She skipped acrossthe most famous red bricks in racing, splashing into puddles and flashing adimpled smile. As a springtime shower fell from the Indiana sky, DarioFranchitti's No. 1 fan held her high heels in her hands and bounded barefootdown pit road at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, searching for the man who isthe self-described "invisible" driver of the IndyCar Series. "Oneby one, Dario picked those other drivers off," said actress Ashley Judd,Franchitti's wife, as she squinted into the rain. "This is waaaaaaayoverdue."
On Sunday at theBrickyard, in the 91st running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, thestruggling IndyCar Series got something it desperately needed out of itsmarquee event: a winner with potential star power. Since his debut on the Indycircuit in 2002, Franchitti--a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, and a resident ofNashville--had only four wins and had never finished higher than fourth in thefinal standings or sixth in the 500. Soft-spoken, with the contemplative mannerof an English-lit grad student, Franchitti happily blends into the backgroundat Andretti Green Racing, the organization that dominated the month of May atIndy. AGR boasts an A-list lineup of open-wheel drivers comprising a pair ofAndrettis (team co-owner Michael and his 20-year-old son, Marco), Tony Kanaan(the 2004 IndyCar champ, who's also a champion talker) and Danica Patrick (whofor the third straight year at the Brickyard sold more merchandise than anyother driver and was everywhere in the prerace media coverage). Then there'sthe 34-year-old Franchitti, who married a movie star in 2001 but is as low-keyas any driver in IndyCar.
"I don't havea big personality like some of my teammates, but I like my role," saysFranchitti, the first driver signed by AGR, who frequently tutors MarcoAndretti and the 25-year-old Patrick on the finer points of racing. "I'vebeen waiting for this day, and today it's finally good to get noticed."
For most of theIndy 500, however, it was Franchitti's teammates who commanded the attention.Kanaan, Marco Andretti and Patrick were running first, second and third,respectively, on Lap 113 when the first rainstorm blew over the speedway,causing the race to be red-flagged for two hours and 57 minutes. To wait outthe delay, the five AGR drivers, who had all qualified in the top 11, retreatedto their engineering headquarters in the garage. As they munched on pasta, theclose-knit group mapped out its strategy for the final laps--assuming therewould be any. If the race could not resume, Kanaan would be the winner.Franchitti, his best friend in racing, needled the 32-year-old Brazilian byjokingly asking if he was "stressed," which prompted an R-rated retortfrom Kanaan and a round of laughs.
June 3, 2007
When the skiescleared and the race resumed, Franchitti was in fifth, but just one lap afterthe restart he cut a tire on a piece of debris, forcing him to make anunscheduled pit stop. He fell to 14th but then charged up through the field,displaying the car control and sense of anticipation that he learned in theearly 1990s while driving in the British Formula Three series for his racingmentor, Jackie Stewart, a fellow Scot and three-time Formula One champion.
By Lap 131Franchitti had made it up to seventh. Another storm was approaching, andcomputer screens in every pit glowed with radar maps. Franchitti was in thirdwhen the caution flag waved on Lap 150, after Marty Roth crashed. The twodrivers in front of Franchitti--Kanaan and Sam Hornish Jr.--had to pit forfuel, but Franchitti had plenty of ethanol left in his tank thanks to hisearlier unplanned stop, so he stayed out. Suddenly, he was in the lead.
When green-flagracing resumed, Franchitti pulled away from Scott Dixon and was hurtling downthe backstretch on Lap 157 when Marco Andretti collided with Buddy Rice. Theyounger Andretti, who had finished second last year to Hornish by .0635 of asecond, went airborne and rolled in a frightening crash. He emerged unhurt, butthe incident added another chapter to the tome of Andretti heartbreaks at Indy.(His father, Michael, who finished 13th on Sunday in his final Indy 500, led431 laps in 16 career starts but never won; grandfather Mario, one of Americanracing's greatest drivers, won only once in 29 starts.) The yellow flag wavedagain, and minutes later another downpour hit. The race was called; whiletooling along at 47 mph under caution, Franchitti was awarded the signature winof his career.
"[Dario] hashelped build Andretti Green Racing to where it is today," said MichaelAndretti, whose team has won two of the last three season championships and twoof the last three Indy 500s. "It wasn't meant to be [for me] to win it as adriver.... Maybe I'm just meant to win 15 of these as an owner."
The real winner onSunday, however, may have been the IndyCar Series. Ever since open-wheel racingsplit into two bodies (CART and IndyCar) in 1996, fans have fled from thesport. This opened the door for NASCAR's boom, and now IndyCar needs a new castof marketable stars to emerge, as Patrick did when she took fourth at Indy in2005. Enter Franchitti. Equal parts Hollywood husband and friendly next-doorneighbor, Franchitti has the potential to appeal to a broad spectrum of fans, √†la Patrick, who finished eighth on Sunday after running as high as second.
"This is thebiggest day of my career, and I hope it's the start of somethingwonderful," said Franchitti on Sunday evening between sips of hot tea. Hewas sitting in a room high above the speedway, and outside the clouds hadcleared and the sunset was spilling across the horizon. Appropriately, for thefirst time all day, a golden light was shining on Indy's newest attraction.