It was an unlikely path that took George Franchitti—who preferred to go by his middle name of Dario—from his native Bathgate, West Lothian, Scotland, to the top of the IndyCar world.
Unable to get a full-time ride in Formula One, the affable Scotsman took his talents to America, intent on showing the racing world he was someone special—and with a special talent.
Franchitti did just that. He went on to win four consecutive IndyCar championships (sandwiched around the 2008 season, when he skipped the IndyCar season to make a brief foray into the NASCAR world) and became one of only 10 drivers to win the legendary Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indianapolis 500, three different times—and in a six-year span to boot (2007, 2010 and 2012).
While he didn't know it when he suffered the worst crash of his open-wheel career in the Grand Prix of Houston on Oct. 6—sustaining two fractured vertebrae, a broken ankle (he's still recovering from two post-crash surgeries) and a concussion—that race would wind up being the last of Franchitti's illustrious career.
Franchitti shocked the sports world on Thursday when he announced, based on recommendations from his doctors, that he was retiring immediately from the sport that had been part of his life for nearly 30 of his 40 years on this planet.
"It comes down to his back, in my opinion," IndyCar team owner and former driving great Michael Andretti told USA Today. "There were probably so many back injuries that the doctors told him that another once could be dangerous."
Andretti added that he felt bad for Franchitti "because he's not retiring on his own terms. … It wasn't his decision, it was a medical decision. Having said that, he has so much to be proud of. He's retiring as a legend of the sport."
Franchitti lived somewhat of a charmed life—in a good way. His movie star-like good looks opened doors everywhere, his business savvy made him in demand by sponsors and numerous teams and he capped that off with a fairytale marriage to actress Ashley Judd (sadly, the couple separated earlier this year, but they remain close friends).
Let's look back at the remarkable career of an incomparable driver, huge fan favorite and an outstanding role model who transcended far beyond motorsports:
Where it all began
Franchitti got his start in karting in his native Scotland, eventually winning that country's Karting Junior Championship in 1984 at the age of 11. He became the British Junior Champion in 1985 and 1986 and won the overall Scottish senior karting title in 1988.
He won the Formula Vauxhall Junior championship with four wins in 1991. Then he won the Formula Vauxhall Lotus championship in 1993 and the British Formula Three championship in 1994, only to be released at that season's end.
He then moved to the U.S. and the CART Series (now defunct) in 1997.
A quick start in a new land and a new racing series
1997: Makes CART debut. Starts 16 of 17 races, finishes 22nd in the standings. Zero podium finishes, one pole, but you could see there was a star about to be born.
1998: Finishes third in the championship battle, wins three races, including first career triumph at the four-mile Road America road course in central Wisconsin.
Transitions from CART to IndyCar
1999: Wins three races but fell short of the championship, finishing second to Juan Pablo Montoya on a tiebreaker—Montoya had seven wins to Franchitti's three wins. Saw close friend Greg Moore die in the final race of the season at California Speedway. He would later dedicate a win in Toronto to Moore, a Canadian native, four years later.
2000: No wins, finishes 13th. Was also a test driver for Jaguar F1 Formula One team, driving for legendary Jackie Stewart, but could not secure a ride. Split time between Europe and racing in CART in the U.S., which likely contributed to his ineffectiveness.
2003: Leaves CART and moves to rival Indy Racing League, but suffers serious back injury in a season-ending motorcycle crash while on vacation back home in Scotland. Competed in just three of 16 races that season with zero wins or podium finishes. Dan Wheldon (Motegi), Robby Gordon (Indianapolis) and Bryan Herta (remainder of season) replaced him for remaining races.
2004: Wins first career IndyCar race on July 25 at The Milwaukee Mile, and again a month later at Pikes Peak in Colorado.
The start of an outstanding championship and Indy 500 run, but failed try in NASCAR
2007: Wins first of four IndyCar championships with four wins, 11 podium finishes, capped off by winning his first of three Indianapolis 500s, albeit a rain-shortened race (166 of the scheduled 200 laps). Also started four Nationwide Series races and one Camping World Truck Series race in NASCAR as a prelude to a switch to full-time racing in the Sprint Cup Series the following season. Was named BBC Scotland's Sports Personality of the Year.
2008: Competed in just 10 of 36 NASCAR Sprint Cup races, departs before midseason due to lack of sponsorship—announces he'll return to open-wheel racing in 2009. During brief Cup career, best start was seventh (last start at Loudon) and best finish was 22nd (Martinsville). He also had finishes of 30th or worse in nine of those 10 races, and failed to qualify at both Fort Worth and Sonoma. Overall record: 28.3 average start, 34.3 average finish. Also competed in 14 Nationwide Series races, with just one top-five and another top-10. Because he was dedicated to making it in NASCAR, he missed competing in the Indy 500.
