As the warmth of IndyCar’s season finale at Sonoma Raceway begins to fade and the cold offseason takes a stronger hold, my thoughts begin to wander.
This is a time where possibility is widespread in motorsport. The winter months offer speculation, predictions, announcements and everything left in between. We have seen Danica Patrick announce an Indianapolis 500 entry without a team and Ed Jones jump in and grab a seat from the same team Danica is rumored with. Fans are salivating for March when the series debuts the 2018 universal aero kit, trimming the fat off of a bulky, uninspiring era of visual incompetency for the car.
With the 2018 IndyCar driver lineup becoming a touch clearer since the season’s culmination in September, I look through the grid and sense a void. The usual suspects are present: Dixon, Bourdais, Newgarden, Andretti, Hunter-Reay and Kanaan. Drivers like Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato, our latest Indianapolis 500 champion, will make up an interesting pairing with their team expanding to two cars. Even so there is something missing, and it comes in a pair of friends:
Dan Wheldon and Dario Franchitti.
Buddies long before making their IndyCar debuts, the two European drivers first squared off in an IRL race during a 2003 contest at Pikes Peak, with Franchitti finishing 4th and Wheldon 20th. What came next was a unique story that continues to twist.
Linked by two charismatic personalities and a mutual respect for motorsport, Dan and Dario were a powerful combination for Andretti-Green Racing in the early 2000s. Franchitti won eight times over six seasons, including a series championship campaign in 2007. Breaking out in 2005, Wheldon won six of his nine career victories with AGR in a dominant championship performance of his own.
The pair drew fans at a frenzied rate through the decade with Wheldon’s good looks and Dario’s quick-witted humor, to match equally impressive driving résumés. In 2006 they separated as teammates with Dan joining Chip Ganassi Racing, a team that Franchitti would later end his career with. The move allowed the two to grow as individuals and their importance to the series was realized furthermore when Franchitti left for NASCAR in 2008, only to return to IndyCar in 2009 to win the first of three series championships.
Noting untimely ends to their career, I feel empty when considering the two driving records and their time on this earth. We are fortunate that Dario is still here following a terrifying crash at Houston in 2013, and incredibly unlucky to have lost the life of Dan Wheldon just over six years ago. While it would have been wonderful to watch their careers age naturally, that is not what I ponder when thinking about the two.
Testing the new Dallara chassis in 2011, Wheldon helped bring IndyCar into a new era of protection and competition. The car, later named the “DW-12” in his honor, produced some of the most compelling racing in the history of the Indianapolis 500 and further developed safety initiatives that were sincerely lacking with the previous model.
These initiatives were put to the test when Franchitti violently collided with track catch fencing in his career-ending 2013 crash, and survived. More recently, Scott Dixon entered the catch fencing cockpit-first in this May’s Indianapolis 500, to walk away with no serious injuries.
Where I feel cheated is that Dan was unable to witness these continued developments save the lives of multiple drivers. At the same time, I’m angry that Dario was unable to climb out of the car on his own power in Houston, and that the crash took portions of his memory surrounding those weeks that followed.
These two men deserve to experience the excitement and growth the series is in the midst of, and to be honest, the series needs them even more.
How incredible would it have been to feature a field including Dan Wheldon, Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Juan Pablo Montoya for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500? There are 12 Indianapolis victories in that group alone, not to mention race winners Ryan Hunter-Reay, Buddy Lazier and the rookie Alexander Rossi that were also on hand.
IndyCar misses the now larger-than-life persona of Wheldon, and the exquisite driving technique of Franchitti. In the coming years, they may miss them even more.
With the departure of Helio Castroneves from the full-time grid and Tony Kanaan in the final years of a storied career, IndyCar continues to endure an exodus of personalities that carried the sport through its “split” years.
North American motorsports counterpart, NASCAR, has experienced similar conditions with the retirements of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, and most recently Dale Earnhardt Jr. The decade-long decline in NASCAR interest has only intensified with these drivers departing the sport and IndyCar could find themselves in a similar scenario soon, albeit less impactful.
This is not to rag on the current brigade of IndyCar drivers, as we have characters James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden and Conor Daly to keep things light in the paddock. Additionally, I will concede that Franchitti and Wheldon would also be reaching the end of their driving careers, and that their natural departures from the sport would transpire just they do for each driver that faces “Father Time.”
I make mention of this to say that these are individuals that are difficult, and sometimes impossible, to replace. Responsibility now falls on the series to use creative marketing campaigns through both traditional and developing media channels to showcase the current stars of our sport. While they have done better recently in engaging fans in interactive content, there needs to be more – much more.
Failing to create lasting and active bonds between fan and driver could lead to a dark scenario that stock car racing currently faces, which would eliminate the slow increase in momentum that IndyCar has nurtured since 2008.
Make no mistake, I understand that there are inherent risks associated with motor racing and that is a fact of life when one majors in this profession. But that does not keep me from, possibly selfishly, wanting more from what has transpired. Simply enough, I miss seeing the two of them together at a race track, either going toe-to-toe between the walls or throwing verbal jabs jokingly on pit road.
IndyCar racing is better with unique personalities such as Dan and Dario, and those two are a pair that cannot be replaced. For now, I’ll imagine how things could have been as we yearn for March.
Credit to IndyCar and Autosport.com for images.