INDIANAPOLIS, November 18, 2003
It's a dilemma he's had to deal with since signing with Andretti Green Racing. Dario Franchitti, the Scotsman with the Italian name has always been an inveterate road racer. Here he was, at the start of the 2003 IndyCar Series season, making his initial foray in the all-oval Indy Racing League.
Why did he leave the Champ Car ranks? The answer is really quite simple: Dario is a race car driver and you drive the most competitive car offered to you. For that reason (not to mention whatever sums he was offered), Franchitti joined Andretti Green Racing's (AGR) super team of Michael Andretti (later Danny Wheldon) and Tony Kanaan to campaign a trio of Dallara/Honda cars in their first year of competition.
The stakes had changed from 2002 to 2003. Major engine makers Honda and Toyota had departed CART for the IRL and they took their prime players along with them. New IRL engine regulations were put into place; new chassis directives were imposed as well.
It must have felt like "old home week" for Franchitti and many other Indy Racing League newcomers as they met in the Test in the West paddock for the first time last February. For the most part, these were the same guys they'd raced against in CART and these were the same engine makers, less Chevrolet, they'd competed against in CART the past few years.
Franchitti had an okay start to his IndyCar Series season, notching a seventh place finish in the first race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, site of his awful 2000 crash in CART testing. A gearbox problem shut the Scot down in his second IRL event at Phoenix and he went to Scotland for some R&R.
A motorcycle crash during his April free time took Franchitti out of commission right then and there with fractured vertebrae. He commenced a serious attempt, using physical therapy and training to return to competition and did, in fact, race at Pikes Peak International Raceway mid-June, notching a fourth place finish from seventh on the grid.
The pain, though, got to him and Dario wondered if further aggravation might be traumatic. A visit to Dr. Terry Trammell, the orthopedic surgeon who is renown for putting drivers back together as if they were nursery rhyme characters resulted in Franchitti's back surgery shortly after Pikes Peak. He was out for the season and, at that particular point in time, the rumor mill began to do its dance.
Would Dario return to AGR? Would he go back to the Champ Car ranks? Would he just become "Mr. Ashley Judd" and get out of the racing game? The latter suggestion was too ludicrous for words, but the first two swirled throughout the season, coming to a head when Franchitti was spotted at Surfers Paradise for what became CART's 2003 finale.
At that point, some wags placed Dario with Paul Gentilozzi's Rocketsports Champ Car team as partner to Alex Tagliani; others saw him in a Newman/Haas CART entry for next year, despite the presence of signed drivers Bruno Junqueira and Sebastien Bourdais. Several folks even had Franchitti signed, sealed and delivered to a new squad with Paul Newman and Mario Andretti as co-owners.
All those suppositions came to an end today when Franchitti confirmed his return to Andretti Green Racing for the 2004 season. He'll be back in the #27 Dallara/Honda handled capably by Bryan Herta for 11 races this year, supported by a backer to be named later.
With all the controversy surrounding the Indy Racing League and its aerobatic chassis, Franchitti had to stop and think about his choices, I'm sure. That he decided to return to AGR and the IndyCar Series makes a statement.
Franchitti is not the type to just go "pound round" to earn a paycheck; he's a racer, first and foremost, one who took a monumental and emotional first oval victory at Rockingham Speedway in the UK in 2001 with his entire family present to witness.
In announcing his return, Franchitti made the usual PR statements: "To say I'm eager to get going again would be a huge understatement. My recovery has been going very well and I know I'm not quite through the process yet," Dario said. "I really can't wait to get back in an AGR car and work with my guys. I'm working very hard to regain my fitness and I feel like I'm a bit ahead of schedule (if he weren't, we'd be worried, right?). I am very focused on getting back to 100%."
Is there a fear factor here, with the airborne crash that sidelined Kenny Brack at Texas Motor Speedway and the test flight that killed Tony Renna at Indianapolis Motor Speedway? If he feels trepidation, Franchitti's not talking.
Dario is a race car driver and he goes where the work and competition lies. While the idea of returning to Champ cars might have looked appealing, the fact that CART continues in a state of flux had to be part and parcel of Franchitti's decision to stay in the Indy Racing League.
Although he didn't spend a lot of time around the circuit this summer, he did follow the IndyCar Series' progress and he's got to know that Brian Barnhart and Dr. Henry Bock will do whatever they can to ensure his and every driver's safety, to the best of their abilities.
Dr. Trammell believes Franchitti won't suffer any ill effects of his motorcycle shunt. Noting that Dario is "currently weaning out of his brace and continuing to increase his general conditioning, I would anticipate his healing process to continue normally. Once he is healed," said Dr. T, "his risk of a spinal injury in the future will be no greater than it was before he was injured."
I'm sure Dario Franchitti isn't going into the new season blindly, disregarding problems that have developed within the tight confines of Indy racing. But I'm also certain that he feels a need to prove his worth on the IndyCar Series trail and that he'll be strong in the saddle when it's finally time to go racing the last day of February.
Now that he's made his decision to return to the League, all Dario has to do is be ready. After this past year's events, that's more hard work than most of us could ever imagine. Will he be ready? Bank on it.