Updated: Sep 2, 2020
The ninth part of my series looking at each drive who competed in the 2001 Rockingham 500.
My next series of features will be looking at each driver who competed in my first ever major international motorsport race, the 2001 Rockingham 500, the first time the American CART Championship had raced in the UK since 1979.
Having been confirmed the previous July, the race was held in front of 38,000 people who witnessed, at the time, the fastest ever laps on a British circuit, with cars hitting speeds of over 215 mph. It was also the first full length oval race in the UK since before the war, when cars roared round Brooklands.
I was seven when I watched the action at a very cold Rockingham, I remember my parents either side of me keeping me warm. However, I also remember the excitement of watching a major motorsport event trackside for the first time, having been to the official opening that May. The speed the cars hit was mind blowing and something I can still recall now.
The race was won by Gil de Ferran who executed a superb move on the last lap to beat Swede, Kenny Brack, with fellow Brazilians Cristiano da Matta and Helio Castroneves finishing third and fourth.
Michael Andretti finished fifth ahead of his teammate Paul Tracy in sixth, with 1996 CART Champion Jimmy Vasser in seventh.
After Vasser in seventh was the fourth Brazilian in the field, Mo Nunn Racing’s Tony Kanaan, who finished seven tenths of a second behind the American. Behind Kanaan in eighth was the second Team Green car, local favourite Dario Franchitti.
Prior to the race I had heard of Dario and watched him race, although strangely my earliest memory of Dario is the camera panning to him while backwards at, I think, Road America in his Team Green Reynard around 2001, all I know is it was a road course, rather dusty and big curbs. If anyone remembers this coming together then please let me know as it is bugging me now!
Dario was born, George Dario Marino Franchitti on the 19th May 1973 in Bathgate, Scotland and comes from a racing family. His brother Marino is a successful driver in his own right as is his cousin Paul di Resta, who made it to Formula 1.
Dario, like many other Scottish drivers of his generation such as Alan McNish and David Coulthard were helped through the junior ranks by David Leslie Senior and Junior, with Dario making his car debut at the age of 18 in Formula Vauxhall Junior. Prior to his car debut Dario had a hugely successful karting career in which he won the Karting Scottish Junior Championship in 1984 before winning the British Junior Championship in 1985 and 1986 before returning to Scotland to win the Senior title in 1988.
His first season in cars yielded him his first title as he claimed the Formula Vauxhall Junior title in 1991 for David Leslie Racing winning four times. Dario quickly graduated to Formula Vauxhall Lotus, competing for Paul Stewart Racing, Sir Jackie Stewart’s son, in which he finished his first season fourth. Despite not winning the championship, he did win the highly coveted McLaren Autosport BRDC Award, an award previously won by David Coulthard and Oliver Gavin.
Having won the award, Dario remained in Formula Vauxhall Lotus for 1993 with Paul Stewart Racing, winning the championship at his second attempt. It ensured he graduated to British Formula 3 for 1994, again with Paul Stewart Racing alongside Jan Magnussen, who went onto win the championship that year.
Also on the grid were future BTCC SuperTouring star Vincent Radermecker and Ricardo Rosset. It proved to be his only season in Formula 3 as for 1995, he switched single seater racing for tin tops as he joined D2 AMG-Mercedes in DTM, in which he partnered DTM legend Bernd Schneider.
In a field which included the likes of Kurt Thiim, Nicola Larini, Alessandro Nannini and Keke Rosberg amongst others, Dario fared superbly in his debut season, ending the year fifth, while his teammate Schneider won the title. Dario remained in the DTM championship for a second season in 1996, again alongside Schneider.
Dario had a great second season, scoring nearly over 100 points more than in 1995, finishing the season fourth, in a season he achieved his first victory in the DTM.
1996 was Dario’s last season in the DTM, now called the International Touring Car Championship due to the series racing around the world in countries such as Brazil and Japan, before he switched Europe for America, as he joined Hogan Racing for his debut season in the CART Championship.
It was a big step for Dario as he moved back to single seaters for the first time since 1994 and although the results were not as strong as he may have hoped, the promise was there, heading into his second season in the championship, as he joined Paul Tracy at Team Green for 1998.
This is where Dario’s results improved dramatically, taking his first win in the championship at Road America, a result which saw him win three of the last six races, ensuring he finished third in the championship in 160 points.
Dario remained with the team for the entirety of his CART career alongside Tracy, as he went one better in 1999 finishing second in the standings, although it was heartache for Dario as he ended equal on points with champion Juan Pablo Montoya, however the Columbian rookie won six races in the season compared to Dario’s three.
It must have been a bitter pill to swallow as it was the consistency of Dario which ensured he had the chance to fight for the title. It was the closest he got to winning the CART series, finishing a distant 13th in 2000 before finishing 7th in 2001, the first time I saw him race.
2002, Dario’s final season in the CART series, was a greater success as he finished fourth, a year which included a memorable win at Rockingham in front of his bow crowd. I was there for the race and once again it was an amazing atmosphere. The race was dominated by Kenny Brack, who came so close to winning in 2001, however a late caution and a poor pit stop by his Chip Ganassi team left him in the pack, eventually finishing eighth.
It ensured Franchitti, who was trailing the leaders before the final round of pitstops, jumped into the lead, a position he remained in, taking the flag in front a jubilant home crowd. I will never forget the sheer amount of noise that was billowing out of the stands as people cheered, clapped and stomped their feet on the metal stands. The whole place was shaking and it was amazing!
Dario went onto finish his last season in CART fourth before he and his team Andretti Green Racing moved to the Indy Racing League for 2003. The team made their debut in the series in 2002 at the Indy 500, which was also Dario’s first appearance in the great race, being classified nineteenth.
2003 was only a part time season for Dario in which he achieved a best result of fourth in the sixth race of the season, his last that year.
