Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti announced Thursday, Nov. 14 that he is retiring as a driver, his decision strongly influenced by the recommendation of doctors, who have advised him that any future injury could likely prove devastating.
The announcement is most noteworthy in that, surprisingly, he may well be the very first Indianapolis 500 winner ever to have retired for this particular reason. All of his predecessors over the last century either retired for business reasons, because they felt they no longer held a competitive edge or because they simply felt “it was time.” Sadly, several met their demise in racing accidents, while still others attempted comebacks before either formally or informally stepping aside.
But rather than the sport being robbed of someone so supportive of the Indianapolis 500 and so passionate about the past—as was the case with the late Dan Wheldon—racing thankfully will continue to benefit from Franchitti’s infectious enthusiasm.
It has always been a source of amusement to observe someone unfamiliar with motorsports encountering Franchitti for the first time, learning of his name, observing his dark features and flowing jet-black hair, and then hearing him speak. His thick Scottish brogue is not at all what one would have anticipated from this fellow whose very name and appearance suggests that he will speak with at least a trace of Italian.
There’s further irony.
Not only is he not the first “Dario” to have won the Indianapolis 500, but while Dario Resta, who scored the shortened 1916 300-mile version, was dark-featured and born in Italy (Franchitti was born in Scotland), Resta was, in fact, raised from the age of 2 in London as a well-spoken, aristocratic-sounding English gentleman. Which leaves one to assume that current Scottish Formula One driver Paul Di Resta could conceivably be a Dario Resta relative?
Well, he is not. But he is a cousin of Franchitti!
A trifle bewildering, to say the least.
When Franchitti won the “500″ in 2012, it was his third victory, making him only the 10th person to have reached this plateau and only the second non-American, Helio Castroneves being the first. Rather unique is that while he had been in contention for the win late in several other years (he appeared to be the potential winner within five laps of the finish in 2011), his next-best finish has been sixth, making him the only three-time winner who did not finish either second or third in at least one other year. In fact, 1953-54 winner Bill Vukovich is the only other two-time winner who did not also score a second or third.
Quite remarkable from a statistical point of view is that, of the total of 1,946 laps available to Franchitti in his 10 starts (the 2004 and 2007 races were shortened to 180 laps and 166 laps, respectively, by rain), Franchitti completed all but six! That represents an amazing 99.7 percent. The only occasions on which he did not complete every available lap were in his initial start in 2002, when he completed 197 laps and was still running at the checkered; and his most recent, in 2013, when he was eliminated by an accident (after having run second as late as lap 188) also completing 197 laps. In fact, the latter was the only time in his 10 starts in which he was not running at the time the checkered flag was waved.
An unabashed fan of the late Jim Clark—ever since learning of his fellow Scot from Jackie Stewart—Dario has long since surpassed virtually all of 1965 winner Clark’s not-inconsiderable accomplishments in the “500,” even to the point of exceeding Clark’s 298 laps led. Franchitti closes out his career with 329 of those, ranking him 16th all-time. And even more impressive is the total amount of prize money accrued by the cars Franchitti has driven at Indianapolis, the $8,931,618 credited to him through 2013 ranking second only to the incredible $10,162,313 amassed by Castroneves.
The extent of Franchitti’s devotion to the legacy of Clark became even more apparent in September 2010, when Clark’s 1965-winning Lotus returned from a restoration in England and Dario was invited to drive it at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Having discovered with considerable delight that the Hinchman uniform company, supplier of Clark’s 1965 driving suit, was still very much in business in Indianapolis and in possession of the original patterns, Dario ordered a re-creation. So keen was he to try it on that, having just returned from an exhausting racing trip to Japan, he drove straight from the Indianapolis airport to the Hinchman shop. And out he came at the track the following morning, proudly wearing the new uniform, carrying a vintage Clark pit board he had purchased from a collector a few years earlier, and much to the amusement of friends perfectly replicating Clark’s bouncy walk, which he had seen on film.
