Tomorrow, at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, an IndyCar season will begin without Dario Franchitti for the first time since 2003. It marks the end of an era in the sport, but an opening of a new chapter for Franchitti, a four-time Indy Series champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner. In an extremely rough crash last year, he suffered injuries that prevent him from ever competing in motorsport again. This, after the 40-year-old just won the Indy 500 in 2012. He wasn't anywhere near finished.
But just because he can't actually get in the car doesn't mean he's done with IndyCar. Cars are his life. Chip Ganassi Racing has brough Franchitti on in a role specially created for him to help out and advise the engineers and drivers. Chevrolet also announced this week that Franchitti would be returning to the track in a different way this year, driving the lead laps of the Indy 500 in the brand new 2014 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 pace car. He stopped in at the Classic Car Club in Manhattan and spoke with us about the adjustments to his new life, what the Indy 500 means to him, how the car handles, and what's next for him.
Interview by Tony Markovich (@T_Marko)
How are you feeling?
I’m good. My ankle’s not bad right now, it's a little limited. Apart from that, back’s good, head’s okay.
What’s the recovery process been like for you?
When it started, I wasn’t really allowed to do anything. I had a brace and I couldn’t walk, so I was fairly limited. But then I started walking in the pool and in January, the doctors gave me clearance to start pushing on the rehab. I was just trying to get movement back in the ankle, build strength in my core and my spine even. That’s been the main thing, and not trying to overtax my brain.
What’s it been like with everything with your head?
Different days, different sorts of things. Some days you feel great. And other days, I kinda a get a little tired and focus isn’t that great. But one of the good things about the recovery is that I can just take my time. If I’m having a day that I’m a little slow, I just take it easy. And that’s been good. The team’s been really understanding about that.
How are you adapting to this lifestyle?
The pace part is quite nice now, I must admit. I can’t run but I can sort of cycle and I can go in the gym, so that's been quite good to get back on that program. But I’ve enjoyed a slightly slower pace. Obviously, I want to get back in the car, but that's just not going to happen, so I’ll just have to accept that.
I want to get back in the car, but that's just not going to happen, so I’ll just have to accept that.
What was it like when the doctor finally told you you could drive a road car?
Oh, it was great. I was in Scotland and I was looking for a new street car. Audi had sent me an RS 6 to try, so I phoned him and I said, "hey, can I go and drive?" And he was like, "ehh no, it's going to be at least January before you can drive." So that was that. In January I got my clearance and I got behind the wheel again, so it has been really cool. The first big drive I did I bought an Aston Martin and drove it from London to Scotland and had a fantastic drive. The last thirty miles is really twisty road that I know like the back of my hand, and it was just wonderful to get behind and have a really fun drive again.
I bought a Vanquish as my daily driver [laughs]. I love it. It's a great car. There are just a few squeaks and rattles that need worked out right now, but it's a great car.
How many cars do you have total right now?
I know exactly but I’m not telling you [laughs]. A lot. I have my three pace cars, I have two Corvettes and a Camaro from three years, I have one ‘65 Sport Fury pace car from the year that Jimmy Clark won. But Porsches and Ferraris are the main thing.
In a previous Complex interview you mentioned an F40 and a Carrera GT.
Yeah, they’re still there. They’re all in Scotland.
What has been like coming to grips with not actually being able to drive competitively again?
I’ve somewhat been eased by the fact that I’m still working with the Target team and with the Ganassi organization. I still go to the track. I still sit in the engineering office talking about setups and looking at the data and talking to the drivers about it. So, I’m still there working with this group of people that I have most respect for. They’re just a great bunch of guys, so I really enjoy that part.
Now my job is to sort of talk to the drivers or engineers who do not have that first-hand knowledge of what they’re experiencing behind the wheel. Some days I end up thinking I really wish I was in the car-- like the Sonoma test, the boys tested it and I really missed driving the car there. But there are other days that I don’t miss it. This weekend is going to be tough. The first race will be interesting, but that’s the reality. I’m still here, and I’m very grateful for that, so we’ll get on with it.
In the grand scheme of Indycar racing, where would you place Dario Franchcitti the driver?
