Grunion Gazette - Long Beach

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LB Grand Prix-View: Everybody Loves Dario Franchitti

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Posted: Thursday, April 14, 2011 1:00 am | Updated: 1:28 am, Thu Apr 14, 2011.

This is the last of seven articles for our Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Preview...

Everybody Loves Driving Star Dario Franchitti

Auto racing is a funny sport. Fans’ love of the cars is a constant, but affection for drivers can be a fickle thing, as each decade only boasts a few enduringly popular racers.

And while he’s never been as iconic as, say, a Dale Earnhardt, or as flashy as Danica Patrick, there is a driver who’s maintained a steady popularity throughout a decorated career that now spans two decades: Dario Franchitti. His driving acumen is certainly admirable, but his lasting success and ability to connect with fans can be credited to one thing: Everybody loves Dario.

“His appeal is incredible,” says Jim Michaelian, the President/CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach. “His autograph line is always up there with Danica Patrick’s.”

The 37-year-old Franchitti is of Italian descent but was born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland. Add good looks with a Sean Connery/James Bond accent and you can see why corporate sponsors were more than willing to work with the self-proclaimed, “motorsport and history aficionado.”

Franchitti started his driving career in karts and won consecutive British Junior Kart championships in 1985-86. After moving to the Formula Vauxhall Lotus in 1993 and being named Driver of the Year, he bounced around some international circuits before landing in CART, making his debut in 1997 and breaking through in 1999.

After finishing second in the CART standings while scoring three victories that season, his career was temporarily delayed by the death of close friend Greg Moore at the California Speedway, and a single-car accident during pre-season testing in which he fractured his pelvis and suffered brain contusions.

Franchitti slowly worked his way back up the CART ranks and finished fourth overall in Champ Car in 2002. After the Andretti Green team signed him on for the 2003 IndyCar Series, another accident took him out of the cockpit, but he worked his way back into the car and won his first IndyCar Series race in 2004 at the Milwaukee Mile.

After that, everything has come up roses for Franchitti. He married movie star Ashley Judd, dabbled in NASCAR and won the crown jewel of open-wheel racing, the Indianapolis 500, in the spring of 2007. In fact, it was that rain-soaked victory and the scene in victory lane afterwards with his celebrity wife that officially introduced Franchitti as a household name as he went on to win the IndyCar Series championship that season.

He’s won two more IndyCar championships since then and won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in 2009 before taking the Indy 500 again in 2010, and Franchitti has embraced the rock-star status. Speaking to reporters at a recent media luncheon, and speaking with no trace of braggadocio, Franchitti explained that, among other recent life changes, he had sold his helicopter. Asked later whether he felt the need for speed on the open water as he did on the asphalt, Franchitti said, “I haven’t bought a boat yet — but I will.”

His openness and lack of arrogance has made him a perfect fit in Long Beach, which he has said is one of his favorite races on the schedule every year, right up there with the Indy 500. In addition to the sunny skies (“I’m a fair-weather kind of guy,” he says), he likes the scenery of the road course in Long Beach. And he says race fans can expect a great weekend, as usual.

“I think it will be the same characters challenging for a championship,” he says. “In any (IndyCar) race there’s endless talent. Any number of people could get it right on Sunday.”

Regardless of whether he’s able to duplicate his 2009 victory in Long Beach, Franchitti will remain popular, charming, and successful. In other words, Franchitti has already gotten it right.