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Bravo Dario. And thank you.

November 15, 2013

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Will Dario Franchitti become the “Rick Mears” of his generation, retiring with grace and dignity from a top-line Indy car drive?

There are so many similarities in their departures from active participation in this sport just as there are a plethora of qualities these two athletes share: a love of racing, a quiet determination to succeed, an insatiable thirst for knowledge, a gentleness outside a race car that belies a fierceness inside.

I’ve been fortunate to observe and relate about both Rick’s and Dario’s careers over the years. Rick came off the dirt in the mid-1970s just as my own writing career was finding its legs. Obviously he was more successful than I in his endeavors, but to watch this kid from Bakersfield make his way through Formula Super Vee (thanks Doc Sauers) through to the pinnacle of Indy car racing was extraordinary.

Again, observing Dario Franchitti as he came to the USA in 1997 after being part of the Mercedes-Benz young driver program in Europe was an eye-opener. From the start I could see that Dario “had it” and that he could go far in the sport. He spent a single year with M-B in the USA, moving from Carl Hogan’s small team to Honda and Team KOOL Green, where the Scotsman educated himself in the ways of Indy car racing, eventually earning his first IndyCar Series title and Indianapolis 500 with then-Andretti Green Racing. Both moved on.

Both Rick and Dario had incidents along the way that defined the length of their careers. Certainly Rick’s big hit that ruined his feet and nearly ended his racing was a highlight he’d rather forget. Dario’s driving career ended with his most recent Houston accident that had all of us in the peanut gallery thinking of Jeff Krosnoff and Dan Wheldon. Had the angle been any different, we wouldn’t be having this conversation about Dario’s future, I don’t think.

Brain injury is a subject that’s been brought to prominence lately, particularly with regard to football injuries in the NFL and the collegiate ranks. NASCAR is now requiring baseline measurements for drivers in order to recognize the severity of brain injury when (not if) it occurs. The Indy car community has been fortunate to have physicians like Dr Steve Olvey and Dr Terry Trammell, who recognize the symptoms of these types of injury and are able to counsel those surviving them.

And be sure, Franchitti’s removal from the racer’s seat is all about his head injury, even though team owner Chip Ganassi, in a Friday morning teleconference, was loathe to speak in medical terms. While Dario has always exited the USA to return to Scotland for the off-season, the silence (with only a few well-placed tweets) has been deafening.

Franchitti’s retirement from the racing seat leaves a huge void for the IndyCar Series, which has now suffered its third consecutive season-ending strike: first the death of Dan Wheldon in 2011 (and I can still see the tears in Franchitti’s eyes as he was anointed titleholder at Las Vegas), the departure of Danica Patrick for NASCAR last year and now Dario Franchitti’s huge accident and necessary abdication of the driver’s seat.

In both his commentary and that from Chip Ganassi, it’s evident Franchitti, an avowed and avid student of the sport, will want to stay involved – and with Target Chip Ganassi Racing. This could provide him with a perfect opportunity to learn different aspects of the sport and enhance his education in racing. Once he feels up to it, I feel confident that’s what Dario will do.

Like so many, including his wonderful family, I’m extremely proud of what Dario has achieved in this sport. We must always recall what a wonderful and tenacious driver he is, what an awesome champion he continues to be.

But mostly I think I’m most proud to know a genuinely good and kind person who sincerely cares about people – and dogs. It’s never best to be medically forced to leave a career, particularly one where success is expected and failure is not an option. That Dario Franchitti has the strength of will to listen to his physicians and counselors and recognize that his new, fulfilling life begins at 40 clearly shows that, even with a brain injury, he has the courage to accept the things he cannot change.

Like Rick Mears, I’m hoping that Dario Franchitti remains an active member of a sport in which he’s taken active part for a span in excess of 30 years. While this isn’t the way anyone wants to bow out, it is what it is. I’m just grateful for the memories and the new ones we’ll build.

Bravo Dario and thank you.

Words and photo by Anne Proffit

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