Dario Franchitti hobbled into Thursday’s news conference on crutches and sat down between IndyCar’s two most cherished prizes — the series championship trophy and the Indianapolis 500 trophy.
That’s when it all hit home for Tony Kanaan, Chip Ganassi’s employees — and Franchitti himself.
He is done racing.
More than a month after abruptly announcing his retirement, Franchitti finally felt well enough to spend 20 minutes answering questions about the frightening October crash that forced him to reluctantly walk away from a sport that turned the thoughtful, polite Scotsman into an international celebrity.
“I spent two days kind of thinking, `How can I get around this?’” Franchitti said. “I’ve driven with a lot of broken body parts over the years and I thought, `There’s got to be a way,’ and there just wasn’t.”
It took Franchitti nearly 2 months just to make it back onto the public stage after the crash at Houston. Debris from the accident injured 13 fans in the grandstands and an IndyCar official, while the four-time IndyCar champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner was diagnosed with a fractured spine, a broken right ankle and a concussion.
Franchitti has had surgery twice on the ankle, which is why he continues to use crutches, but the lingering effects of the concussion were a major concern for physicians and friends.
As recently as three weeks ago, the 40-year-old Franchitti still wasn’t himself.
“He was in my house and he wasn’t there. You know, his body was there, but he wasn’t there,” said Kanaan, the 2013 Indianapolis 500 champ and one of Franchitti’s closest friends. “When you see a friend not speaking right, you know slowly, asking the same questions 10 times and sleeping 16 hours a day, you know something’s not right.”
The doctors explained the risks of getting back in the car and the potential consequences. Franchitti, who had overcome everything from concussions to a broken back during his incredible career, knew this time was different.
“I said, `Tony, I’m not sure how this going to work out. I’m not sure if I’m going to be OK,’” Franchitti said, explaining how he asked Kanaan to drive the No. 10 car if he could not. “That day was the first day I thought, `I might be in trouble here,’ but you don’t really have all your mental faculties when you’re in that condition.”
Franchitti was in far better shape Thursday.
After thanking fans and friends for their support and apologizing to reporters for not taking questions sooner, Franchitti teased Kanaan about showing up for the news conference in a black shirt and black slacks. He later reached down to Kanaan’s image on the Borg-Warner Trophy and joked he thought the nose was actually doubling as a handle for the trophy.
That’s more like the fun-loving Franchitti colleagues and fans have known the years.
Kanaan is convinced Franchitti will not attempt a comeback when he is healthy.
“I don’t think he’s going to do anything that’s going to jeopardize his life,” Kanaan said.
The good news is that Franchitti will still be around the track. While he won’t be jumping into the cockpit, Franchitti has agreed to continue working with Ganassi’s team in a still-undefined role.
Team manager Mike Hull believes Franchitti can help the four-car team make a smooth transition with two new drivers — Kanaan, who will replace Franchitti in the No. 10 car, and Ryan Briscoe, a former Indy pole winner — without losing any of the dominance Ganassi’s team has had over the past five seasons. The holdover drivers are three-time series champion Scott Dixon and Charlie Kimball, an emerging American who won his first IndyCar race last season.
“What made Chip Ganassi Racing what it is today is the independent perspective within the people here, and he (Franchitti) has an independent perspective that can help us,” Hull said.
Franchitti finishes his IndyCar career with 31 wins, eighth all-time, and 33 poles, sixth all-time. After making the move from Champ Car to IndyCar with Michael Andretti’s team, he won the first of his three Indy crowns in 2007, then signed on to race for Ganassi’s NASCAR team. When things didn’t go well, he returned to IndyCars with Ganassi in 2009 and dominated the series by winning 12 races, twice at Indy, and three consecutive points titles.
It wasn’t just what Franchitti did on the track that mattered. He served as a mentor and coach for teammates, offered advice to anyone who sought it and became an outspoken proponent for improved safety measures when his close friend and former teammate Dan Weldon died in the 2011 crash at Las Vegas. His 11-year marriage to actress Ashley Judd, which ended in January, also gave the series crossover appeal.
But he leaves with a racing resume and fan base that will be hard to match.
“There have been some crap days and some devastating days, but since I started with go-karts, I’ve had a really fun time,” said Franchitti, who grew up in Europe with ambitions of one day racing in Formula One. “Who knows if I’d ever gotten into F1, how it would have turned out? Scotland has always been my home, but I always felt at home on the track here in America.”Chip Ganassi Racing, Dario Franchitti, IndyCar