Dario Franchitti: Win Or Bust, How It Started
Four-time Indycar champion, three times a winner of the Indianapolis 500, Dario Franchitti was served his career on a plate you’d think. Well, think again. The Scotsman’s early stepping stones are a lesson in determination, aiming high with your dreams, and not giving up.
Dreamer? Yes. Ask him about his first thought of being a racing driver, and his answer is straight back – and realistic all in one go.
“My dream to be a racing driver started when I was three,” he says. “It’s one of the very first things I can remember, but when you are young like that and growing up, everything is simple. I remember starting racing in karts and thinking that Formula 1 or any of that stuff was just a given at that age. Then you get to about 14 or 15 and you begin to realise how difficult this could be.
“After that I never took it for granted, I never expected the success. Even when I was in DTM or when I first went to America, I still felt it was all going to stop somehow.”
And after his third Indy 500 win, he was on David Letterman’s New York network Late Night show. Again…
So how did he get there? It’s a long story, but a humble one too.
As a youngster, Franchitti absorbed all around him. Racing was in his family’s genes, and his Dad, George – a racer himself – is without doubt a pivotal character and mentor in Dario’s career. Don’t forget his younger brother Mario is doing a brilliant job in sportscars, and his cousin Paul di Resta isn’t too shoddy in F1 either!
Father George knew when to get involved, and when to step back, but you will still find him in the pits at the races today, making sure the helmets are prepared, and giving less for his son to worry about. Then he steps away.
In the karting days though, George was very much hands on.
“We would go on a Friday afternoon,” remembers Dario. “Dad would leave Mum in charge of the business, and him and I and Marino, and sometimes my sister Carla, and a friend of my Dad’s who helped us, would head down. There were three particular friends in my career that would come karting with us, and they still come to races today. It was always that, very much a family thing, and while it was an amateur thing, we took it very seriously.”
Father George won’t say it out loud, but he put an awful lot on the line for his son’s career once he realised that his kid had a gift. Even Dario doesn’t know the whole story. “I don’t think he will ever tell you what he went through, to be honest,” Dario says. “He hasn’t really told me, but I have half an idea.”
The story – we believe – is…. George re-mortgaged their house. A brave move. Even braver was that he didn’t discuss it with his wife Marina. Call it faith, belief, or plain stupid! Dario laughs at the thought now of the ‘last chance saloon’. “Yes, big time.” He says. “That was the one and only bullet we had left in the gun I guess. Dad went and borrowed money from the bank – then told my Mum later what he’d done!!
That was pressure. Let me tell you, through the last four or five years racing for Indycar Championships, people talk about pressure. For me, that’s not really pressure. For us then as a kid it was if I damaged the car we couldn’t afford to fix it. If I didn’t win that last race at Thruxton, then realistically that was going to be the end of my aspirations of being a racing driver.”
George, as ever, plays down his role. “I was chief cook and bottle washer”. Dario sums it up much better. “My family gave up so much, and that’s how I was able to follow my dream. When time allows, I go back to Scotland, we sit around the kitchen table, and talk about the sacrifices my family made.”
He’d learned a lot, but the next step really was a one-shot chance. It was absolutely all-or-nothing.
That step was Vauxhall Junior, and win or bust…. Pressure? Believe it.
“I was incredibly lucky that the people that I was able to get involved with at that stage were brilliant, the Leslies, Davids father and son… They were just terrific, and such good characters. They really taught me a lot, and it was a very good situation for a young driver to be in. That was something I’d seen them do with Allan McNish and David Coulthard, so that was a really good start.” Dario won that 1991 championship, but despite the success, their funds had by then all gone. There was little to look forward to. Then came a gift that would change his career and his life.
“Absolutely. Paul Stewart Racing was the next big step. Getting involved with Jackie was the biggest thing,” he says now, “Jackie allowed me to just drive the car, and learn. He said: ‘I’ll find the money. You can pay me back when you win some money.’”
“Then the year I won the Young Driver (1992) I’d already done a year with Jackie and PSR.” He had been groomed. Dario’s McLaren Autosport Young Driver prize was presented by new McLaren F1 signing Michael Andretti – who later became the Scotsman’s team boss in 2003, and that partnership led to success. That was the future.
“I learned so much from Jackie,” he says today, “and from all the people that he and Paul had assembled at PSR. We were talking about it recently, and that group of people, mechanics, engineers etc have all gone on, and it’s now Red Bull Racing. It was a great place to be a part of.”
For George this was a tough time. Having been so hands on and taken the financial gamble on his son’s career, it was time to pass over the reins. “It was difficult, but you have to.” George says. “They knew better than me, and know what’s right. It was better than me trying to tell them how to set up cars.”
Dario sums it up even better: “ Dad was definitely your typical ‘racing Dad’ in karts. But when I got to cars, he let it go. He was always there, but he left it to the team.”
Then along came Marino, Dario’s younger brother. By now Dario was earning. Did he help? Yes is the answer but only if Marino put his mind to it, which he did… In spades.
“I think I was more a hindrance than a help to be honest, because I had pretty much zero patience!” says Dario. “To me, Marino has done things absolutely on his own. I mean when I was racing I got the best stuff we could afford. Marino really got the cast-offs. And because of that he developed a much tougher demeanour, and really had to fight for every single thing, and it’s put him in very good stead I think. As little as I helped ‘Mino’ in karts, when he started racing cars I tried to help him as much as possible.
“When we first drove together at Daytona in the 24 hours, it was the first time we’d been in the same car together,” he says, “and our driving styles were almost identical. Our feedback, our feel for the car, the way we drove each corner was almost identical. It was kind of freaky actually.”
Back to his six-month dabble with NASCAR… How did his karting days relate to that?
“When I went to NASCAR I really had to fight against that style,” Dario says. “I had to learn a new way of driving. I think what you learn from your formative years is very important. The feeling between a kart and any kind of racing car is massively different. But you definitely learn the basics that stay with you.
“As far as racecraft and how to set up a car or a kart, I learned a massive amount. But in some ways, how you learn to drive, how to set up a kart and the style that you develop come from those young days and translates to cars. I still have that same style today.”
Final question then: From your karting days and education, could you engineer and set-up your own Indycar?
The response is a big laugh from the man himself. “I think I’ve been doing this for so long that if they gave me a base set-up to work from I could tweak it myself. But I would need that base because it’s all the calculations and the maths that go into the mechanical balance. Simple things like the ride height or the centre of pressure, and aerodynamics. After that…. Yes!”
Very special thanks to @dariofranchitti. Follow him on twitter.
Also thanks to George ‘hole in one’ Franchitti who has made me laugh more than anyone I know.
Special thanks to LAT, www.latphoto.co.uk