That Franchitti should already have that particular pit board was of no surprise to insiders. They already knew he was a serious collector. For quite some time he had enjoyed a special concession at racing swap meets, dealers setting up in advance being only too thrilled to usher the enthusiastic Franchitti in through a side door for a sneak peek. And he would rarely leave empty-handed.
It was most refreshing to learn the extent of Franchitti’s deep understanding of the history of the sport. One late afternoon in May 2012, Franchitti and his Target Chip Ganassi teammate, Scott Dixon, slipped into the IMS Hall of Fame Museum for one of their not-infrequent visits. Dressed in jeans, nondescript zipped-up jackets and baseball-style caps, they strolled along, hands thrust down in pockets, nonchalantly discussing the exhibits in a most colorful manner that would have certainly delighted thousands upon thousands of racing enthusiasts. When they came to Johnny Rutherford’s 1980 Indianapolis 500-winning Pennzoil Chaparral – the first “500” car to have ground effects actually incorporated into its design – Franchitti looked both ways, stepped over the ropes and then nipped around to the back of the car where he laid down on the floor on his side to look underneath! How many “500″ drivers of the last two decades would have even known to do that? He was obviously aware of the mysterious tunnels and ports said to be lurking beneath, and he seized upon this opportunity to try and satisfy his curiosity.
Because he had long since become very close with Parnelli Jones, hanging on the 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner’s every word as he regaled Dario with stories about his affection for Jim Clark, Dario was able to take considerable delight in being part of a special presentation which completely floored Parnelli in late 2012. Jones flew to Detroit with understanding that he would be presenting Franchitti with his third “Baby Borg,” the miniature of the famed Borg-Warner Trophy given to “500” winners. Parnelli had occasionally mentioned that he envied all of the winners since 1988 because each had received a “Baby Borg,” while in his day the award consisted of a bas-relief portion of the side of the trophy mounted on a plaque. Imagine the look on his face when no sooner had he made the presentation than Franchitti turned around and presented a similar one to Parnelli, a private arrangement having been quietly made between Franchitti, Rick Mears and others with BorgWarner!
How about the look of euphoria on Franchitti’s face as he strolled to the interview room sometime after winning his second “500″ in 2010, grime and sweat still glistening on his face, as he stopped to whisper excitedly to a friend, “JACKIE STEWART just called!”
And how about the emotion he must have experienced in 2012 when he cruised to the checkered flag under a late-race caution and looked over to see runner-up and teammate Dixon saluting him to his left and third-placed Tony Kanaan doing likewise alongside to his right, it dawning on him that just six months earlier, the three of them had served as pallbearers at the funeral of their fallen comrade, Wheldon?
But perhaps the most lasting of all Franchitti images at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway took place in the fall of 2007.
The newest of the “500” winners had also just wrapped up the IndyCar Series, and he was attending the season-ending celebration in the track’s Pagoda Plaza area to receive his awards.
The prize-giving completed, and an exceptionally loud band playing inside, Franchitti was one of a number people who came out into the fading light. As told by a quartet of “Yellow Shirts” IMS Safety Patrol members who were standing over at the foot of the Pagoda, Franchitti walked toward them carrying the IndyCar Series championship trophy. He was in an obviously melancholy mood because it had already been announced that he was heading south with Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR team for 2008 and that he was not expected to be returning to defend his Indianapolis 500 win. He approached the four “Yellow Shirts” saying, “I don’t know when I might be returning here, and because May was such a whirlwind for me, I was wondering if it would be OK if I went out to the Victory Circle area to relive a few memories.” Leaving the trophy in care of the understanding security men, Franchitti disappeared into the darkness for the next 20 minutes or so, by himself, unbothered and lost in his own thoughts.
It was a very special private moment not generally made public until 2010, after he had returned and won the “500″ for a second time.
Although we can only guess at what Franchitti’s future role might be at Indianapolis – whether it involve television commentary, spotting for a Ganassi team member, or any of a variety of other possibilities – we can pretty much rest assured that he will be here in some capacity, hopefully riding around the track in a Pace Car on race morning along with the other retired winners, and generally spending time with the fans, spreading the good word.
He is without question one of the sport’s finest representatives.