The NTT INDYCAR SERIES is nearing a decade since Dario Franchitti ended his driving career in open-wheel racing, scoring his final series championship in 2011, his final Indianapolis 500 win in 2012 and retiring after the 2013 season.
But he is still having an impact on the field through Chip Ganassi Racing.
These days, four-time series champion Franchitti serves in a driver mentor/coach role with the organization he raced for in INDYCAR from 2009-13. He won three of his championships (2009-11) and earned two of his Indy 500 wins (2010, ’12) with the organization and relishes still being involved in the team.
“To still be involved in competition is fun,” said Franchitti, who turned 48 Wednesday. “To go to battle with these guys and girls, that’s fun to me to try and play a part in this team, even if it’s a different part than I used to play. I’ve done it my whole life. I don’t know anything else.”
This season, Franchitti’s biggest role has been helping seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson transition from stock cars to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES as he embarks on his rookie campaign on all road and street circuits this season.
Franchitti said the two champions talk nearly every day, joking that he hasn’t heard from Johnson in three days, which is “unusual to go that long.” The constant communication comes as Johnson leans on Franchitti to help him process the incredible amount of information coming his way as he attempts to learn what it takes to successfully drive an NTT INDYCAR SERIES car.
“My job is to help him short-cut that process as much as possible,” he said. “We’re having fun doing it, and it’s great to see the progress he’s made so far, but just watch the progress he’ll make in the second half of the season. Watch what he’s capable of doing.”
Franchitti believes he’s the right driver to help teach Johnson the ropes not because he’s a decorated open-wheel driver, but because Franchitti went through a similar scenario when he attempted to transition to NASCAR in 2008.
Scotsman Franchitti competed in 10 NASCAR Cup Series races and 14 NASCAR Xfinity Series races that season. He scored one top five and two top-10 finishes in the Xfinity Series and led one lap in Cup Series competition.
“I think I understand the size of the challenge,” Franchitti said. “At times I say to him when he talks about something he did in a stock car, ‘Ah, now I know why I sucked so badly in a stock car.’ Because it’s completely counterintuitive. Not only is he trying to start from zero, he’s trying to start from 20 years of experience that doesn’t help him in any way, shape or form.”
Now that the Month of May has transitioned from the GMR Grand Prix on the IMS road course, where Johnson finished 24th, Franchitti is turning his attention to the other drivers for Chip Ganassi Racing, which is entering four cars in this year’s race.
Franchitti insists that even outside of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, he’s available to all CGR drivers: Marcus Ericsson, Scott Dixon, Alex Palou, Johnson and Tony Kanaan, who is driving on the oval tracks.
The 31-time INDYCAR SERIES winner said the role he plays with the younger Ericsson and Palou is focused more on the mental aspect of the sport as opposed to the on-track product.
Franchitti said it’s not out of the ordinary for younger drivers to experience “psychological problems” on the daunting Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval, and he finds himself to be very useful in those times to help talk down the drivers.
Still, he does help Palou and Ericsson with the car when they’re struggling with the balance mid-practice or mid-race. In those times, he will offer advice to race engineers on the stand that could fix the issues. Rarely, he said, does he get on the radio himself – but he joked he enjoys taking advantage of modern technology and getting on the team radio from his home in London from time to time.
But don’t think Franchitti isn’t helping six-time and defending series champion Dixon or 2004 INDYCAR SERIES champion Kanaan.
The trio of series veterans raced against each other for years and are friends. Plus, Dixon and Franchtti were teammates at CGR for five seasons. That’s a bond and understanding of one another that cannot be broken, and Dixon and Franchitti still act as teammates to this day.
Franchitti said it’s not rare for Dixon to be having a problem with his No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda and go to Franchitti for advice. The two will talk out the issue like they did back in the day and try to come to a solution. Franchitti said even though Dixon is one of the most accomplished NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers in the history of the sport, there are times when he provides a solution Dixon hadn’t considered.
“We have that trust, and we also know each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” Franchitti said. “We can play off that. He knows that I’ve got his back. If I can help Scott just a little bit, even just 1 or 2 percent, mission accomplished.”
Right now, during practice for the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, Franchitti is bouncing between all four drivers to see how he can help, and he monitor’s each team’s radio.
But come Race Day on Sunday, May 30, Franchitti expects to be rotating between Palou’s No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda stand and Kanaan’s No. 48 The American Legion Honda stand and ensuring all is smooth as they look to etch their names and faces alongside Franchitti’s on the Borg-Warner Trophy.