A year ago at this time, shortly after he capped off his second consecutive IZOD IndyCar Series Championship, I wrote an article on More Front Wing saying that I felt Dario Franchitti had secured his place amongst the greatest Indy car drivers all of all time, certainly among the greatest of my generation. With a fourth championship trophy now sitting on his mantle, I don’t see how anyone could possibly doubt such a claim anymore.
Dario Franchitti has amassed a career record that is as good as there has ever been. Since cracking into big league North American open-wheel racing in 1997, Franchitti has earned 4 INDYCAR championships, 2 Indianapolis 500 victories, 30 race wins, 81 podium finishes, and 25 pole positions, all in 203 races. What’s amazing is that he continues to excel in his craft and shows no signs that his skills are beginning to diminish in any way. His four championships have only been bested or matched by the legendary names of this sport – AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, and Sebastien Bourdais.
While Franchitti’s record is impressive against the drivers in any era, I believe that the versatility he has shown and the variety of tracks on which he has excelled is what really sets his record apart from those that have come before him. Certainly drivers such as Foyt and Andretti showed that they could compete and beat the best in the world in a variety of racing disciplines, but I don’t know the level of competition that they had to beat across each discipline in a single series was ever as stout as what Dario has faced. There is no denying that AJ and Mario were masters of their craft, but did they ever face competition that was as great on both road courses and ovals as what Dario has faced? And did they beat them year after year and year? I honestly don’t have that answer since I’m not as familiar with the overall racing scene from those years, but it’s hard to imagine the depth of the competition was as deep then as it is now.
Another reason I put Dario in an elite category is because of the era of spec racing in which he has excelled. I know that is at odds with the opinions many people hold who say that the spec era has made the racing more about the teams and engineering and less about the drivers. I hold just the opposite view. For many years, it was the equipment, not the driver, which had the biggest effect on the outcome of a race. For example, in the late 1980s and very early 1990s, no driver had a chance of winning a championship if he wasn’t driving a Chevrolet engine. Without the Chevrolet engine, the greatest of drivers looked like also-rans. One prime example was Arie Luyendyk. While Arie had some respectable runs at Indianapolis and elsewhere in the first few years of his career, it wasn’t until he sat in front of a Chevrolet engine with Doug Shierson racing that he was able to show what he could really do. Likewise, during the middle and latter parts of the ‘90s, if a team and driver were working with the wrong engine or chassis manufacturer in CART – be it Ford, Ilmor, Lola, Goodyear, etc. – there was just no way they could overcome those deficiencies and be successful. In the spec era, equipment is nearly equal and it’s the driver that most often is the difference between winning and losing, particularly on the road and street courses that have become prevalent in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Now the littlest teams can compete right on par with the biggest teams and efforts like Dale Coyne Racing and Sarah Fisher Racing, with the help of a great driver and a hard working crew, can have a good chance of finding their way to victory lane.
Sadly for Dario, he still does not seem to be getting near the attention or respect that he deserves for his remarkable career. Whether it is because his top-level career has been entirely since the split of 1996 or because much of the mainstream sporting media fails to acknowledge most motorsports that are not NASCAR sanctioned, his achievements have largely gone unrecognized outside of the hardcore IndyCar racing fans. It is truly a shame because his accomplishments stand among the great sporting careers of at least the last 50 years, certainly among the greatest careers within the world of motorsports. My hope is that he will soon be given the credit he so rightfully deserves. Perhaps now that he hasn’t been defeated for a championship in five years, the sporting world will finally begin to acknowledge the amazing career of Dario Franchitti and start to recognize him as one of the greatest drivers of all time.