In a career that spanned 16 seasons between CART (then Champ Car) and the Indy Racing League (now INDYCAR), Dario Franchitti is unmistakably one of the greats in American open-wheel racing’s history.
The Scotland native notched 31 victories between the two series on his way to four IndyCar Series championships and three wins at the Indianapolis 500. From 2007 to 2011, Franchitti won the championship each year (aside from 2008’s foray into NASCAR) and amassed an incredible 39 podiums and 12 pole awards.
As with most drivers, though, getting started was the hardest part.
In 1997, Franchitti made his CART debut with Hogan Racing. He appeared in 16 of the 17 rounds that year and showed glimpses of pace despite crashing out of 8 events. At Gateway, Franchitti led 31 laps before a transmission failure ended his day, and he led four more at Belle Isle after qualifying 5th.
For the Molson Indy Toronto, Franchitti snatched his first career pole by outrunning Mark Blundell, Bobby Rahal, Michael Andretti and Gil de Ferran. That race would last only 39 laps before Franchitti crashed his Mercedes-powered Reynard just 39 laps into the event.
Despite the inconsistencies, Franchitti would place 22nd in the 1997 championship and earned himself a spot in the respected Team Green stable with Paul Tracy as a teammate in 1998.
The near-misses continued to come for the sophomore driver. Franchitti led laps at Long Beach before finishing 2nd, grabbed the pole at Jacarepagua before an electrical issue ended his day, and led an astounding 76 laps at Toronto before a brake failure cut that afternoon short.
Following an engine failure at Michigan and another crash from the pole at Mid-Ohio, Franchitti entered the 1998 race at Road America 8th in the points and reeling.
Everything changed on an August Sunday in Wisconsin.
After qualifying 6th, Franchitti would have to overtake worthy challengers such as Andretti, Bryan Herta, Rahal, Scott Pruett and de Ferran if he was going to advance from a row three starting position.
That’s not to mention names such as Alex Zanardi, Tony Kanaan, Tracy, Blundell, Jimmy Vasser and a whole host of others breathing down Franchitti’s back as starters behind him.
The race started with Andretti leading early and Franchitti settling into the top five before contenders began dropping out.
Al Unser Jr. and Patrick Carpentier crashed out on the first lap of the race while Helio Castroneves made an early exit with a header failure on his Tony Bettenhausen-owned machine.
Just 10 laps into the event Herta would make an exit as he tangled with Alex Barron, then the late Greg More left the race after leading 6 laps due to a transmission issue. While Franchitti kept his pace, it was turning into a race of attrition around him.
Soon Pruett would depart with an engine problem on lap 24, as would de Ferran by lap 43.
With just a few laps remaining, Franchitti was in a familiar position: leading. The team was on pins and needles considering their history of close calls, and team owner Kim Green was feeling the nerves as much as anyone.
“We have been in this position a couple of times this year, already” said Green. “We would like to get this one over and done with. Dario has driven a fantastic race, the crew has done fabulous pit stops. We just have two laps to go and we can go and celebrate what we really deserve, a win.”
In the waning stages of the race, Franchitti was running much slower than a hard-charging Michael Andretti with Alex Zanardi close in tow. Franchitti took the white flag as Andretti and Zanardi finally caught sight of the young Scot.
On that final lap, Andretti would endure a tire failure that sent him hard into the barrier. It gave Zanardi the second place finish he had been fighting laps for, and more importantly, sealed Franchitti’s first career victory.
A hard-fought victory had finally gotten the monkey off his back and for Franchitti, it was a long time coming. “We have been in that position a lot of times and something has always gotten in the way. This is it, no one can take it away from us.”
The flood gates opened, it seems, after that triumph. Franchitti would win the next CART race which was held at Vancouver before finishing 4th at Laguna Seca. He then won again at Houston and picked up the pole in Queensland before finishing runner-up that day.
This weekend Franchitti returns to Road America, not as a driver but a consultant for Chip Ganassi Racing. The retired champion has been serving as a mentor for Ed Jones since he arrived to CGR and spends much of his time at the track with the No. 10 NTT Data team.
During practice for Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix, Franchitti was offered some time to remember that first career victory that came at Road America 20 years ago.
“20 years ago, it’s a long time isn’t it?” Franchitti remarked. “Great memories, the first win … the party afterwards was quite something too I’ll tell you. It was great to finally get that first win, and I remember how many ways we found to lose races. To finally get it was something special.”
It was the mental block for Franchitti that was most challenging to overcome amidst the young driver’s early success in CART.
“It was that thing of ‘I don’t understand how to win a race.’ We had come so close in so many different ways,” Franchitti explained while standing in Jones’ pit. “I think I went out and won the next race (after winning Road America), and Barry Green kept saying to me ‘if you win one you will win a few.’
“We just couldn’t get over that hurdle so it was confidence with myself and the team at the time, but it was great. It was so much fun to drive those cars (at Road America) with all of that horsepower.”
Returning to the historic Wisconsin circuit conjures up more than just the memories of that first win in 1998. Franchitti, as with most drivers, gives exceptional appreciation and praise to Road America as one of the most enjoyable circuits to drive in North America.
“There’s no chicanes, none of that stuff, this is a proper, aggressive road course that you better be absolutely right on the limit,” he says. “It is one of the few places we go that I think, ‘hmm, I wouldn’t mind a go.’ It is so much fun to be up here and be at this track, the guys have a great time driving it.
“Everyone comes up here with a smile on their face. Finding the limit around here is such a combination of being very careful and on the other hand being very brave as well. There are so many different types of corner at this track, it’s really a good challenge and I have many good memories of driving it as well as the first win.”
In the lighthearted conversation with the IndyCar Radio Network, Franchitti gave a little bit of insight into the fun that followed that initial win.
“It was the last I drank Jägermeister,” Franchitti laughed. “I had some great friends from Germany that came over, and I think Mark Webber was there was well. It was Greg Moore and (Jimmy) Vasser and those guys that got me into a lot of trouble that night, and I had a hangover that lasted about a week.
“I went back to Scotland, I missed my flight actually on the way home. I had a couple weeks to get back in shape and to get back on it, but again, great memories.”
While it has been nearly four years since a career-ending injury in Houston, Franchitti continues to find new ways to enjoy life around the IndyCar scene and this weekend he shouldn’t have any shortage of friends when celebrating an important anniversary of win number one.
For his sake, though, let’s hope no one brings out the Jägermeister. You’re not 25 anymore, Dario!
Header photo courtesy of Shawn Gritzmacher/INDYCAR.