Thursday, November 14, 2013

Dario Franchitti: The Champ Has Left the Building

It takes a lot to take my breath way. A lot. But when I saw the news today that Dario Franchitti would be unable to continue racing after the injuries he suffered in Houston last month, that's exactly what happened to me.

I can't exactly say I'm shocked. Considering his injuries to his spine and his concussion (which was the fourth of his career), he was looking at a long rehab, and at this point in his life and career it was probably pretty easy to take the doctor's advice and step away.

Man, it's still going to take a long time to wrap our collective heads around this one. While there is no doubt the last couple of years -- where he finished seventh and 10th in the standings, respectively -- have been definitely not like the Franchitti we had gotten used to, there is also no doubt that even though he has just turned 40 (welcome to the club, BTW) he was still a threat to add to his total of three Indy 500 wins and four series championships.

It's always sad when a driver, or any athlete for that matter, is unable to continue their careers and don't get to leave on their terms. I don't think a proud man such as Dario would've wanted the last time he left a track in his career to be in an ambulance, but at the same time, he will more than likely live a full and normal life, which is a nice tradeoff not afforded to other racing champions in the past.

So his career totals are final and official: 31 open wheel wins, victories in the 2007, 2010 and 2012 Indy 500 and series championships in 2007 and 2009-11 in 265 starts dating back to 1997. Add a victory in the 2008 Rolex 24 and you have a resume that few can touch.

That's one heck of a legacy, isn't it? When you combine the wins, 500 wins and championships into one metric, how many people in American open wheel racing have accomplished what he has? Very, very few. I'm fortunate that in my life as a race fan, I have seen lots of great drivers, including everyone in the top-15 in career open wheel wins and other all-time greats like Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell. I've seen the drivers who comprise the stratosphere of this sport, and there is no doubt in my mind that Dario deserves to be in their company.

I'm sure people will try and discount him in some way, shape or form, whether it's bringing up he never won a 500 under green (neither did Dan Wheldon, BTW), his failed attempt at NASCAR in 2008 or the fact he was working with Target and Chip Ganassi's money for much of his career, but that's just static. When you look at his career as a whole, going back to the late 90s, he's been a front-runner from the beginning, regardless of his employer or competition.

Not to mention, you could measure Franchitti and his career from the respect he commanded, from his team to the paddock to the racing world as a whole. Those people know what's up, so I'll take their word for it.

I think my best Franchitti memory was at the 500 last year when he fell to 28th place after being spun by EJ Viso on pit lane and methodically worked his way back up to the front. I remember sitting in the stands and a British gent behind me kept guaranteeing that Dario was going to end up in Victory Lane. Why?

"Because he knows how to win."

Another was a couple of weeks later in Milwaukee, when Dario slugged his way through practice with the 15th-quickest time only to find the magic in qualifying and put the car on the pole. In the media center afterwards, he looked beat, like a man who had spent all of his energy for the day, despite the fact it was only five in the afternoon.

He talked about how frustrated he had been because they hadn't found the right combinations, and how hard they had worked to get the car right. That earned my respect, because it showed that despite everything he has accomplished, his competitive fire still burned as bright as ever, and it still meant a lot to him to give everything he had.

In the end, one of the best things about Dario is that he truly got it. He always raced and carried himself with integrity, he understood and appreciated the history of the sport and he approached what he did with an undeniable passion. Victories and championships aside, that's a pretty good legacy too.



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