Published August 20, 2010
SONOMA, Calif. – Being called a sport's elder statesman is a sign of respect for your accomplishments, yet with the undertone that you're no longer relevant on the playing field.
IndyCar's Dario Franchitti is a contradiction to the connotation.
The 37-year-old Scotsman certainly has the chops to carry the title, a second Indianapolis 500 still close in his rearview mirror, a second straight IndyCar Series within reach.
No longer relevant? That's the part that doesn't fit.
If anything, Franchitti's career is still racing toward its apex, fueled by an inner drive as strong today as it was when he first strapped in as a CART rookie in 1997.
"When you think about an elder statesman, you think of someone where the spirit is gone maybe a little bit — it happens to everybody," Franchitti said before posting the fastest practice time Friday at Infineon Raceway. "I just don't see myself in that vein yet. I'm as hungry as I ever been, as competitive as I ever have been, so I don't really see that yet."
He can't get around being a statesman for the series, though. It comes naturally.
Opinionated yet willing to stay out of minor issues, Franchitti — along with Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan — has become a cue-setter for the rest of the field, the driver everyone turns to for on-track and series-wide issues.
If a fellow driver is being reckless, he'll point it out. Same thing if there's a problem with the tires or a decision by the series he doesn't agree with.
Franchitti has been one of the more vocal critics of Milka Duno, who was placed on probation by IndyCar officials last month for failing to meet performance standards, and a longtime lamenter of blocking, calling out drivers who lack respect for the series and fellow drivers by failing to get out of the way.
Franchitti knows where to pick his fights and, because of what he's done on the track and carried himself off it, his words carry weight.
"He doesn't go off on tangents. He just doesn't ramble off just to ramble off," said Robbie Buhl, co-owner of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and an analyst for the Versus network. "If there's something to say and we can improve or make better as a group or drivers, he's a good representative. Talking about the intensity of the game, the competition of it and what he has to do as a driver to be better, he's pretty succinct in that."
It's turned him into one of IndyCar's best and most technically sound drivers.
Two seasons removed from an unsuccessful NASCAR turn, Franchitti has matured into a superb all-around driver, equally adept at the run-it-flat racing of ovals and the feather-the-throttle style needed on road courses.
Franchitti captured his second series championship last season after winning five races, then took the checkers at the Brickyard this May for his second Indy 500 win. He won two weeks ago at Mid-Ohio to narrow series leader Will Power's lead to 41 points and enters Sunday's race at Infineon Raceway as the defending champion after a dominating, green-to-checkers run through California's wine country last year.
Franchitti appears to be winding up, not down.
"He's won big races, he's won championships, so he has that experience, but yet he's got the spirit and the energy of when he first started in racing as a young guy," said Mike Hull, managing director of Chip Ganassi Racing. "That's a very rare combination. People, as they go through their professions, they often lose that energy and live on the experience. He's unique because he possesses both."
Oddly enough, the aborted NASCAR run is part of what kept Franchitti going.
Coming off a dominating 2007 season that included a win at Indy and his first series championship, Franchitti made the switch to challenge himself, but a small part of it may have been a sense of boredom. After all those years of close calls and bad breaks, he had reached the pinnacle of open-wheel racing.
Franchitti's fendered-car run didn't last long, the plug pulled after 10 Sprint Cup races due to lack of sponsorship.
That one year turned out to be all Franchitti needed to realize IndyCar was where his heart was, pushing an already-uncommon inner drive to another gear.
"I'm enjoying it more because I realize that if I run another five years, I'm still closer to the end of my career than I am to the beginning," he said. "Probably the best thing that happened to me was the ill-fated time in NASCAR because it showed me what I was missing, what I loved to do, that I enjoyed driving IndyCars and being a part of it. That really energized me again."
An elder statesman with drive.