I don’t know. That's for other people to do. I’m not going to sit here and blow my own trumpet. I am proud of what I was able to do, the races I was able to win and the championships, but that had as much to do with the teams and the people I worked with as well. It’s not something you just do on your own; it's a whole army. I was lucky to get to drive for who I got to drive for and to win the things that we did.
What's your role with Ganassi?
It's a work in progress because they’ve never done it before. It's an advisor thing. Tony [Kanaan] jokes with it and calls me coach, but I’m dealing with the drivers. With Tony and Scott [Dixon], we’ve won championships, we’ve won 500s. These guys are my peers and my equals and my friends and guys that have kicked my ass on many occasions. With Charlie [Kimball] and with Ryan [Briscoe], these are guys that have won races, so we’re not dealing with guys that we have to teach how to do this.
I’m going to be able to stand there and soak in the atmosphere, hear Jim Nabors sing “Back Home Again in Indiana." That’s my favorite part.
I suppose my job is a little bit to sit back and look at things from further away and see if there is some area that I can help. If I stand and watch a corner, maybe a bit of advice, maybe something I used to do a certain corner where I had a little secret here and there. Or maybe with the engineers, they’re working on a certain problem and I just ask, "hey, have you thought of this, have you thought of that?" So, there’s different parts to it and we’re working on it, we’re learning what it's all about.
The good news for me is that before I even took the job, I sat with the drivers and said, "look, is this something you guys are interested in me doing?" I sat with the engineers, and I said, "are you guys interested or am I just going to get in the way?" I Sat with the team managers and asked them the same question. This is a team that has won five out of the past six championships, so it's not like you have to reinvent the wheel here. Just on occasion, I give a little help. It's fun, though. It's rewarding.
It's rewarding when you see that you’ve helped in some way. That’s really rewarding, because these guys operate at a very, very high level anyway. If you can just contribute a little bit, I get satisfaction out of that.
Aside from the new job, is there anything new that you’re planning on focusing your energy on?
No, nothing really right now. I’m going to do a bit more sailing back in Scotland. I’m going to play with my cars a bit more, plan some road trips through Europe. I might go to the 24 hours of Le Mans this year, do a roadtrip down to that. I'll just do things I didn’t have the time to do before. And I still get to go up to the racetrack, being a part of the team.
Then I go to Indianapolis, I'm going to get to drive a pace car, which is a big thrill for me to do that. And as soon as I’ve done my pace laps, I’ll be back in the timing stand, put my headset on and go to work on that job. It's going to be interesting to stand on the grid there and be able to soak that in this year. Normally, I walk through the gasoline alley to driver introductions, take a picture, go to the car. There are 350,000 people and I’ve not seen anything. My job was to actually tune the atmosphere and all that stuff out and just focus on the job.
So this year, I’m going to be able to stand there and soak it in, soak in the atmosphere, hear Jim Nabors sing “Back Home Again in Indiana,” which apparently is the last time he’s going to do it, they said last night. And that’s my favorite part. He’s the nicest man. Recently, two or three years ago, he wasn’t well and couldn’t come, so he did it by video and I was in the car singing. And since then it's been a tradition. I’ll sit in the car and I’ll sing it when he’s singing away. So, I’m really looking forward to getting to hear him do that and really appreciate it. And then I'll lead the field to green in this thing. I’m not sure how they’ll feel about me trying to lead the first lap [laughs].
The track itself ... it still has this thing about it. It's a hell of a place.
How hard do you think it's going to be for you to have to hold back on the track?
[laughs] Nah, I’ll know my job, it’ll be a completely different feel. I’m hoping it's going to be some of my guys on the first row so I can wave. I'm trying to remember what year it was, but I was leading the 500 and caution came out, we pit, come back out, and I'm drafting the pace car; and Johnny Rutherford, Johnny drives the pace car, he’s a proper pace car driver, and I’m like, "is he waving at me?: And there's JR and he’s going [waves], so I wave back. And every time since then, when I was leading the race, we would wave at each other. It was awesome. That was fun. JR, he’s a great man. Hopefully, if it's any of my boys leading, Dixie or Tony, Ryan, Charlie, even Montoya, I don’t care, I'll wave.