2009: Returns to IndyCar with a vengeance, picks up where he left off with championship. Wins a career-best five races, including in just his second start back, plus nine podium finishes.
With Danica Patrick preparing to exit for NASCAR in a couple of years, Franchitti's return to IndyCar in 2009 soon made him the most celebrated and popular driver in the series and with good reason, winning three consecutive championships from 2009 through 2011 and the final two of his three Indianapolis 500 wins in 2010 and 2012.
2010: Wins third consecutive IndyCar championship (not including 2008, since he did not compete in the series)—all four of his championships were ultimately decided in the final race of each season. Also won second Indy 500 title, one of three wins and 10 podium finishes on the season.
2011: Wins fourth consecutive championship, with four wins and nine podium finishes. However, he won championship in sad terms – one of his best friends, Dan Wheldon, was killed in season finale at Las Vegas, with race cancelled after the crash.
2012: Struggles to seventh-place finish, winning just one race—but it was a big one, his third Indy 500, making him one of only 10 drivers to win the 500 at least three times.
Brutal crash ends season and ultimately career
2013: Finished 18 of 19 races, ended up 10th in final season standings. Suffered career-ending injuries in final race of season at Grand Prix of Houston (Oct. 6) in most serious crash of his career. Franchitti's car made contact with that of Takuma Sato and flew into catch fencing, with debris injuring over a dozen spectators, as well. Franchitti suffered two fractured vertebrae, a broken ankle and a concussion. He failed to win a race for only the second time in his nine full-time seasons on IndyCar circuit.
Announced Nov. 14 that he was retiring immediately due to recommendation from doctors. Retired with 31 wins in U.S open-wheel racing, tying him for eighth-place on the all-time wins list with Paul Tracy and Sebastian Bourdais.
"Sad, indeed," 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan told USA Today said via text message. Kanaan was looking forward to reuniting and becoming teammates once again with Franchitti in 2014.
"Dario was the key person on the process of getting me to the Ganassi team and I was counting the days to be his teammate again," Kanaan said. "Dario is a great person, a superb driver and a motorsports legend. But most importantly, he is my friend, and as much as it hurts not seeing him compete with me in IndyCar, I'm very happy that he got out of that accident and is still with us."
All told in U.S. open-wheel racing, Franchitti started 265 races, with 31 wins (CART, IRL and IndyCar combined) and 91 podium finishes. Earned over $17 million in his career (CART and IndyCar). Ended IndyCar career with average start of 6.7 and average finish of 7.4.
Where to from here?
Franchitti is too competitive a person to remain sidelined. While full recovery of his health is tantamount, don't be surprised to see Franchitti return to the sport in any of a number of different roles. With his well-spoken and friendly demeanor in front of a microphone, he could become a broadcaster.
Or, he could assume a role similar to that of four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears, who became a valuable consultant and coach with Penske Racing once his driving days were over.
Or, who knows, Franchitti may eventually follow the path of several former drivers like Chip Ganassi, Roger Penske and Michael Andretti and become a team owner.
Thanks for the memories, Dario
And now, it's not time to say goodbye, but thanks to Franchitti for the success he had behind the wheel and all the great memories he left us. Thanks, Dario, for one incredible ride.
Here is Franchitti's full retirement message:
Since my racing accident in Houston, I have been in the expert care of some of the leading doctors and nurses, all of whom have made my health, my safety and my recovery their top priority. I am eternally grateful for the medical care I have received over the last several weeks. I'd also like to thank my family and friends for their unbelievable support.
"One month removed from the crash and based upon the expert advice of the doctors who have treated and assessed my head and spinal injuries post accident, it is their best medical opinion that I must stop racing. They have made it very clear that the risks involved in further racing are too great and could be detrimental to my long-term well-being. Based on this medical advice, I have no choice but to stop.
Racing has been my life for over 30 years and it's really tough to think that the driving side is now over. I was really looking forward to the 2014 season with Target Chip Ganassi Racing, with a goal of winning a fourth Indianapolis 500 and a fifth IndyCar Series championship.
I'd like to thank all my fellow competitors, teammates, crew and sponsors for their incredible support over the course of this amazing ride. I'd also like to thank Hogan Racing, Team KOOL Green and Andretti Green Racing for the opportunities to compete on the racetrack, and especially Target Chip Ganassi Racing, who have become like a family to me since I joined their team back in 2008. I would be remiss if I didn't thank all my fans around the world. I can't thank you enough for standing by my side for all these years.
I'll forever look back on my time racing in CART and the IndyCar Series with fond memories and the relationships I've forged in the sport will last a lifetime.
Hopefully in time, I'll be able to continue in some off-track capacity with the IndyCar Series. I love open-wheel racing and I want to see it succeed. I'll be working with Chip to see how I can stay involved with the team, and with all the amazing friends I've made over the years at Target.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski