She skipped across
the most famous red bricks in racing, splashing into puddles and flashing a
dimpled smile. As a springtime shower fell from the Indiana sky, Dario
Franchitti's No. 1 fan held her high heels in her hands and bounded barefoot
down pit road at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, searching for the man who is
the self-described "invisible" driver of the IndyCar Series. "One
by one, Dario picked those other drivers off," said actress Ashley Judd,
Franchitti's wife, as she squinted into the rain. "This is waaaaaaay
On Sunday at the
Brickyard, in the 91st running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the
struggling IndyCar Series got something it desperately needed out of its
marquee event: a winner with potential star power. Since his debut on the Indy
circuit in 2002, Franchitti--a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, and a resident of
Nashville--had only four wins and had never finished higher than fourth in the
final standings or sixth in the 500. Soft-spoken, with the contemplative manner
of an English-lit grad student, Franchitti happily blends into the background
at Andretti Green Racing, the organization that dominated the month of May at
Indy. AGR boasts an A-list lineup of open-wheel drivers comprising a pair of
Andrettis (team co-owner Michael and his 20-year-old son, Marco), Tony Kanaan
(the 2004 IndyCar champ, who's also a champion talker) and Danica Patrick (who
for the third straight year at the Brickyard sold more merchandise than any
other driver and was everywhere in the prerace media coverage). Then there's
the 34-year-old Franchitti, who married a movie star in 2001 but is as low-key
as any driver in IndyCar.
"I don't have
a big personality like some of my teammates, but I like my role," says
Franchitti, the first driver signed by AGR, who frequently tutors Marco
Andretti and the 25-year-old Patrick on the finer points of racing. "I've
been waiting for this day, and today it's finally good to get noticed."
For most of the
Indy 500, however, it was Franchitti's teammates who commanded the attention.
Kanaan, Marco Andretti and Patrick were running first, second and third,
respectively, on Lap 113 when the first rainstorm blew over the speedway,
causing the race to be red-flagged for two hours and 57 minutes. To wait out
the delay, the five AGR drivers, who had all qualified in the top 11, retreated
to their engineering headquarters in the garage. As they munched on pasta, the
close-knit group mapped out its strategy for the final laps--assuming there
would be any. If the race could not resume, Kanaan would be the winner.
Franchitti, his best friend in racing, needled the 32-year-old Brazilian by
jokingly asking if he was "stressed," which prompted an R-rated retort
from Kanaan and a round of laughs.
When the skies
cleared and the race resumed, Franchitti was in fifth, but just one lap after
the restart he cut a tire on a piece of debris, forcing him to make an
unscheduled pit stop. He fell to 14th but then charged up through the field,
displaying the car control and sense of anticipation that he learned in the
early 1990s while driving in the British Formula Three series for his racing
mentor, Jackie Stewart, a fellow Scot and three-time Formula One champion.
By Lap 131
Franchitti had made it up to seventh. Another storm was approaching, and
computer screens in every pit glowed with radar maps. Franchitti was in third
when the caution flag waved on Lap 150, after Marty Roth crashed. The two
drivers in front of Franchitti--Kanaan and Sam Hornish Jr.--had to pit for
fuel, but Franchitti had plenty of ethanol left in his tank thanks to his
earlier unplanned stop, so he stayed out. Suddenly, he was in the lead.
racing resumed, Franchitti pulled away from Scott Dixon and was hurtling down
the backstretch on Lap 157 when Marco Andretti collided with Buddy Rice. The
younger Andretti, who had finished second last year to Hornish by .0635 of a
second, went airborne and rolled in a frightening crash. He emerged unhurt, but
the incident added another chapter to the tome of Andretti heartbreaks at Indy.
(His father, Michael, who finished 13th on Sunday in his final Indy 500, led
431 laps in 16 career starts but never won; grandfather Mario, one of American
racing's greatest drivers, won only once in 29 starts.) The yellow flag waved
again, and minutes later another downpour hit. The race was called; while
tooling along at 47 mph under caution, Franchitti was awarded the signature win
of his career.
helped build Andretti Green Racing to where it is today," said Michael
Andretti, whose team has won two of the last three season championships and two
of the last three Indy 500s. "It wasn't meant to be [for me] to win it as a
driver.... Maybe I'm just meant to win 15 of these as an owner."
The real winner on
Sunday, however, may have been the IndyCar Series. Ever since open-wheel racing
split into two bodies (CART and IndyCar) in 1996, fans have fled from the
sport. This opened the door for NASCAR's boom, and now IndyCar needs a new cast
of marketable stars to emerge, as Patrick did when she took fourth at Indy in
2005. Enter Franchitti. Equal parts Hollywood husband and friendly next-door
neighbor, Franchitti has the potential to appeal to a broad spectrum of fans, �
la Patrick, who finished eighth on Sunday after running as high as second.
"This is the
biggest day of my career, and I hope it's the start of something
wonderful," said Franchitti on Sunday evening between sips of hot tea. He
was sitting in a room high above the speedway, and outside the clouds had
cleared and the sunset was spilling across the horizon. Appropriately, for the
first time all day, a golden light was shining on Indy's newest attraction.