Forty-five years to the day since his hero, double Formula One world champ Jim Clark, clinched his one and only Indianapolis 500 victory, Dario Franchitti won America’s Blue Riband event for the second time in four years.
As the 37-year-old from Bathgate savoured Sunday’s dramatic victory in the hot sunshine of Indiana, the full significance of what he had achieved was slowly sinking in.
“Winning the Indy500 once was a dream, and something I’d dreamt about since I’d read the books and seen the old black-and-white TV pictures of Jim Clark winning way back in 1965,” Franchitti, with his Holywood actress wife Ashley Judd on his arm, explained, “but to win it a second time is beyond anything I ever imagined.
“Of course, you start any race believing you can win; that’s why we race. But in the Indy500, where we’re racing at speeds well over 200mph for 500 miles, so much can go wrong. Here it doesn’t take much for things to go wrong, and when it does go wrong, it can be pretty scary.”
That things did wrong for others might just have eased Franchitti’s path to his historic victory. But let’s emphasise right at the start; Franchitti deserved to win. He was the fastest driver, in the best car, in the best team. He led 155 of the 200 laps, the fourth-highest in the 94-year history of the event, and dominated the race.
And while his Target Ganassi pitcrew — like their driver — delivered a flawless performance, others up and down the pitlane, including those of his team-mate and close friend Scott Dixon, must have questioned their actions when they looked themselves in the shaving mirror yesterday.
On lap 67, Dixon’s crew allowed him to leave the pits without the left front wheel properly attached, and it came off. The Kiwi, a former winner, recovered to finish fifth. Elsewhere along the pitlane, Aussie Will Power, who started the race second on the grid in his Penske one place ahead of Franchitti, tried to drive out of his pit box with his fuel hose attached; fluid sprayed everywhere, and he was penalised. Later in the race he overshot his pit box; his team had to push him back into fuelling position.
Ultimately though it was the horrific high-speed crash, involving England’s Mike Conway and American Ryan Hunter-Reay on the penultimate lap, which many will remember the race for. Not only did it bring out the yellow caution flag which allowed Franchitti to coast his fuel-starved car to the double-chequered flag, but it highlighted the extreme dangers of motorsport run without the luxury of F1-like run-off areas.
“I’ve seen the crash, and it’s horrible,” Franchitti said after seeing the incident in which Conway’s car was pitched high into the air before it disintegrated in a shower of debris after hitting the catch fence at 180mph. That the 26-year-old from Kent suffered nothing more than a badly broken leg is little short of a miracle.
The crash though immediately lifted the pressure from Franchitti who, though dominant throughout the race, had found himself having to back-off — to 208mph — in order to conserve fuel over the final few laps and still keep Milton Keynes-born Dan Wheldon back in second. In the end, after a couple of celebratory tyre burnouts, his red Ganassi car had just 1.3 UK gallons of fuel slopping about in its tank.
“I was concerned about running out of fuel,” Franchitti admitted. “The guys were like, ‘Just get to the finish. Dan is a ways back. He’s coming on a bit, but he’s a way back. We have a good gap.’ I was managing the gap to Dan. That last lap, I saved a lot of fuel. But Dan was coming on.”
Then the Scot, who clinched his second IndyCar title in 2009 by conserving fuel to win on the final lap of the final race of the season, smiled: “I think I lifted for the yellow pretty early there.”
While messrs Hamilton, Button, Vettel and Webber grab the global headlines in Formula One, Franchitti’s achievements — two IndyCar titles and two Indy500 wins in four years— catapults him way in front. As one of only 17 drivers to win multiple Indy500s — including Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. — and one of only two drivers still active in the series, Franchitti has entered the elite of US open-wheel racing.
But with typical, down-to-Earth self-deprecating honesty, Franchitti downplayed his place in racing history.
“Me? I’m just a driver,” he smiled. “Emerson and Al guys are legends.”
Now may be the time for Scotland, and the rest of the UK, to appreciate they are witnessing the making of a new legend.