Two for The Road

June 06, 2010

With a dominant performance, Dario Franchitti won his second Indy 500, to give car owner Chip Ganassi a historic double and stamp himself as the sport's top driver

They rolled down the frontstretch of Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 30 mph, sitting side by side in the back of a white Corvette convertible. Forty-five minutes had passed since Dario Franchitti won his second Indy 500, and as he and car owner Chip Ganassi were completing their victory lap, many of the other drivers were beginning to gather near the finish line.

Danica Patrick, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon all watched the duo approach. Dozens of photographers clicked away, their lenses trained on the winners. A few thousand lingering fans roared. Franchitti and Ganassi eventually got hugs from all the rival drivers, but this was the moment to freeze—driver and owner together high-fiving in the Corvette, all eyes upon them—because the image tells the story of IndyCar racing in 2010.

Though there are substantial off-track problems in the sport, on the track Franchitti, 37, a two-time series champion who is married to actress Ashley Judd, is now definitively established as the top open-wheel driver in America, while Ganassi, a former racer himself who nearly died in a wreck 26 years ago, is enjoying a dream season. On Sunday the 52-year-old Ganassi became the first owner to win the two crown jewels of American racing in the same year: the Daytona 500 (with Jamie McMurray in February) and the Indy 500.

"This is as good as it gets in racing, both for Chip and myself," Franchitti said. "I'm relieved, because this one almost got away from us."

Starting third in the 94th running of the 500, Franchitti, a native of Bathgate, Scotland, who now lives with Judd in Nashville, blazed past pole sitter Helio Castroneves on the second lap to seize the lead. Franchitti then drove away from the field, leading 155 of the race's 200 laps. He fell to fifth on Lap 163 following a pit stop but regained the lead on Lap 192 when Castroneves dived into the pits for fuel. Franchitti was low on gas himself but stretched his mileage by slowing from 222 mph to 202 over the final laps, and he was awarded the victory when the caution flag waved on Lap 199 after Mike Conway collided with Ryan Hunter-Reay in a wreck that sent Conway airborne between Turns 3 and 4. Conway's car shattered like ceramic being slammed into cement when it hit the fence, but he survived—luckily—suffering fractures to his lower left leg and a vertebra.

For Franchitti, Sunday's dominating performance added another chapter to his remarkable comeback tale. After winning the Indy 500 and the series title in 2007 for Andretti Green Racing, he moved to NASCAR in '08. But like many open-wheel drivers who jump to stock cars, Franchitti flopped. He never felt comfortable in the bulkier, heavier car—which had far less grip on the track than his sleek Indy machine—and it showed. In 10 Cup starts in '08 Franchitti's average finish was 34.3. After his 10th race Ganassi, who owned Franchitti's number 40 car, shut the team down due to lack of sponsorship. Franchitti's career was at a crossroads.

Jobless, Franchitti traveled to Detroit in September '08. Sitting on the step of Ganassi's hauler before IndyCar's Detroit Grand Prix, Franchitti told Mike Hull, the director of Ganassi's IndyCar program, that he'd like to return to IndyCar and race for Ganassi, who at the time was looking to replace departing driver Dan Wheldon. That night over dinner Ganassi drew up a contract on a cocktail napkin, and Franchitti signed. Since then Franchitti has won six races and one championship and has finished in the top 10 in 20 of his 23 starts. Says Ganassi, "He's the best in IndyCar right now. Period. End of story."

The most interested observer at the Brickyard on Sunday was Randy Bernard, the new CEO of IndyCar, who watched most of the race in the stands with random fans. On March 1 Bernard replaced longtime series head Tony George, who resigned in May 2009 under pressure from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway board of directors, which owns the track and the series. During George's 20-year reign IndyCar racing struggled to stay relevant—its TV ratings and attendance figures have plummeted since Indy's heyday in the mid-'80s, ultimately opening the door for NASCAR's growth in the late '90s—and the board wanted a new leader. Enter the 43-year-old Bernard, who since 1995 had been the CEO of the Professional Bull Riders circuit, which under his tenure grew from eight events a year to more than 400. Even more impressive, he increased sponsorship for the PBR series from $360,000 to $26 million, earning a reputation as a sports-marketing savant.

