Source: USA TODAY
Dario Franchitti’s announcement Thursday that he was retiring from IndyCar, the open-wheel sport he helped return to prominence in the USA with four championships and three wins at hallowed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, sent shock waves through the motor sports world.
His reason for stepping away might have been more surprising.
Franchitti was told to retire from racing by doctors concerned about the possibility of future injuries after those he suffered Oct. 6 in a last-lap crash in Houston. His car sailed airborne into a catchfence and landed back on the temporary street circuit, sending debris into the stands and leaving Franchitti with a broken back, broken right ankle and concussion.
Franchitti, 40, also suffered a broken back in a motorcycle crash in 2003. He is recuperating from two surgeries to repair his ankle and returned to his native Scotland.
The IndyCar community now ponders a future without the best racer of the sport’s current era and one of the greatest in its history. Franchitti won 31 IndyCar races, eighth on the all-time list, and 33 pole positions, sixth all time.
“Dario was a hell of a driver and will be missed; missed by everyone in racing around the world,” said 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones. “He was my kind of guy. He wasn’t afraid to put his foot down and go.”
Franchitti, who was unavailable to comment, said in a statement released by Target Chip Ganassi 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.”
Steve Olvey, an associate professor of clinical neurology and neurosurgery at the University of Miami-Miller School of Medicine, said he advised Franchitti about the danger of further concussions after Houston.
“I told him that he had received three significant concussions not too far apart and, in my mind, it was too risky for him to continue driving,” Olvey told Racer.com’s Robin Miller. “It was a tough pill for him to swallow, but I think he understands what the risks are, and he accepted it.”
Michael Andretti, Franchitti’s former team owner, teammate and competitor, balked at the idea that Franchitti’s retirement was a blow that IndyCar racing, which is struggling with faltering attendance and low TV ratings, cannot endure.
“You can’t look at it that way. I wouldn’t go there. The sport has many great drivers who have been here and are coming here. … It’s more disappointing for Dario,”Andretti told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday. “I was texting back and forth with him a few days ago, just talking about going to dinner the next time he got back to Indy. It was a big shock to everyone.”
Tony Kanaan, who won this year’s Indianapolis 500 and was set to join Franchitti on the Ganassi team (they shared time at Andretti Autosport from 2003 to ’07) said via text: “Sad indeed. … 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.
“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.”
As for the future of IndyCar without its greatest ambassador on the track, time will tell how the sport adjusts. Franchitti, who was married to actress Ashley Judd for 11 years, helped it grow in popularity and was a vocal and active safety proponent, constantly pushing for improved standards.
“This news only serves as the start of the next chapter in Dario Franchitti’s racing career — which I expect will be here,” team owner Chip Ganassi said in a release.
Franchitti also could thrive as a color commentator. With his good looks, deep historical knowledge and reverence for the sport, he could serve as a link for fans trying to learn the sport or looking for a recognizable veteran.
“He’s not walking away,” Andretti said. “He is still walking, which is the most important thing. That’s why he’s doing it.”
Follow Olson on Twitter @jeffolson77