FRANCHITTI HAS A ONE-TRACK MIND
Matthew Scianitti, National Post
The sound of a roaring engine filters through a window inside the AllStream Centre at Toronto's Exhibition ground and Dario Franchitti stands up from a chair and walks towards the window as the car passes by, only to sit in another chair. A photographer wants him to move to get a better shot of his chiselled chin and thick, dark hair. Franchitti is in the middle of his Thursday media availability for this weekend's 25th anniversary of the Honda Indy Toronto. It will be, by his count, his 20th interview. "It has been a busy day," he says with a grin as he digs into the new chair.
When he is playfully asked the question he has probably already answered 19 other times -"What is your favourite Indy Toronto memory?" -Franchitti looks over at Kelby Krauss, the public relations manager for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. "[Krauss] doesn't realize he is going to get a beating later," Franchitti says laughing, "this is going to cost him for the rest of the year."
What is Franchitti's favourite Indy Toronto moment? Either one of his two wins in 1999 or 2009. It goes without saying. And the native of Edinburgh can remember all his wins, especially his first one in January 1984 on a gokart track in Larkhall, Scotland. But he does not try to. "It is funny I don't look back on them that much," he says scratching his head. "During the season, especially, I tend not to look back too much."
And why would he? Franchitti is the two-time defending IZOD IndyCar champion and a 30th career openwheel victory on Sunday afternoon would solidify his position at the top of this season's points standings. A third win in Toronto would also give Franchitti sole possession of eighth spot on the list of IndyCar's all-time winners.
"I'm not trying to prove anything, I'm just trying to win races," the 38-year-old says smiling.
But Franchitti says he and his engineer have a lot of work to do on his No. 10 Dallara Honda. Although Franchitti won the year's first street race in St. Petersburg, Fla., he wants a little more from his car to adjust to Toronto's "different setup."
"It is a track with a lot of surface changes-concrete in the apex of each corner and bumps," he says. "Bumps are common in street courses, but this one has maybe a little more than others, so you have to take that into account. We have to get the car working. I have to get in the rhythm as well. There is a certain rhythm that comes with a street course and when you get into it you can be very tough to beat."
It is interesting to watch Franchitti philosophize about life inside his driver seat. When he talks about racing, he sits in his lounge chair like he is sitting behind his steering wheel. The twotime Indianapolis 500 winner, often accompanied by Hollywood-star wife Ashley Judd, is one of the most recognizable names in North American racing. But he says all the media and sponsorship commitments come "a very poor second" to his performance on the track.
Each time Franchitti places his helmet over his head, the crowd noise and engine roars are gone and there is quiet. He outlines a small square box in front of his face to describe how big his world is then.
"It is about Barry [Wanser, the team's manager] talking in my ear and it is about the next braking zone, the next part of the track," he says.
One of the oldest full-time drivers in the series, Franchitti shrugs off questions about retirement because he is not ready. He is getting away from the track next week to go sailing in Scotland -the first "fun thing" he has done since the start of the season -but soon after he'll have the desire to come back to the track.
"When I'm not prepared to devote the amount I devote to it right now, I'll go and do something else. But this is what I do, this is the most fun thing I know to do, is to race Indy cars," he says.
Franchitti says the IndyCar series is experiencing an "upward swing" after struggling to maintain races and sponsorship during the recession. The Toronto race had trouble finding a title sponsor and went on hiatus in 2008. He says the series needs to have about 20 races, and he saw the news earlier this week that the series will be returning to California's Auto Club Speedway next year.
But Franchitti does not like going back there. Canadian driver Greg Moore, Franchitti's close-friend on the series, died after a horrific crash on the same track in 1999. The colour in Franchitti's face fades and he stops talking completely when Moore's name and the California track are brought up together. Franchitti has a close tie to Canada because of Moore. He still visits Moore's friends and family in British Columbia.
"I've raced there a lot since," he says, "so I will go there and race and I will try and win it."
And that is when the colour and life return to Franchitti, when he talks about winning. Once the interviews are done, he will be on the track, working on his car, talking with his crew and plotting his path to victory, because he knows he can still win.
"You know, a lot of people talk about this big, grand strategy for winning championships," Franchitti says. "I don't see it that way. I just see it as one race at a time. I see it as Toronto this weekend. It is a race. How are we going to win it?"