irst time we saw him over here in 1997,
nobody knew much about him, other than
he had a funny name and was a favorite of
Mercedes, the power behind that Reynard
he was driving in CART for Carl Hogan.
But it didn’t take Dario Franchitti long to
embrace America’s premier open-wheel
series and make it his domain. He earned
pole in his sixth start, instant respect from
his competition and a first-class ride from
Barry Green that launched his career.
And, for the better part of 15 years,
Franchitti was the yardstick – the driver a
driver measured himself against to gauge
his status. He triumphed in U.S. open-wheel
in its various guises, so he had to master
900hp Champ Cars, the “don’t lift or
you’ll get run over” IRL left-turn circuit,
and the underpowered, yet racy Dallara
DW12. And, most importantly, he
triumphs along with three consecutive
IndyCar titles for Dario with Target Chip
Ganassi Racing, 2009-’ 11.
His peers were similarly impressed.
“Dario was the smartest driver I’ve ever
seen,” says Tony Kanaan, his best friend,
former teammate and long-time competitor.
“He didn’t get red mist. He’d just wait,
figure things out and then smoke you!”
After watching him take that first pole at
Toronto in ’ 97 and qualify fourth at Road
America, it was obvious that this former
touring car regular belonged in these
edgy, beastly Champ Cars. He was neither
intimidated nor overwhelmed and quickly
adapted to the changing environment,
despite not having a teammate.
“His versatility impressed me right away;
he just seemed so mentally on top of things,”
confirms Green, who snatched him from
Hogan for 1998. That move to Team Green
gave him a top-shelf ride, the guiding hand
of Halliday and an instant rival in teammate
Paul Tracy. He started winning races and
climbing the podium on a regular basis.
Says Halliday: “He had an ability to put all
the corners together and do it with such
finesse – not easy with all that horsepower,
particularly on a narrow street course.”
As referred to already, he lost out to
Juan Montoya for the title in 1999, while
2000 was ruined by a fractured pelvis,
incurred in a Spring Training accident. He
managed one victory in ’01 and three in ’02
(including his first oval win, at Rockingham
in the UK), bringing his total to 10 wins when
he left his beloved CART for the all-oval IRL
in ’03. At 30, nobody was better than Dario
at road racing in North America, so he
was less than ecstatic to be leaving his
cup of tea for the all-left-hand-turn circus.
“I don’t think either one of us was keen
to do it,” says McDonald. “Dario always
loved Indy, but didn’t particularly warm to
some of those other ovals and he clearly
missed his old Champ Car.”
Teamed with Kanaan, Bryan Herta, and
Dan Wheldon, Franchitti’s first year in the
IRL was short and painful as he broke his
back falling off a motorcycle after the
third race and missed the rest of the year.
However, he rebounded in 2004 with a
Title glory and Indy
success came late,
but Dario made up
for lost time. His
three “500” wins and
four titles came in a
span of just five years.
His Indy car career ended before he was ready, but Dario Franchitti can rest assured
that everyone he worked with and fought against knows he was a genuine colossus.
conquered Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Franchitti, who was always a badass on
street circuits and tough to beat on road
courses, went from loathing ovals to
loving some of them, and one in particular.
“Dario was a great one and possessed
that uncanny ability to pull out that
perfect lap,” recalls Don Halliday, his
engineer at Team Green in 1998 and ’ 99.
In the latter season, Franchitti only lost
the CART title on a tie-breaker.
Allen McDonald, who engineered Dario
with Andretti Green Racing in the IRL and
to his first title and Indianapolis triumph
in 2007, recalls: “Plain and simple, he was
the complete race driver.”
“If he wasn’t up front, he wasn’t happy.
And he never lost that drive, not even
after winning four championships and
three Indy 500s,” says Chris Simmons,
who engineered a pair of those Brickyard
WORDS Robin Miller MAIN IMAGE Todd Davis/LAT
“He didn’t get red mist.
He’d just wait, figure things
out and then smoke you!”