I remember when Al [Unser] Junior won one of his his races, I think it was the first time he won, he’s up there and he says something like, "you don’t know what Indianapolis means." He said that. I was 18 and I was like, "what the heck? What is he talking about?" And actually I was thinking about it last night and I thought, "I know exactly what you mean."
What does it mean?
It all means so much, I couldn’t put it into words. I think you have to be there. You have to experience driving in the race or winning the race to know what it means to me. But it means something completely different to someone who works on the crew who’s won a race or somebody who’s sitting in the stands whose team won. People all over world mention the Indianapolis 500 and it means a lot to a lot of different people. It's just an amazing event. The track itself ... the other day we sat with the Camaro there and the place was empty. We had it cleared, because we didn’t want any pictures. And it still has this thing about it. It's a hell of a place.
How fast did you get up to when you driving there?
About 150 down the back straight. And that was in 5th gear. I put it in 5th gear and I just left it there. There was a bit of a river crossing between 1 and 2 where there was some construction work, so I wasn’t going particularly fast during 1 and 2. And then it just went. I think if you ran it in 4th, you could really go. Power is not an issue with this thing, and it handles really well. You know, just coming over the horizon, turn 3, just brushing the breaks, turning and really nice balance, back to the power through 4. I was really impressed.
So your doctor is okay with that, just nothing competitive?
Nothing competitive. My doctor is ok with it. My insurance company is ok with it. When it comes time for the race, I’ll be doing probably 80-90 mph and then the speed will probably build in the last half to maybe 100. There are very specific instructions they give you, what to do and I don’t want to be the one to screw up the formation of 11 rows of 3. I want to do my job and not get it wrong.
I’m really going to appreciate it for what it is, getting to do this, getting to be on the grid one last time.
I’m really going to appreciate it for what it is, getting to do this, getting to be on the grid one last time. I get to watch all my friends get really nervous before the start of the race, so that’s going to be kind of fun.
If you wanted to, could you take an actual Indycar alone on the track?
No, I wouldn’t be allowed to do that. I don’t think that my ankle would allow me to press the throttle enough. I could drive it slowly but where’s the fun in that? I could do demonstrations.
What other characteristics about this car did you notice while you were driving it?
Drive it. With any sort of muscle car, the engine is really impressive. It has a lot of power, lots of torque, but then when you come to a corner, it corners very flat. There’s not a lot of roll and there’s a nice balance to the car. It has really nice balance, no understeer, no oversteer.
Even the little things for me I like, like the Alcantara. The steering wheel gives you a nice feel, good feedback from it, good seats, all these little things. It's not one big thing, it's all the details that have been put into it. The bowtie thing, nobody would notice that, but it's that kind of thing, but I was really impressed with the car. And I’m very critical of cars when I’m driving. I’m not just saying that.
You have some of the old muscle cars you said? Do you have any new muscle cars?
Well, I’ve got all the cars Jim [Campbell] gave me. The three pace cars from the years that I’ve won. I’ve got the 2007 Corvette LS 4 and a 2010 Camaro with that engine, and then I’ve got a 2012 427 Corvette convertible that the GM guys gave to me, one for Chip, one for me. Chip’s is chassis No. 50, which was the car number. And mine’s chassis 500. Those are cool. That’s a quick car.
Have you driven the new Corvette?
No, we were just talking about that. I haven’t driven it yet. I heard that was a big step up. I’ve got an old, I don’t know if it’s a muscle car? Is a Plymouth Sport Fury a muscle car? It’s 1965. It's got a 383 in it. Can you imagine that in Scotland? To Scotland, it’s the size of small country. It came out of the container and the truck driver was like, "what the hell is that?" And it just kept coming out. It’s got the drum breaks. I’ve driven it twice in America, never driven it in Scotland. I drove it around the driveway, that’s the only time its been driven in Scotland.
I love muscle cars. My dream car is a '69 Camaro Z28 RS.
The other day I was driving through Fort Lauderdale on the way to the airport and I see the '69 Camaro pace car, the white and orange one. And I’m like, "there’s a pace car!" It pulled into a hotel and I almost pulled in behind it.
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