INDIANAPOLIS — Dario Franchitti doesn’t always like to look at his place in the pantheon of the great drivers in IndyCar history. He doesn’t need to.
Franchitti has won every IndyCar championship he’s contested since 2007. He has won 31 races. And, as Takuma Sato went hurtling toward the wall after a failed last-lap pass attempt in Turn 1, Franchitti has put himself in rarified racing air as a three-time Indianapolis 500 champion.
This one started with a mishap — he got turned around by E.J. Viso on the first pit stop and was shuttled to the back of the field.
It finished with he and Takuma Sato going into Turn 1 side-by-side seconds after taking the white flag. The two touched. Sato spun, Franchitti came around and took the checkered flag with two of his closest friends — teammate Scott Dixon and former teammate Tony Kanaan — beside him in second and third. Franchitti was unflappable in the early mishap — befitting his career, but especially his more recent career — where he is the consummate professional, calmly working his way through the field and being up front at the end.
“He’s the kind of guy you like to have because he’s been there, done that,” said car owner Chip Ganassi, for whom Franchitti has driven an IndyCar since 2009. “A day like today, remember we were last after the first pit stop, there was never one word about that. Nobody said anything. They changed the front wing, he came out and he was 23rd, next thing you know he was 16th, next thing you know, he’s 10th. That’s the kind of guy he is.”
He was also unflappable in the final mishap, where he saw Sato get a run on him after taking the white flag. Franchitti said he tried to move up to give him room to run — and credited the Formula One veteran for making a good move — but Sato lost control and spun. He is the 10th driver to win at least three Indianapolis 500s — joining such luminaries as Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser, Rick Mears and A.J. Foyt. But the three wins have come in the span of five Indy starts — winning a rain-shortened race in 2007 with Andretti Green Racing, then after a year’s sojurn in NASCAR the following season, returned to IndyCar in 2009.
He won Indy again in 2010 with Ganassi and now in 2012. He has won every championship he’s contested in that time, too.
But only two drivers have won three Indy 500s in a shorter time span — Wilbur Shaw in 1937, 1939 and 1940, and Mauri Rose in 1941, 1947 and 1948, each winning three races in a span of four starts. Rose shared the final pre-WWII race win in relief of Floyd Davis, then won on his own in 1947-48, the second and third races after the war. The success hasn’t changed Franchitti.
“He’s the same old Dario,” said Dixon, his teammate the last three years and a driver who was runner-up to Franchitti in 2007 and 2012. “He’s got three wins here. He’s up there with Helio. He’s already in an illustrious group. The thing with Dario, he’s always there. He had an issue earlier in the day, a lot of guys wouldn’t have come back from that. Mentally, he was strong enough to come back from that. He’s the same old Dario, even though he’s got a few more accolades.”
Franchitti might be the same driver, but he’s also a student of racing history — speaking glowingly of fellow Scotsmen Jackie Stewart and Jim Clark, people he has looked up to in the past. After the race, he immediately recalled the finish being similar to the Emerson Fittipaldi-Al Unser Jr. finish in 1989, when the two touched wheels in Turn 3 on the penultimate lap, sending Unser into the wall and
Fittipaldi to his first win. But he doesn’t put himself into that pantheon quite yet.
“I’m very proud of the achievements, the Indy wins, the championships, every one of the race wins,” Franchitti said. “When I’m driving, I look forward. When I retire, I can look back. Today, I was lucky enough to be in the green room, TK and I were sitting in a quiet corner, then Parnelli (Jones) came up, Bobby Unser came up, Johnny Rutherford came up. (Kanaan) and I were like kids – getting pictures taken with these legends of the sport. When I retire, I can think about that.”
He made his first start in 1997 and now has 31 career wins. Of those, 17 have come since 2007, during his run of championships. The 39-year-old driver is in seventh place all-time in IndyCar wins — and just four victories shy of Bobby Unser in fifth place. The people ahead of him are A.J. Foyt — whose 67 wins are the most all-time — two Andrettis and three Unsers. Franchitti credits his success to the people around him.
The two teams he’s competed for since migrating from CART to the IndyCar Series full-time in 2003 — Andretti Green Racing and Target Chip Ganassi Racing — have combined for five Indy wins and seven series championships during that time frame. Team manager Mike Hull said Franchitti and Dixon almost function as one driver, and their working together as one helped get them to the front. Their 1-2 finish at Indy was the first such finish for teammates since Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran took the top two spots — each winning once — in 2001 and 2003.
It also happened in 1997 (Arie Luyendyk-Scott Goodyear for Treadway Racing), 1962 (Rodger Ward-Len Sutton in the Leader Card roadsters) and 1947-48 (Mauri Rose-Bill Holland in the Blue Crown Specials).
“It’s such a team sport,” Franchitti said. “I’m very aware of the fact that a team is made up of myself and all the other members of the team, Honda, we all work together. I couldn’t just jump into any car here. This group and the people I get to work with, I don’t know how lucky I am.”
At 39 years of age, Franchitti is getting closer to the twilight of his career, but his prime has come after he has hit his mid-30s, as he adds the experience of age with his abundant driving skill.
“In Dario’s case, we have a driver who hasn’t reached his mid-life crisis, but has the experience of his age, but he comes to work every day with the enthusiasm of an 18-year-old,” Hull said. “That’s a tough combination to beat.”