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Q & A: Franchitti Set To Defend

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 10 2010
Dario Franchitti begins defense of his IndyCar Series championship this weekend in Brazil. (Photo courtesy the Indy Racing League)

Dario Franchitti begins defense of his IndyCar Series championship this weekend in Brazil. (Photo courtesy the Indy Racing League)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Fort Worth, Texas – They don’t hand out an official “Comeback Driver of the Year Award” in the IZOD IndyCar Series, so Dario Franchitti’s second championship trophy in three years was all-encompassing.

Franchitti marked his return from an aborted foray into NASCAR by winning the 2009 Indy Racing League driver’s championship for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Franchitti – who, ironically, spent 2008 driving for Ganassi’s Sprint Cup team – celebrated an open-wheel season during which he posted career-highs for wins and poles with five each. Franchitti finished ahead of teammate Scott Dixon by 11 points, the third-closest margin in series history.

Franchitti left IndyCar at the top of his game after the 2007 season, when he won four races –including the 91st annual Indianapolis 500 – and scored 13 top-five finishes for Andretti Green Racing. Franchitti’s championship margin of victory, again over Dixon, was 13 points. With his Indy 500 victory, Franchitti joined Formula One hero Jim Clark (1965) as the only Scottish-born drivers to win “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Meanwhile, Franchitti and crew chief Kevin O’Donnell began their title defense with a thud during preseason testing at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala. Franchitti wrote-off his No. 10 Target Dallara/Honda but escaped injury in a crash on Thursday, Feb. 25. The 2010 season is scheduled to begin this weekend with Sunday’s Sao Paulo Indy 300 on the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil. The race will be telecast live in High Definition at 11:30 a.m. (ET) on VERSUS.

Franchitti, 36, touched on a variety of topics during Texas Motor Speedway’s annual Media Day. The series will visit TMS’ 1.5-mile quadoval for the rebadged Firestone 550k night race on Saturday, June 5.

Question: What is it about the Indy-car that you seemingly can jump back into it and win the championship?

Dario Franchitti: “I think that the Indy-car I jumped in was a good one. Team Target puts really good cars out and that definitely made my job easier. I’ve been doing it for so long before that, as opposed to stock cars was learning something completely new. This was going back to learning something that was instinct for me. It was all I’d ever really done so it was a lot easier _ and I just love driving those cars. I love the horsepower, the grip and the tracks I get to drive on. So it was a good homecoming.”

Q: Are you saying open-wheel cars more driver-friendly than stock cars?

DF: “No, I don’t think they are. But I’m more familiar with them. I often think if you take the best guy in Sprint Cup _ which right now is obviously Jimmie (Johnson) _ and you give him a couple of days to test and say, ‘All right go do the IndyCar Series,’ he would struggle for the first year and then he would figure it out, I think. The difficulties of driving them are so different than a stock car that to do one or the other you have to change your whole way of thinking. Your driving style…everything is different. If you come here to Texas in a stock car against an Indy-car, it’s completely different. It feels like a different track. Going to Richmond (International Raceway) is the same kind of deal. One is not easier than the other. They’re just very different.”

Q: The 2010 IndyCar schedule has 17 races, including nine on road/street courses and eight on ovals. The Milwaukee Mile and Richmond International Raceway ovals have been dropped and the Sao Paulo and Barber Motorsports Park road-courses have been added. Do you like that mix?

DF: “I think this is the first season where they’ve had more street and road courses (nine) than ovals (eight). I do, I like the schedule a lot. I’d like to see a couple more short ovals. We lost Milwaukee because of the promoter issues out there, which is a real shame because that’s a great race for us. And Richmond, that had nothing to do with the IZOD IndyCar Series. I guess they didn’t like the show last year so they didn’t renew. And that was a shame, because that’s a great track for us and really fun to drive. Apart from that, it’s a very well-balanced schedule and I’m really liking it.”