It was his only part time season as he returned to full time driving with Andretti Team Green for 2004, partnering Brazilian Tony Kanaan, Bryan Herta and fellow Brit Dan Wheldon in a four-car entry. His first season back in full time racing yielded two victories as he finishing sixth in the championship, as his teammates Kanaan and Wheldon locked out the top two positions, with Kanaan becoming the most dominant champion in the series’ history.
Two further victories followed in 2005 for Dario as he ended the year fourth before finishing eighth in 2006, remaining alongside Kanaan and Herta, although Chip Ganassi bound Wheldon was replaced by Marco Andretti for 2006, ensuring Marco became the third generation of Andretti to compete in the premier American single seater championship.
Other than his final season, eighth was the lowest Dario finished in IndyCar, his fortunes changing dramatically for the better in 2007.
After two seasons in which he was outperformed by his teammates, it all came together for Dario in 2007 in which he won four times and finished on the podium a further seven times. This fine form and consistency in which he only finished outside the top ten once, ensured he won his first IndyCar title, beating closest rival Scott Dixon by thirteen points.
It was also a breakthrough season for individual events as he won his first Indy 500 in 2007. He won the race in unusual circumstances as he was declared the winner following a crash on 162 between Wheldon and Andretti, resulting in a caution. Four laps later the weather changed and rain started to fall, declaring Franchitti the winning of the 91st running of the Indy 500, after leading 34 laps before the final classification was declared.
It was a fantastic way to end his first stint in IndyCar as for 2008, he joined Chip Ganassi to make his debut in NASCAR, the most watched spectator sport in the world. Having made his debut in the Nationwide Series the season before, again with Chip Ganassi, Dario struggled in stock cars, however this was due to the financial crises hitting motorsport hard during 2008, as teams struggled to gather enough funding from sponsors to compete. It resulted in Chip Ganassi having to shut their #40 team, leaving Dario without a drive, although it also left 70 employees redundant.
It was a difficult time for NASCAR as many of the sport’s long serving teams went bust.
Joining Chip Ganassi however allowed Dario to compete in racing such as the 24 Hours of Daytona for the first time, in which he won on his first attempt in 2008, alongside teammates Scott Pruett, Memo Rojas and double CART Champion Juan Pablo Montoya.
Dario remained with Chip Ganassi for the remainder of his career, returning to IndyCar for 2009 alongside Scott Dixon, in which the duo won ten of the seventeen races that season. It was Dario however who came out on top, beating Dixon by eleven points, with Penske’s Ryan Briscoe third.
It was a fantastic return to single seaters for Dario, and it only got better as he continued his championship winning run in 2010, claiming his third IndyCar title after overhauling Will Power at the final round of the season at Homestead. He won the championship by five points, ensuring he won the last three IndyCar championships he had competed in, having won 2007 before his switch to NASCAR.
2010 also saw Dario win his second Indy 500, beating compatriot Dan Wheldon by just over a tenth of a second, a fantastic end to a race Dario controlled throughout, learning 155 of the 200 laps. Amazing he was also the last driver to win the title as well as the Indy 500 in the same season.
2011 was another superb year for Dario as he claimed his fourth title for Chip Ganassi, although the jubilation on victory was lost as it was confirmed Dan Wheldon had passed away due to the injuries he sustained in the 15 car crash on lap 11. Whatever happened the title would have been Dario’s as his only rival Will Power was involved in the crash too however the race was abandoned.
It was a sad way to end such a successful season and period for Dario who remained with Chip Ganassi as the new DW-12 chassis was introduced to the championship, replacing the IR-05. It was a slow start for Dario who finished the season seventh, having won the four previous championships he had contested. Although he lost his IndyCar crown, he did win the Indy 500, his third after his 2007 and 2009 successes, in what proved to be his final IndyCar victory.
It was a frantic end to the race in which Franchitti and teammate Dixon swapped places multiple times, with Takuma Sato joining in. This continued until the penultimate lap of the race, when Dario took the lead as Sato followed through. The Japanese driver went for the lead on the final lap, failing and spinning out of the race at Turn 1, ensuring the race ended under full course caution.
With the field under yellows. Dario won the race ahead of good friends Dixon and Brazilian Tony Kanaan, the trio lining up in formation across the line.
He remained with Chip Ganassi for what proved to be his final season with the team, as sadly, a massive crash at Houston ended his career, after he collided with Sato and E.J Viso, pitching him violently into the catch fencing. It was a sickening impact.
The crash left thirteen spectators injured and Dario left with spinal and ankle fractures as well as concussion. Due to these injuries, as well as previous back injuries, he was told by doctors he would risk paralysis if he were to crash heavily again. It was an untimely end to his career at a time he was still at the top of his game.
Since his accident, Dario has featured a lot on Motorsport programs, most noticeably presenting the coverage for the Goodwood Festival of Speed each year. I was lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time one year and was able to listen to him talking about some of the cars on display at the Style et Luxe and what each car had done to warrant its inclusion in the competition.
The Style et Luxe is a competition for the best-looking car at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, with cars being picked from across the world which follow specific themes which are set out before each year’s event. For me it is one of my favourite parts of the show as the cars are more like art pieces rather than road going vehicles.
As well as his appearances on screen within motorsport, Dario is also one of the voices of Formula E alongside Jack Nicholls, a position he has held since 2014.
I am so glad that he has managed to have a successful career away from driving, as he is a man who deserves it, and should be more famous than he is in the UK. I feel very lucky that I was able to watch him race twice, and watch him win in front of his home crowd, a feeling I am sure he loved as much as I did!
I sincerely hope he remains around for many years to come.
Pictures: www.hollywoodreporter.com, www.nytimes.com, www.motorsportimages.com, www.zimbio.com