Dario Franchitti drives during qualifying for the IZOD IndyCar Series… (Chris Trotman / Getty Images )
Dario Franchitti this year joined Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser, among others, as a three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, and the 39-year-old Scot may ultimately stand with Rick Mears and A.J. Foyt in open-wheel racing's pantheon.
Franchitti came to Fontana this week in advance of the 500-mile finale of the Izod IndyCar Series on Sept. 15 at Auto Club Speedway, where he'll try in a high-speed event to close a season that turned disappointing.
Franchitti has finished 14th or worse in five of seven races since Indianapolis.
Yet winning the sport's glamour race on an intense afternoon that featured a record number of lead changes makes it a good year.
What did the third win at Indy do to validate your career to yourself, and how do you rank yourself among those greats you stand with?
"I have no idea. It meant a lot to me and everyone in my team. That's why we do this: to win races, especially the Indy 500. There's a brotherhood among winners. I can remember winning for the first time and being welcomed to the club. That meant quite a lot. When you look around at the guys who've done it multiple times — A.J., Parnelli Jones, Rutherford, Mears — to have that in common with those type of men, I'm so proud of that."
I would think race-car driving can become like one's political beliefs — you get more conservative with age — yet you win Indy at 39.
"My speed is still there and I'm very happy about that. I have gotten more calculating in the car, but I do believe there will come a time when speed slows and the desire to lay it all on the line goes away. That hasn't happened yet."
That stuff does happen to guys?
"That desire can clearly tail off. You get interested in other parts of racing, your family.… I'm glad to say that hasn't happened. In fact, the opposite has happened."
How have you proved that to yourself?
"Anything you do in sports is measured by results. I test myself behind that wheel every week. Like in coming to Fontana, that's going to be the fastest race of the season, and I can't wait. I know that inner belief in myself is still there because I've spun out and come back, started Indy in last place and made it all the way back to the front. That was a good moment."
You've endured career strife — injuries that shortened your seasons in 2000, 2003, the folding of owner Chip Ganassi's NASCAR team — that might've caused some to walk away. What sustained you?
"Injuries are tough. I've had head injuries, fractured my spine, pelvis, foot. But I still love racing. I love what I do. There are times I stop and ask if this is what I still want to do, and the answer is always yes. I have a great team."
You do pause and consider, though? What causes you to do that?
"When you sign new contracts, when my friend Dan Wheldon was killed. It's only natural to stop and ask, how much longer? And I don't know the answer to that question. When Dan died last year, it had to be a quick decision because we were driving the next week. Dan was someone I knew since he was age 6 — from a kid, to up-and-coming driver, to brash and cocky, to family man — and always a great driver. Driving was a tribute to Dan, and whenever I won, I was going to dedicate it to Dan."
What are your memories of Fontana?
"In 2005, teammate Tony Kanaan and I fought for the lead and I just nipped him. There's always been a part of me that thought he lifted off the throttle to let me win. So I asked him, and he said no, so I guess it was just a great thing to fight it out with him. The asphalt's older at the track now, and with the new cars, it'll make driving the cars tough."
What has made this season post-Indy so difficult?
"We haven't been able to do the things we want, for whatever reason. There've been some mistakes. The other side of it is that although it's been difficult, the team remains first-class. We'll keep pushing and fighting. That's why you do this. You love it. And when you finally prevail, it's a great feeling because you made it through all of that."