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Driver Dario Franchitti enjoys the simple life, at 200 mph

The two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time IndyCar series champion is married to actress Ashley Judd, but they eschew glamour in favor of country living in Scotland and Tennessee.

May 20, 2011|By Jim Peltz
  • Dario Franchitti prepares for another Indianapolis 500 practice stint Friday as his crew members work on the car.
Dario Franchitti prepares for another Indianapolis 500 practice stint… (Geoff Miller / Reuters )

He's a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, is married to actress Ashley Judd and splits his time living in country estates in Scotland and Tennessee.

But Dario Franchitti, son of an ice-cream maker, doesn't need limousine rides and five-star hotels to stay content. A meal at In-N-Out Burger will do, as will lounging with buddies as they watch soccer on television or debate the pros and cons of exotic cars.

Consider Franchitti's recent trip to Los Angeles, where he was driving around in a nondescript rental car when something caught his eye.

"There was a repair shop that had a couple of old Porsches," he said. "So I just stopped in and said, 'Can I look at your cars?' And the guy inside said, 'Absolutely.'"

The mechanic might have recognized him but Franchitti is not a household name outside of racing circles, as his predecessors A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti were in their heyday. That's partly because Franchitti, who turned 38 this month, reached racing's top echelon late in his career, and because the Indy-car style of racing lost a big chunk of its popularity over the last decade.

"I'm a very private person," said Franchitti. "Always have been — kind of shy, in the background. I never wanted to be famous."

The very public-minded Danica Patrick is more familiar to many fans despite having won only one race in her career, and Franchitti estimates that one in four people he meets still mispronounce his name. (It's Fran-kee-tee.)

But now, as the Izod IndyCar Series tries to again boost its following, Franchitti is stepping forward as the face of his sport, because the Scotsman of Italian heritage has been its most successful driver in the last two years, outpacing such rivals as teammate Scott Dixon, Brazil's Helio Castroneves and Australia's Will Power.

Next Sunday, Franchitti will attempt to win his second consecutive Indianapolis 500 and his third overall. He's also a three-time IndyCar series champion, having won the title in 2007, 2009 and last year for his team, Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

Franchitti also is a student of motor-racing history, and "I'm interested in where the sport is going," he said. "It's not just about the time I'm in the sport [or] what I can get out of it."

His success has made him a sounding board for IndyCar Chief Executive Randy Bernard, who talks to Franchitti regularly about new ideas the series is mulling.

"The sport is a lot bigger than one person," he continued. "But I can't sit here and give Randy a hard time and give the IndyCar series a hard time . . . about the sport not growing if I'm not prepared to do my bit" and speak out more.

But Franchitti and the sport's decision-makers don't always agree.

For instance, Franchitti was worried about the debut of double-file restarts, in which cars line up side by side after a caution flag, because of the risk of crashes. Bernard implemented them anyway this season.

Luck is not a big part of Franchitti's success, according to Power, the Team Penske driver who leads the IndyCar standings this season by 14 points over Franchitti after four races.

What makes Franchitti so strong? "One is experience, and two he's a pretty smart guy," Power said. "He's fast, and [he has] a good team. That's what it takes."

Franchitti's intimate knowledge of cars also helps him communicate with crew members about tweaks his race car needs to be faster, and he has a mature, even-keel nature behind the wheel, said team owner Chip Ganassi.

"He doesn't get rattled, he doesn't yell and scream on the radio [during races]," Ganassi said. "Sure, he gets disappointed sometimes. But don't be fooled. He still has that fire that burns in his belly."

Franchitti's father George not only had an ice-cream manufacturing business, he also drove race cars on weekends with his son watching. From that point, "I wanted to race cars, nothing else," Franchitti said.

Yet, even after eventually climbing to the sport's top level, Franchitti for years drove under the public's radar. He won several times, but owing to a split within U.S. open-wheel racing series, he didn't drive in the famed Indy 500 until 2002.

Franchitti won both Indy and the series title in 2007. He then tried racing Ganassi's cars in NASCAR stock-car racing in 2008, but broke his ankle early in the season and later lost his ride for lack of sponsorship.

So he returned to IndyCar racing in 2009 and has been the sport's leading driver ever since, with Judd often there to greet him in Victory Lane. The two met at a mutual friend's wedding in Los Angeles in 1999. "She didn't know who I was, I didn't know who she was," he recalled.

The next year Franchitti was ready to get engaged and, during the race in Long Beach, he kept several diamonds in a microwave oven in his motor home at the track, trying to decide which one to give Judd. "Knowing that Ashley didn't use a microwave, she wasn't likely to go in there," he quipped.

They married in 2001 and, with Judd and her family settled in Franklin, Tenn., the pair chose to live there when not overseas. "It's not Scotland but it's pretty amazing," Franchitti said. "I like visiting cities but I love living in the countryside."

Judd also values her privacy and eschews much of the Hollywood glamour scene.

Franchitti is a self-admitted car nut, tinkering with his collection of 10 vintage cars (a 1991 Ferrari F40 is his favorite) or watching races on TV when he's not in the car himself.

How much longer will he race? "I don't have an exit strategy or a time frame," he said. "The answer to that question is another question: How much longer can I keep operating at this level? For now, I love what I get to do."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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