They rolled down the frontstretch of Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 30 mph, sitting side by side in the back of a white Corvette convertible. Forty-five minutes had passed since Dario Franchitti won his second Indy 500, and as he and car owner Chip Ganassi were completing their victory lap, many of the other drivers were beginning to gather near the finish line.
Danica Patrick, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon all watched the duo approach. Dozens of photographers clicked away, their lenses trained on the winners. A few thousand lingering fans roared. Franchitti and Ganassi eventually got hugs from all the rival drivers, but this was the moment to freeze—driver and owner together high-fiving in the Corvette, all eyes upon them—because the image tells the story of IndyCar racing in 2010.
Though there are substantial off-track problems in the sport, on the track Franchitti, 37, a two-time series champion who is married to actress Ashley Judd, is now definitively established as the top open-wheel driver in America, while Ganassi, a former racer himself who nearly died in a wreck 26 years ago, is enjoying a dream season. On Sunday the 52-year-old Ganassi became the first owner to win the two crown jewels of American racing in the same year: the Daytona 500 (with Jamie McMurray in February) and the Indy 500.
"This is as good as it gets in racing, both for Chip and myself," Franchitti said. "I'm relieved, because this one almost got away from us."
Starting third in the 94th running of the 500, Franchitti, a native of Bathgate, Scotland, who now lives with Judd in Nashville, blazed past pole sitter Helio Castroneves on the second lap to seize the lead. Franchitti then drove away from the field, leading 155 of the race's 200 laps. He fell to fifth on Lap 163 following a pit stop but regained the lead on Lap 192 when Castroneves dived into the pits for fuel. Franchitti was low on gas himself but stretched his mileage by slowing from 222 mph to 202 over the final laps, and he was awarded the victory when the caution flag waved on Lap 199 after Mike Conway collided with Ryan Hunter-Reay in a wreck that sent Conway airborne between Turns 3 and 4. Conway's car shattered like ceramic being slammed into cement when it hit the fence, but he survived—luckily—suffering fractures to his lower left leg and a vertebra.
For Franchitti, Sunday's dominating performance added another chapter to his remarkable comeback tale. After winning the Indy 500 and the series title in 2007 for Andretti Green Racing, he moved to NASCAR in '08. But like many open-wheel drivers who jump to stock cars, Franchitti flopped. He never felt comfortable in the bulkier, heavier car—which had far less grip on the track than his sleek Indy machine—and it showed. In 10 Cup starts in '08 Franchitti's average finish was 34.3. After his 10th race Ganassi, who owned Franchitti's number 40 car, shut the team down due to lack of sponsorship. Franchitti's career was at a crossroads.
Jobless, Franchitti traveled to Detroit in September '08. Sitting on the step of Ganassi's hauler before IndyCar's Detroit Grand Prix, Franchitti told Mike Hull, the director of Ganassi's IndyCar program, that he'd like to return to IndyCar and race for Ganassi, who at the time was looking to replace departing driver Dan Wheldon. That night over dinner Ganassi drew up a contract on a cocktail napkin, and Franchitti signed. Since then Franchitti has won six races and one championship and has finished in the top 10 in 20 of his 23 starts. Says Ganassi, "He's the best in IndyCar right now. Period. End of story."
The most interested observer at the Brickyard on Sunday was Randy Bernard, the new CEO of IndyCar, who watched most of the race in the stands with random fans. On March 1 Bernard replaced longtime series head Tony George, who resigned in May 2009 under pressure from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway board of directors, which owns the track and the series. During George's 20-year reign IndyCar racing struggled to stay relevant—its TV ratings and attendance figures have plummeted since Indy's heyday in the mid-'80s, ultimately opening the door for NASCAR's growth in the late '90s—and the board wanted a new leader. Enter the 43-year-old Bernard, who since 1995 had been the CEO of the Professional Bull Riders circuit, which under his tenure grew from eight events a year to more than 400. Even more impressive, he increased sponsorship for the PBR series from $360,000 to $26 million, earning a reputation as a sports-marketing savant.
"I didn't know anything about racing when I took the job," Bernard says. "But I'm listening to everyone. Changes are coming."
The series faces three major issues: