Didier Francesia, crew chief of the No. 14 ROKiT/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet driven by rookie Kyle Kirkwood, has led an interesting life.
Born in Paray Le Monial, France (near Lyon and the Magny Cours circuit), he started as a mechanic professionally in 1987. He worked his way through a variety of motorsports from Formula Renault to Formula One and eventually the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
Always smiling, Francesia has lived through some tough times too: Two days after his father died, Francesia was burned after a gas explosion at a friend's home. He went rock climbing three weeks later.
But he has enjoyed some good times, too, like last year when he worked on the car that Helio Castroneves drove to his fourth Indianapolis 500 victory.
Let’s get to know Francesia, one of the true characters of the INDYCAR paddock:
Q: What sparked your interest in racing, and how did you get your start?
Didier Francesia: I started to race motorcycles when I was a teenager, then I raced rally cars briefly. I always loved speed and anything that goes fast.
Q: Which series have you worked in and what drivers have you worked with?
DF: Formula Renault, Formula 3, ice racing, Formula One, Indy Lights, Champ Car, INDYCAR, sports cars, Baja Trophy truck. The drivers’ list is very long, so I'm just going to name a few. F1: Thierry Boutsen, Andrea De Cesaris, Alain Prost, Roberto Moreno, and Juan Pablo Montoya. In INDYCAR: Dan Wheldon, Ryan Briscoe, Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais and Helio Castroneves.
Q: What are your goals with the AJ Foyt Racing team?
DF: Goals for AJ Foyt Racing are to win a few races this year and to become a championship contender in the next five years.
Q: You recently moved from California to Waller, Texas. What has that been like?
DF: I lived in a few places in SoCal, mainly the beach (Ventura) and the mountains. I was in Lake Arrowhead the last five years. It's a beautiful little mountain village. Living in Waller has been good so far. I like small towns and country living. It's a little flat, though (laughing).
Q: What is your most memorable moment of your career? Or top three?
DF: Memorable moments? I can't pick only one. Top three: Qualifying P6 in F1 in Phoenix with one of the smallest teams in 1989 (driver Alex Caffi for Scuderia Italia, which fielded Dallaras). Driving a chase truck and doing pit stops at the Baja 1000. And, of course, the last lap of last year's ‘500’ and climbing the fence with Helio.
Q: What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced?
DF: Greatest challenge for me has been to move to different countries without speaking the language properly or at all (laughter). I worked in England, Italy, Austria and ended up in Texas (laughter).
Q: What are some things on your bucket list?
DF: Racing-wise: Pikes Peak and Bonneville (Salt Flats) Speed Week. Personally: Rope swinging off a huge rock face or off The Arch in Utah. I also would love to fly a jet pack.
Q: Do you get back to France often? If so, how often and where do you visit?
DF: I don't go back to France as much as I should, about every four to five years. Mom is getting old, and I'm going to try to go more often.
Q: What interests do you have outside of racing?
DF: Snowboarding, surfing, anything that resembles a skateboard/long board, mountain biking, and, of course, motorcycles – my oldest passion, for sure.
Q: If you didn’t work in racing, what would you do?
DF: I would probably work for Hollywood again building movie cars and props. I did that for a bit, and it was super fun.
Q: You have so many tattoos, so many stories -- tell us about that ink.
DF: Tattoos, I don't have many; it's only one by now (laughing). (First tattoo?) I was 18 – a little Ferrari horse on my shoulder. (Favorite?) The next one. (Tattoo with the most interesting story behind it) I don't know if it's the most interesting, but when I got the bottom of my foot tattooed, the guy said, ‘You want a tattoo there?’
Note: The train tattoo evolved from his younger days when he got involved in the occasional brawl. One recipient of Francesia's right fist said, "It felt like I got hit by a train."
Q: What is something that few people know about you?
DF: The people who really know me know that I love animals more than I love humans.
Note: Francesia and his fiancée, Sybil, have four dogs, all rescues: Sasha and Vega (pit bulls) and Bonnie and Clyde (German Shepherd and Husky mix).
Q: Have any pet peeves?
DF: People who think they know everything. I still learn every day, and I hope it never stops.
Q: Do you have any advice for new mechanics entering the industry?
DF: Hmmm ... Stay humble, listen to the older guys – some of them, at least (laughing) – and stretch. Your back will hurt later in life (laughing).