Paulk: Franchitti retirement is IndyCar's loss
At 40, Dario Franchitti began to realize the inevitable end of a celebrated career accentuated with three Indianapolis 500 victories at the storied Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Still, he envisioned becoming only the fourth driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times. Even as he struggled during the IndyCar Series this year, the Scot was looking ahead to the Brickyard next year.
After all, Chip Ganassi Racing was switching from Honda to Chevrolet to bolster its chances. And Franchitti was anxious to prove that an uneven 2013 season was an aberration, not a sign that age had conquered him.
With this year's title out of reach, Franchitti gathered some momentum late while teammate Scott Dixon dueled with Helio Castroneves for the championship. In typical Franchitti style, he was relevant at the end in helping Dixon reel in Castroneves down the stretch by sharing invaluable race and track data.
Ultimately, it would be a bittersweet IndyCar season for Fox Chapel native Chip Ganassi.
Dixon delivered Ganassi his 10th championship. But a near-fatal crash in Houston in early October proved too much for Franchitti to overcome.
On Friday, Franchitti had to deal with the inevitable. He was forced to walk away from a sport he'd dominated since capturing the first of four driver's titles in 2007.
“Since my racing accident in Houston, I have been in the expert care of some of the leading doctors and nurses, all of whom have made my health, my safety and my recovery their top priority,” Franchitti said in a statement. “I am eternally grateful for the medical care I have received over the last several weeks.”
Franchitti suffered severe head and spinal injuries that made it far too risky for him to compete. Ganassi said during a teleconference on Friday that Franchitti is expected to make a full recovery.
“Racing has been my life for over 30 years, and it's really tough to think that the driving side is now over,” Franchitti said. “I was really looking forward to the 2014 season with Target Chip Ganassi Racing.”
As badly as Franchitti feels, there's a sobering reminder that he survived his violent crash while similar crashes claimed the lives of two of his best friends — two-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon and Greg Moore.
Franchitti will probably become a network television analyst for IndyCar coverage. Or he'll stay with CGR to help develop Charlie Kimball, who along with Dixon and reigning Indy 500 champion Tony Kanaan, will form one of the more dominant teams in 2014.
“He loves the sport,” Ganassi said. “He understands the sport. He will probably continue with the team in some capacity. I know he's very interested in the series, where it's going.
“I've always shied away from saying this, but because he won't be driving again, I guess, I think it's safe to say that his name is up there with all the greats, like Foyt, Andretti, Unser.”
The Brickyard suited Franchitti perfectly. It's why he was supremely confident about his prospects next year, considering CGR consistently builds some of the fastest cars in the series.
Franchitti's final IndyCar season wasn't among his best. He never seriously contended for the driver's title. At times, he was only third best behind Dixon and Kimball.
Still, Franchitti was easily the series' most respected and feared driver. Even at his worse, he was better than most.