Q: How did the aerodynamic-related tweaks, and Honda Performance Development’s “overtake assist button” introduced before Race No. 12 at Kentucky Speedway, impact the quality of racing in ‘09?

DF: “It certainly improved the racing a lot. Really small changes, yeah, but it allowed us to race a lot closer to each other, closer behind each other. Less of a wake from the car. It changed the competition up a bit. They were good changes. It was a shame that we didn’t get to have those changes at like a Richmond that would have really, in my opinion, improved the show. I think we’re looking at some good shows this year. And I think it would have improved the show here at Texas, too.”

Q: Do you think Danica Patrick competing in NASCAR will raise the profile of the IndyCar Series?

DF: “I think it will increase the profile a bit because she’s had such big coverage in her stock car races. Not only with the Nationwide stuff but even they talk about it so much during the (Cup) broadcasts on FOX, too, so I think it’s going to bring fans to the IndyCar Series. And once they see the racing and all that kind of stuff we’ll have some new fans out of it. Yeah, it’s definitely a positive for the IndyCar Series.”

Q: Everybody is saying that Danica will become a better driver because she’s gone to NASCAR.

DF: “Darrell (Waltrip) said that.”

Q: As far as you’re concerned, did you leave NASCAR thinking, “I’m a better driver now.” Or is that a fallacy?

DF: “Well, that was one of the things…there were a lot of guys in the IndyCar Series that were saying, ‘Well, you’d won a championship before you went to NASCAR…’ But I definitely learned stuff while driving in NASCAR that took me out of my comfort zone, and that made me a better driver. Definitely. Did it make me a quicker driver? I don’t know. But it definitely, I think, gave me a ‘broader bench,’ and allowed me to do some stuff that I haven’t been able to do in the past and deal with different problems with the cars. So yeah, in a way it did make me a better driver.”

Q: Is there anything with your NASCAR experience that you’d like to try over again?

DF: “It depends on the day really. There’s some days that if I look back it would have been great to have had a sponsor. It would have been great to be driving the Earnhardt-Ganassi cars now as opposed to the Ganassi cars in ’08, which I think was really a low-point for the team. The timing was unfortunate but at the same point I’m back doing exactly what I want to do.

“I would have liked to have been able to show what I can do in Sprint Cup. We did a bit in Nationwide, but it would have been nice to have been in a front-running car. That would have been kind of cool. But it all worked out for the best and I’m back driving in the IZOD IndyCar Series doing what I love to do.”

Q: What is your reaction to the radical Delta Wing Racing concept? We know that Chip Ganassi is involved in that but what do you want from this new car?

DF: “You know, definitely the reaction has been mixed. And it’s got people talking. Because nobody’s going, ‘Oh, it’s OK.’ People are going like, ‘Wow, it’s amazing!’ Or, ‘It’s crazy!’ But it’s really polarized people. It’s got people talking. It’s got people thinking. It’s got the engineers thinking. It’s a concept right now and I like the efficiency idea of it.

“I like the fact that it’s starting to get people’s minds working on how to make the IndyCar Series relevant to the manufacturers again. And that’s certainly through the push for efficiency. Because in the years past the cars have gotten faster and faster and faster and there comes a point where that’s not sustainable any more. You can’t be doing 250 mph around Indy as much as you would like to be able to. By keeping the performance the same but making them more efficient, I think is a good thing, and that’s one thing the Delta Wing definitely has brought to the table.”

Q: Do you think Delta Wing and/or any of the other manufacturers involved _ including Dallara, Lola and Swift _ are going to meet the time frame for the 2012 season?

DF: “I don’t know what’s going to happen. Chip’s involved, but it’s a completely separate company and I’ve had nothing really to do with it as of yet. They haven’t asked (for driver input).”

Q: The series recently conducted a two-day preseason open test at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. Is that way too small of a window to prepare for the season?

DF: “Our (test) was only actually a half-a-day, because it was too cold to go out before lunch (Feb. 24), and the second day I crashed it very early. So for me, with the experience I have is not as bad as some of the rookies. I would have liked to have seen a couple more test days but there is a reason they’ve done it. Obviously, the cost reason, so I’m fine with it. Same for everybody and we’ll deal with it.”