"I didn't know anything about racing when I took the job," Bernard says. "But I'm listening to everyone. Changes are coming."

The series faces three major issues:

The car

In 2003 George implemented a "spec formula" car, meaning every car on the track has the same chassis and the same engine. But the chassis in use, the Dallara IR3, has a major fault: It creates a large, turbulent aero wake, which prevents close racing. This problem will most likely be solved in 2012, when Bernard hopes to unveil a new car. There are five designs being considered, but several sources say that Bernard is particularly intrigued with what's called the Delta Wing car.

A dead ringer for the Batmobile, the Delta Wing features an airplane-fuselage type of body, covered wheels and a rear fin. It would be cheaper to build than the current car (about $600,000 versus $1 million), use less fuel and still be able to reach 235 mph on big ovals like the Brickyard. The lower cost could entice more teams into the sport, but Bernard's biggest hope is that a funky new design injects a certain coolness factor. "Indy was once known for its innovation," Bernard says. "We've got to bring that back."

Developing American drivers

This year's 500 had only nine American-born drivers in the field, the fewest ever. Bernard has a plan to lure young talent to open-wheel racing, and it can be summarized in one word: money.

"I want to give a $10 million bonus to the driver who wins the series," says Bernard, who hopes to implement this bonus next season. Right now the vast majority of young American drivers aspire to reach NASCAR because that's where the big paydays are. By raising the payoff in IndyCar, Bernard believes he can alter this dynamic.

Keeping Danica

Patrick had a rough May. She was booed during Indy qualifying after she blamed her slow laps on her team engineers, and she was booed again on Sunday during prerace introductions. A nonfactor for most of the 500, she made a late charge to finish sixth.

Though Patrick has only one career victory, she's still the most visible driver in IndyCar. It would be a devastating blow to the series if she bolted full-time to NASCAR, which she's considering doing in 2012 when her contract expires with Andretti Autosport. Patrick currently is watching Bernard closely.

"NASCAR has really treated me well," says Patrick, who has made three Nationwide Series races this year and plans to make nine more. "Randy has reached out to me, which is something that didn't happen in the past. I like him. We'll see what he does."

Two days before the 500 Ganassi sat on a couch in a motor home, closed his eyes and remembered. "The accident changed my life," he said. "But the fact that I'm a former racer helps me as an owner. I know what it's like to take chances, and I can speak the language of a driver."

During an IndyCar race at Michigan International Speedway in the summer of 1984, Ganassi, then 26 and fearless, slammed into the backstretch wall at 183 mph. His car flipped several times, virtually disintegrating before it stopped. He was in a coma for a day. Ganassi recovered physically but was never the same as a racer. Four years later he became an Indy team owner. "Chip is the guy I try to beat every week," says rival owner Roger Penske, whose drivers have won a record 15 Indy 500s. "He's as good as there is in the sport right now."

That was evident late on Sunday when Ganassi and Franchitti, still side by side, left Victory Lane and walked through the infield. Fans swarmed the pair, but for the first time all day, driver and owner didn't hurry. Their slowdown was understandable. For two men who have survived the life-altering lows of racing, this was a moment to savor.

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"This is as good as it gets in racing, both for Chip and myself," said Franchitti.

PHOTOPhotograph by FRED VUICHMILKING IT After crossing the line ahead of Wheldon, a bewreathed Franchitti drank in the moment alongside Ganassi. PHOTOMARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE[See caption above] PHOTOFRED VUICHOPEN WHEELS Franchitti led 155 of the race's 200 laps before Judd ran her own joyous victory lap down pit road. PHOTOTOM STRATTMAN/AP[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)