Indycar racing: The rise of Dario Franchitti

Dario Franchitti announced  he was retiring after sustaining injuries in an IndyCar crash last month.  Photo: Chris Trotman/Getty Images
Dario Franchitti announced he was retiring after sustaining injuries in an IndyCar crash last month. Photo: Chris Trotman/Getty Images
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The sudden and enforced 
retirement of Bathgate’s Dario Franchitti brings to an end the career of Scotland’s most 
successful motor racing 
champion of his generation.

The 40-year-old amassed a trophy haul the likes of which no other Scot could dream about. In the space of six glorious years, Franchitti won four IndyCar Championships and three Indy500 races, the United States’ Blue Riband event for single-seaters. His Stateside success — he moved to the US to race with Hogan in 1997 — has rewarded him well. But despite the fact he’s an Indy legend and multi-millionaire, he remains one of the friendliest and most likeable individuals you could ever wish to meet, and a fierce and patriotic Scot.

Franchitti never forgets where it all started: behind the wheel of a go-kart, with his dad, George, at Larkhall.

And Franchitti’s early karting days saw him go wheel-to-wheel with two other Scots who were destined to go on to compete in the highest ranks: 13-time F1 GP winner David Coulthard, and three-times Le Mans 24-Hours winner, and newly-crowned World Endurance champ, Allan McNish.

Even now though Franchitti, like Coulthard and McNish, is swift to acknowledge the part played in the early development of his career by father and son, David Leslie senior and junior.

It was Leslie snr who first identified the talent the young Franchitti had and, coached later by Leslie jnr, the aspiring racing driver won the Scottish Scottish Junior Karting Championship in 1984.

Further success followed, with the British Junior Championship in both 1985 and ‘86, and the Scottish Senior title in 1988.

The step-up to single-seaters was the logical progression, and he graduated to the Formula Vauxhall Junior Championship, winning the title in 1991, winning four races during the season. By now, he was well on the radar of three-times F1 world champion Sir Jackie Stewart, and Franchitti joined Paul Stewart Racing in 1992 where he contested the Formula Vauxhall Lotus series.

Fourth in his first year, Franchitti was also named the McLaren/Autosport Young Driver of the Year — an award his cousin, current F1 racer Paul di Resta, also won in 2004. Twelve months later, in 1993, Franchitti took the Vauxhall Lotus title before graduating to the British F3 Championship in ‘94.

Now on the radar of Mercedes-Benz, he switched to saloon cars in Germany, contesting the DTM (German Touring Cars) Championship, and it was the German manufacture which placed him with Hogan Racing in the States, contesting what was then named the CART Champ Car World Series.

A year later he switched to the more competitive, and better resourced, Team Green, which evolved into Andretti Green Racing. And it was here his IndyCar career blossomed.

Franchitti only narrowly missed out on the 1999 CART title, losing on countback to Juan Pablo Montoya after both drivers scored the same points.

Tragically, the season’s final showdown at Fontana, California, also saw the Scot’s closest race buddy, Canadian Greg Moore, killed in a horror crash which left Franchitti distraught.

To this day, he still carries a memory to Moore on the back of his race helmet.

Race wins followed, but it wasn’t until a rain-lashed race on May 27, 2007, that he wrote his name in the record books by becoming the first Scot since the legendary Jim Clark to win the Indy500.

Four months later, on a cool night in Chicago on September 9, he finally won the IndyCar title, and he did so in the most dramatic of circumstances.

With a few laps remaining, he was lying fifth, but suddenly the front-runners were forced to pit for fuel. He started the final lap behind his team-mate and title rival, Kiwi Scott Dixon.

With the win he required to seal the title tantalisingly just out of touch, Dixon’s car suddenly lost power as it entered the final corner of the high-speed oval. The Kiwi’s car had run out of fuel.

Franchitti narrowly avoided the dramatically-slowing and crossed the line to take the first of his emotional wins, and was immediately hugged by dad George and brother Marino.

After a troubled season in Nascar, Franchitti returned to IndyCar with Ganassi Racing in 2009, and the partnership immediately delivered.

Three back-to-back IndyCar Championships were punctuated by Indy500 wins in 2010 and ‘12. But despite his success, many have questioned why Franchitti never switched to F1. The answer lies in the politics of F1, and a two-day test with Jaguar F1 — the precursor to Red Bull — in July 2000.

I witnessed the test, and spoke with Franchitti — who had flown over from the States, midway through a hectic part of the IndyCar season, to take part in the test — towards the end of the session.

It’s important to remember, this was the team which, as Stewart Grand Prix, Sir Jackie had sold to Ford at the end of ‘99. It was clear, despite Stewart’s recommendation that Franchitti replace Johnny Herbert for 2001, that there were factions within the team committed to ensuring that didn’t happen.

A series of technical problems with the car throughout the two days ensured Franchitti’s time on-track was restricted. The offer of an F1 drive never came. Instead Franchitti returned to the States to carve himself a place in the record books and, as his team boss said yesterday, become “a legend”.