Q: What’s the sense of direction with the IndyCar Series and all the changes at the top? The Indy Racing League has a new CEO in Randy Bernard and Jeff Belskus is beginning his first full season as CEO at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, centerpiece of the series. Do you sense a new direction or vision?

DF: “I don’t know yet. I don’t know how that’s going to work out. Randy (Bernard) and I have exchanged emails and we’ve played phone tag because we’ve been trying to get together and just have a chat. As I understand, I don’t know too much about him yet, but he’s a promoter. That’s a good thing. I think that is one thing the IndyCar Series would really benefit from.

“We’ve got IZOD now as a title sponsor, which is great, and the marketing department has done a good job with that. But you look at the job Mike Zizzo (VP of media relations) and (TMS president) Eddie Gossage do here at Texas, there’s a reason they say he’s the best promoter in racing. He’s a showman and that really does a great job for Texas. We need someone to do that for the IndyCar Series and I think, I’m hopeful, that Randy is going to be the guy.”

Q: What are your final words on Tony George, who has gone from CEO of The Speedway and team-owner to someone who is not even currently involved in the IRL series he founded?

DF: “I don’t understand the way everything worked there. Again, Tony really polarizes opinion, I think.  I know he is very hopeful to be back with his team at Vision Racing because he was at the Barber (Motorsports Park) test and kind of seeing what was going on. So, we’ll see what happens there.”

Q: What are your thoughts on opening the 2010 season at a new venue in Brazil?

DF: “I haven’t been to Sao Paulo in what, seven years. It’s a whole new thing. I’ve seen the (track layout) images from the satellite and that kind of stuff. We’ll get there and we’ll spend a day walking around analyzing the track _ looking at the corners, the bumps and then we’ve got a two-day show there. It’s practice, practice and qualifying and then it’s a race. So we’ll have to be on it. It’s (the layout) going to be interesting _ a mile-long straight followed by a hairpin. We’re going to be running road-course wings, which have a lot more drag than the superspeedway wings. So we’ll be running about 200 mph, maybe.”

Q: Is there a runoff area for that section you described?

DF: “There’d better be. Yeah, there will be.”

Q: With Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing’s victory by Jamie McMurray in NASCAR’s season-opening Daytona 500, are you worried Chip might be putting more focus on the Sprint Cup side rather than the IndyCar Series?

DF: “No, not at all. I’m happy for Chip that he’s getting something back from all the hard work he’s put in to his Sprint Cup team. That’s good to see. But I think his first love is IndyCar racing. He’s put the right people in place. The day-to-day running of the team is done by a group led by (managing director) Mike Hull, and (team managers) Scott Harner and Barry Wanser in Indianapolis.

“Chip oversees all that and the stock car operation, so I think it will be a benefit for the IndyCar team that the stock car team is running so well. When I first joined his Sprint Cup team, I left him a model of my 2007 (championship-winning) IndyCar in his office as a little joke. And I think it’s still there.”

Q: Only three-time IndyCar Series champion Sam Hornish Jr. has been able to win back-to-back titles. In preseason testing, Team Penske’s Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe topped the final time sheet. What do you feel your chances are of repeating as series champion?

DF: “I think being with Team Target…we’re a great team, and that it gives us an advantage. It also gives Scott (Dixon) an advantage. We’ve both won championships before so we both know what it takes. We can all do the job and it’s up to us to do it. I approach it as each week we are going to do our best and that’s what we did last year. We’ll see what happens.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 10 2010


  • John says:

    What’s so funny?

  • ANM says:

    What a long fall to a half a day of preseason testing. Stick it with the last fork, already.

    DF: “I don’t know what’s going to happen. Chip’s involved, but it’s a completely separate company and I’ve had nothing really to do with it as of yet. They haven’t asked (for driver input).”