He’s an interesting guy. He’s kind of like Tony in that way. At the same time, when he’s working he’s the most competitive, driven person you’ll meet. Tony and him are very similar. They’re also two of the kindest people you’ll ever meet. So from that point, I have two mates, two incredible friends who’ve touched my life away from the sport and I’m really lucky to have that.MP: I’ve always been impressed with how deep the learning and exchanging process has been between you and your teammates. You’ve upped your game by incorporating the best pieces your teammates use to their advantage, and you’ve done the same…provided they weren’t being a d**k.
DF: That’s something I learned from working with Jackie Stewart. Nobody has all the answers; every driver does things slightly differently, so try and expand how you do things, how you look at things. Jackie’s the type of guy that leads by example, really. You can sort of say, this is how I did it. But I think it’s more effective to show that example. That was something that Jackie, for me, it was a case of if he did it, I copied it.
Same with Allan McNish. Allan did it, I saw how Allan worked. I copied it. And then you put your own little slant on it, maybe. I think you can show somebody and if they want to, great, if not then, that’s up to them. It’s like with teammates. If you’re smart, you learn from your teammates. Dan was unbelievably good at learning from his teammates. So smart. Asked questions all the time. When I went to the Target team, it was like I was the detail guy and I would sit in the sim and go into details with the car and really sit there. So I had all the details but I then would talk to Dix about the details but what Dixie taught me is some days you got to just hang on to it. And I watched him some days and the thing was a bucket of crap and he was just hanging onto it but never backed off.
So, we taught each other things. I taught him certain things about street courses, whether it’s the way you set the things up or some technique, and he taught me stuff on the 1.5-mile ovals. And to some degree, believe it or not, on road courses.
MP: Sounds like it’s a bit of a circular process, or should be, if your teammates are buying into it.
DF: Exactly. Like with Dan and myself, Tony, Bryan, we kind of taught Dan a lot of the intricacies of oval racing. Well, then Dan became so bloody good at it, particularly the 1.5-mile stuff, that he went to Target and he taught Dix. Then I went to the Target team and taught Dix some other stuff. And Dixie taught me. So there’s this full circle thing that people just constantly learn.
If you’re smart and you’re at the top of your game and you’re a success, you’re never going to stagnate. You’re always learning.
MP: Well, we’re at the end of this first batch of reflections, mate. You’ve weathered a pretty big storm. How is this new life life after driving sitting with you?
DF: I’m in a very good place. I’m doing well. I’ve been back to the race shop, seen the guys, been surrounded by racecars. And I’m not going away. I’ll still be surrounded by a group of people who I just think are fantastic. My friends. The last few weeks I think I made some big strides. The future, it’s going to be interesting to see what I end up doing. I spoke to McNish for a good while. We were discussing our excessive free time these days Now that our calendars are less crowded I don’t know what we’re going to do to get ourselves in trouble. But it’s all good. I’m really going to miss driving the car. So that’s going to suck. But it could be a lot worse.