Franchitti's Jim Clark dreamposted in INDY31 | 12 | 2010

    During his flying visit back home to Scotland, triple IndyCar champ and double Indy500 winner Dario Franchitti spoke exclusively to Jim McGill about the highlight of his year ... driving Jim Clark's Indy500-winning Lotus.


    INDYCAR CHAMP DARIO Franchitti has had another stunning year, but as he reflected on a season which saw him dominate single-seater racing in the States, winning his third IndyCar Championship and second Indy500, there was one event which stood head and shoulders over his racing achievements: driving the Ford-powered Lotus 38 his hero Jim Clark powered to victory in the 1965 Indy500.

    Franchitti (pictured during the interview in London) has long been a student of fellow Scot Clark, the 1963 and '65 Formula One world champ, whose performance in the 1965 Indy500 is acknowledge as one of the greatest feats in racing.

    The car, as you might expect, is priceless. Wrapped up in its chassis and engine is not only the spirit of Clark, but the history of Ford and Lotus; hence the reason it's almost bubblewrapped when it's displayed at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

    "The car is something I looked at in the museum but was scared to touch because I was so in awe of it. Next thing I was doing 120mph down the back straight at Indy."

    But such have been Franchitti's achievements, not only this season but through his 11-year career Stateside, that he was 'loaned' the car for a day to drive round the famous Brickyard, the Indianapolis 500 Speedway. So how was the experience?

    'It's almost impossible to describe'

    "It was ...," Franchitti, one of the most naturally articulate men in sport, allowed himself to sink slowly, silently, back into the plush armchair in London's Grosvenor House Hotel — where we met prior to the Autosport Awards — as he relived the memorable experience, privately in his mind.

    "It's almost impossible to describe," he finally continued. "The car is something I looked at in the museum but was scared to touch because I was so in awe of it. Next thing I was doing 120mph down the back straight at Indy in it with the old four-cam howling away in your ear.

    "Bear in mind this car has done less than 1000 miles in its whole life, so you can understand how nervous I was."

    The Lotus 38, powered by Ford's big V8, produces around 500bhp; it was, is, a beast. It had no aerodynamics, since downforce was an unknown concept in racing in the early Sixties, and handling it on its skinny bias-ply tyres was more than a challenge, it was an art form; and Clark was the master of his genertaion.

    "It's very responsive; you really just drive it with your wrists," Franchitti continued. "And in many ways you can't help it because there's just no space in the cockpit; not like in a modern IndyCar where you drive it with your whole body. Jim's car was all fingertips and wrists, and it responded beautifully. It was an absolute dream day for me."

    'Plan was to keep Dario out of IndyCars'

    The past 12 months, in fact the last two years, have been something of a dream for Franchitti, with back-to-back IndyCar titles and his second Indy500 win in May this year. But the man responsible for much of the success — and the Scot's ill-fated switch to Nascar in 2008 — Target Ganassi boss Chip Ganassi, admitted it had actually been his intention to keep the Scot out of Indy racing.

    "Essentially that's why I signed him for our Nascar team in 2008," the burly all-American from Pittsburgh said as he sat next to his star driver. "Dario had just won his first IndyCar title with Andretti in '07 and in one of those phases when I thought I knew everything, I just thought 'right, we'll remove him from next year's Indy championship by giving him a contract for Nascar."

    The plan worked, to a degree. Target driver Scott Dixon won the '08 IndyCar crown, but Franchitti's season was an unmitigated nightmare. A broken ankle in a crash at Talladega sidelined him just as he was gathering momentum in Nascar. Worse though was to follow when Ganassi was forced to close Franchitti's Nascar team as the economic downturn roared across the States. The Scot was left kicking his heels with no drive, and no prospects for 2009.

    "No team owner wants to be the guy who ended Dario Franchitti's career," Ganassi continued, "and what happened in 2008 was not the way to end a career." So he arranged to meet with Franchitti at the Belle Island Grand Prix in Detroit in September, where Franchitti was watching younger brother Marino race in the American Le Mans Series.

    Back in the UK he is, essentially, anonymous

    "I had a spare seat for 2009 in IndyCar simply because Scott's team-mate Dan Wheldon left," Ganassi continued. "It wasn't planned; it just happened. I met with Dario and just said, 'hey man, the drive's yours if you want it?'"

    The rest, as they say, is history; back-to-back IndyCar titles and the 2010 Indy500. Multi-millionaire Franchitti, not surprisingly, is one of the most-recognised sportsmen in the US — a fact not handicapped by his suave, Italian looks, and being married to Hollywood actress Ashley Judd — but in the UK the Bathgate boy is, essentially, anonymous.

    In the build-up to the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year — chosen from a shortlist of 10 which doesn't contain one Scot — does Franchitti, global ambassador for watch company TW Steel, feel he gets enough recognition this side of the pond for his achievements?

    "Ultimately, when I stop and actually think about it, no," he admitted, smiling. "But it's not something which has kept me awake at night. I do what I do because I love the reality of driving a car, winning a race; of everything which goes into that process. I probably love it more now than I ever have.

    "The recognition thing; yeh, it irritates sometimes when you see some things, but that's something I can't change. It pisses me off sometimes. It's not like we're a country — Scotland, England, the UK — which is so blessed with sporting achievements ... but it's fine. I can live with it."

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    Jim McGill

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